Maurice Sendak on ‘Bumble-Ardy’
December 27, 2011 | by Avi Steinberg
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
Maurice Sendak is set to publish his first full-production book since Outside Over There (1981). For the past thirty years, Sendak has been collaborating with other writers, illustrating old texts, designing sets and costumes for opera and ballet productions, creating advertisements and book and magazine covers, and making the occasional HBO cameo as an old-world rabbi. But with Bumble-Ardy, Sendak is reemerging in the form that he has, since 1963’s Where the Wild Things Are, come to define: children’s stories.
Bumble-Ardy is a pig, raised by an aunt, who is built like a house and who lives in a house that looks like a ruin. This aunt is doing her best with poor Bumble, a child who was orphaned when his parents “gorged and gained weight. / And got ate.” That tragic turn of events may have been for the best, as Bumble’s lousy parents never once got around to throwing the boy a birthday party (his birthday is June 10, the same as Sendak’s). So, on his ninth birthday, Bumble secretly invites over terrifying hordes of local swine, who arrive in disguise for a bacchanalia of “birthday cake and brine.” The party ends in hoggish chaos, in tears and threats of slaughter—and, finally, with a measure of forgiveness.
Why the decision to go with a pig? Why not a hedgehog?
I’ve always loved pigs: the shape of them, the look of them, and the fact that they are so intelligent. I think I like them more than I like little human boys. The prospect of drawing pigs was something I could look forward to, and I needed something to look forward to. This project was done under very difficult circumstances. Somebody very important to me was dying painfully, horribly, slowly, and it leaves you questioning everything.
You’ve described yourself as a “scavenger,” an artist who studies and draws heavily from past masters. Who were you in dialogue with in this book?
Nobody. Which, as you said, is unusual for me. It’s a very strange book, in terms of my feelings for it. It came from a deep place. I was intensely involved in the vanity of the parents. I mean, how does the child live with that? I remember I once watched this baby whale separated from its mother. The baby whale is panicked and it looks for its mother among the other whales, and they know it’s not their baby. They turn away from it, and you’re left to wonder, How does the baby live, how does the baby feel? Can’t the others see that he’s one of them? Bumble is an outcast. This was an experiment in what it’s like to feel ... deeply rejected.
The aunt does have love to give the boy, doesn’t she?
Oh yes. And she wants him to love her. But I think children are suspicious, and they have a reason to be. Though the aunt loves Bumble, he refuses to recognize that. I think his little answer to her love is so curt: “You bet,” he says. Which is an odd and unaffectionate retort to her affection. And yet it was necessary he maintain that slight distance. He’s unsure, he’s unsafe, he’s unconvinced.
The irony in that last phrase is subtle. Even if there’s some lingering bitterness in it, it isn’t quite the major note of doom, of dreadful longing, that we encounter at the end of, say, Outside Over There or Mili.
Yes, that’s right. That final note here is more guarded, self-protective. And yet there is still a kind of doom. You wonder—well, I wonder—Is he going to be all right? I mean, really, is he going to be all right? The orgy he has is a way of testing himself. How much can he resist? How much can he understand? How much can he live through?
In reading Bumble-Ardy, I was reminded of that terrifying image from Outside Over There, when the infant is being hauled out the window by goblins, replaced by a horrible, uncanny ice decoy, while her older sister looks the other way. Is Bumble another “ice baby,” another kind of living stillborn?
I hadn’t quite thought of it in those terms, but I like that identification. It resembles what actually occurred to me as a child. Terrible things happened and were not explained. My parents were ignorant peasants from the old world. They came here and knew nothing. My life in Brooklyn was in constant danger because of my bad health. There was danger everywhere. The Lindbergh baby, the hundred-million-dollar baby—there we were, potential victims, all of us. Not even wealthy parents could protect their children. So what did kids do? You had to form a kind of fake life, to protect yourself. Because you learn very quickly that parents can’t protect you. It leaves a lurking fear. You never feel safe, never believe, really, that your parents are any safer than you, or could protect you from the unknown.
And the friends that Bumble-Ardy invites into his aunt’s house aren’t really his friends. They’re in disguise, and he doesn’t even know who they are.
Exactly. They don’t ever look at him. They don’t see each other. You don’t feel as though there’s a connection between him and them. There’s no relationship there. They’re these orgiastic, crazy, fantastical creatures.
Do you think about Bumble now that you’re finished with the book?
I can’t help thinking of Bumble now in light of what I’ve been reading in the newspapers about that kidnapped and murdered Hasidic boy, Leiby Kletzky. I can’t get that grainy news photo out my mind. It’s taken from a street camera. We see him from the back. He has one arm extended out. It’s a very painful little picture because it’s him, you know, it’s him. And that little extended arm, saying to the world, Somebody, take my hand. It breaks my heart.
In the past, you’ve spoken of listening to music while you draw. What were you listening to with Bumble-Ardy?
There are certain pieces of music that are always attached to certain books. And there is a logic to my choices, even if I don’t always know it. Here, I chose Verdi. I don’t like early Verdi, and I love very late Verdi. I’m eighty-three. When he was eighty-three, after Aida—it’s too bad he didn’t say this before Aida—he said, “Enough already, enough.” He said that he was done, finished, kaput. And then he met this young man, Boito, composer of Mefistofele, who told him, “You have more in you, old man. You have more in you!” So Boito wrote libretti for Otello and Falstaff, and, by the time they were done, Verdi was eighty-five or eighty-seven and died. But, in my opinion, those are the two greatest Verdi operas in existence. Those pieces are unbelievably fresh, young, fantastically beautiful.
I went from Verdi to Schubert, who I’ve largely ignored because of Mozart, who is my great hero. I began to listen to Schubert’s chamber music and I began to realize that this was another dear friend. I could sniff under his music, what was underground. I could sense, like a dog, or like a pig, what was going on. And I fell deeply in love with Schubert’s sonatas and quartets and piano pieces. Schubert is one of the most honest artists I know.
What kind of hero is Bumble? He’s courageous in a way but he isn’t the King of the Wild Things, and he’s not quite in control of the mayhem.
Bumble is battling with a basic sense of confusion—“I don’t know how old I am.” He gives up when his aunt says, “You’ve had your party. Never again!” He replies, “I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn ten.” It’s my favorite line in the whole book. It’s both comical and terrifying. It’s this self-annihilating moment. There is a sense that he is frozen. He doesn’t progress. But, you see, Bumble is my less mature self. He is the little boy who wasn’t sure he’d live, let alone grow up. I’m not afraid of annihilation. I’m not afraid of death. But I just want to know more. I want to know more before I go.
Are birthdays important to you? Are birthday parties?
No, not at all. My eighty-third birthday party was supposed to take place in June. Happily, there was this endless storm that had come over the world, and we lost all power and everything went black and nobody could come. I guess that’s what I get for sharing a birthday with dear Bumble.