Return to Sendak

'Like Sendak, and his protagonist, Max, I had to find a way to deal with the anger that stalked my childhood,' Arnold Zable writes.
'Like Sendak, and his protagonist, Max, I had to find a way to deal with the anger that stalked my childhood,' Arnold Zable writes.

ONE of the delights of having children is the excuse to return to the books of your own childhood. Over the past few years I've found myself once again buried in half-remembered pages: Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge and a little duck on the Yangtze, named Ping; John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, the bumptious and bustly dogs of Lynley Dodd and the postwar British family of Peepo. There's something about those  formative stories that never leaves you,  providing you with  a lifelong foundation for your curiosity and wonder and play. It does you good to revisit these.

When American author-artist-illustrator-dream-maker Maurice Sendak died in May last year, aged 83, the volume and warmth of tributes underlined how much his work had delighted and influenced generations of readers.  He was wonderful: dyspeptic and irascible, resolutely anti-sentimental. (A personal favourite quote of Sendak's: "I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.") But above all, Sendak was a champion for the imagination – for allowing spontaneity and fantasy to inform our adult sense of the world – for the need for us all occasionally to let our inner wild things out.

Next Saturday's gala at the Wheeler Centre attempts to capture the spirit of his book, to see what its title triggers for the essayists, playwrights, comedians, novelists, songwriters we've brought together; to let imagination and ideas guide our conversation as we sail off into the year ahead, to where the wild things are.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS, director of the Wheeler Centre


My sister – the younger one – has had sex with 66 men. She counted up one night in a musty hotel room in Istanbul. We had a twin share in the Ali Baba Hotel. Naturally, I was riveted.

"David Dingley! You had sex with David Dingley?" My older sister was in the room across the maroon-carpeted hall with her husband. I imagined him sound asleep while she was swatting up on Byzantine monuments, so she could be a know-all in the morning.

David Dingley is a guy I see around Fitzroy quite a lot. The terrible truth is that now I know he has a hairy back and when he gets sweaty, it feels like lying underneath one of those thin doormats they sell in Kmart. "Home Sweet Home." Only wet.

It's not good knowing this about David Dingley. But once I start asking the questions I can't stop. My sisters resent this about me. They parcel up secrets and in the morning they want to snatch them back.

Sixty-six is quite a lot. In anyone's language. I can't tell my older sister. She has been married to the same man since the Boer War, so she will just think there is something pathological about it. She doesn't approve of people with appetites.

Two months after we get back from Turkey, my little sister – the wild thing – meets a business-development manager and marries him. They buy a fake Tudor house in Balwyn with pencil pines out the front. Then they have a son, Max.

I don't like Max. When I drop in to see my sister, I say, "Hello Max." He doesn't look up. I say, "Hey, Maxie. Hello." My sister growls, "Max! Say hello."

Everyone in our family thinks Max is an interesting and imaginative child. Personally, I think he needs a smack.

At Christmas I give him a wolf suit. And that's when the trouble starts.


Like Maurice Sendak, I was the child of . . . Well, why give it away in the first line? Few self-respecting storytellers would do that, and Sendak was a master storyteller. He knew all too well that his task was to tell the story, and let others make of it what they will. So . . .

Once upon a time, circa 1960, give or take a year or two – about the same time, more or less, when Maurice Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are – I lived in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. Like many boys on the block I had a lot of freedom since my immigrant parents were busy making a new life in a new world.

Before the war Father was a Yiddish poet. In Australia a Yiddish poet could earn maximum one cent a year from his vocation. Instead he worked in factories and finally graduated to a stall in the Victoria market. He sold socks and stockings, seconds they were called, which he bought from the hosiery mills of Brunswick.

I also worked in the Victoria market, but not for my father – he never paid me. I worked for Shaun Ferguson instead. Shaun sold nuts. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts; you name it, he sold it. A big broad-hearted man, Shaun had two states of inebriation, sad drunk and happy drunk. Sad drunk, he would slip under the counter and say, "Arnold, you look after the business". Happy drunk, he once put his arms around me and said: "You too can become a professional nutter."

I digress. On the streets of Carlton I became a wild thing and, in turn, I encountered wild things. Here are some of the things we would get up to – we climbed over the rooftops of the terraces and dropped into the backyards to visit friends. I ran messages from the corner pub to the illegal back-lane SP bookies, in exchange for the shilling that contributed towards the bike I was saving up for. At the Melbourne General Cemetery we played a game called "walking on air". The aim was to get from one side of the cemetery to the other without touching the ground – also known as "grave-hopping".

And there were the wilder things that roamed the streets – there was the gang that would grab me, push my head into the grass of the median strip, and demand: "Kiss the ground and say, 'I killed Jesus'." There was the dishevelled drunk who hung out by the post office, who would offer a quid to suck him off. He was so out of it, he was easily outrun, unlike the delinquent boy who terrorised us, and once chased me along the back lane with a knife in hand. He was finally put away for stabbing his mother.

I learnt to handle these threats in the classical way – flight or fight. If the wild thing was greater in size and strength, it was flight, if smaller, or about the same size, I would give fight a go, especially after I began receiving boxing instructions in a gym located in a converted stable in a back lane off Fenwick Street.

But once through the door of the family's single-fronted Victorian cottage, I entered another world. Yiddish was my parents' mother tongue; English their sixth language. Mother, with the gypsy black eyes, had performed as a singer in the Polish city of Bialystok before the war. She was now confined to singing Yiddish songs while she sat at the Singer sewing machine late into the night, doing piecework for nearby factories.

Father would be bent over the books of his beloved Yiddish poets, at the dresser, his makeshift table, in the front room.

But there was a darker side to the house. It was peopled with ghosts. It hinted at wild, barbaric deeds. I would look at pre-war photos in fraying albums and ask: "Who are these people?" "Three of my six sisters," Mother replied, "one of my three brothers – your uncle Joshua – your cousins Freda, 8 years old and Chaimke, 13, your grandmother, Chana Esther." "Where are they now?" I asked. "I don't want to talk about it," she retorted.

The anger was always imminent, about to break out. Mother was a woman prone to rages and tirades. She fought with Father; the arguments always took place in the kitchen, the motor room of the house. There were saving graces, mind you. My parents would argue in Yiddish – a language rich in curses. Mother, leading off: "May an umbrella enter your stomach and open up. Father in reply: 'May you lose all your teeth, but one tooth should remain so you will have a toothache." In years to come I would collect Yiddish curses. This is arguably the best: "May your feet be made of wood, your stomach contain water, and your head be made of glass, so that when your feet catch fire, your stomach will boil, your head will explode – and your eyes pop out."

When the arguments flared, I would run between my parents trying to keep the peace. Instead I would be drawn into the fray and become enraged. I once shattered the kitchen window in order to halt the madness, to no avail.

One day, I was perhaps 12  – I realised – I do not have to be part of this. I made my way from the kitchen, where the tirade was in full flight, to the bedroom, closed the door, and for some reason, I began to write.
I cannot recall what I wrote, but I do recall that the pen raced across the page, and that I still couldn't keep up with the rush of thoughts and emotions. After 10 minutes or so an extraordinary thing occurred. When I entered the room, I felt heavy. When I left I felt light. I could still hear the angry voices in the kitchen, but they no longer got to me.

I had discovered the meaning of expression. "Ex" is a prefix meaning out, hence, expression, meaning, getting it out. In time, I discovered something else – my writing would begin in confusion, but in the process things would somehow fall into place. I came to see that writing was a means of creating order out of chaos. It began with the need to get it out, and would lead to working it out.

In time I also began to understand some of the underlying reasons for my parents' bitterness, and Mother's rages. Mother maintained her silence about her family's fate, but she would awaken from a recurring dream, crying "Mama. Mama."

One night I crept down the passage and heard her tell Father she had had that dream again – her village was on fire, and she was running from the flames with her brothers and sisters, and one by one they fell, leaving her the last one running. Father was the sole survivor of a once large extended family, and Mother one of just three sisters who survived. An entire link in the ancestral chain had been wiped out...

Now I can finally say that, like Maurice Sendak, I was the child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, whose extended families were destroyed in what came to be known as the Shoah, the Annihilation. Like Sendak, I was deeply troubled by the many deaths in my extended family. Like Sendak, and his protagonist, Max, I had to find a way to deal with the anger that stalked my childhood. And like Sendak, it was the imagination and the craft of story that came to my rescue.

Yet, as in many once upon a time stories, and as in Where the Wild Things Are, this tale does have a hopeful ending ... Despite it all, Mother never failed to nurse her three children through the illnesses that afflicted them throughout their childhood. She never failed to keep the house in order, and make sure there was food on the table. I hear her calling us in to dinner as evening falls. Her voice reaches out from afar, from the veranda of our single-fronted terrace on Canning Street, to the median strip, where we are playing football, as we do on many evenings. When we are finally drawn inside, dinner is waiting. And it is still hot.


The longest-serving resident of the house was Stu, who had a penchant for sarongs. I feared Stu's sarong days, when his tackle would constantly threaten to emerge, and we'd try to carry on conversations about the shopping as he casually tucked his testes back behind their flimsy cotton screen.

In the room below me was Sarah, a committed vegan who once cried when she found a carton of cow's milk in the fridge. This impressed me enormously until one night I caught her eating a kebab outside the pub, her guilty face smeared with garlic sauce and lamb juice.

And of course there was Starlight Amethyst ("Michelle" to her parents), the painter of the Sendak mural on my bedroom wall, an art student whose preferred medium was menstrual blood and chicken wire.

Then there were our non-rent-paying housemates, huge brown water rats that came up from the drain behind our house. Unlike the rest of us, who originally hailed from the 'burbs, these were big city rats, wise and cunning. When we tried to protect our lentils and our oats by putting them in jars the rats climbed up onto the shelves and pushed the jars off, shattering them, then helping themselves.

Although we were a vegetarian household, there always seemed to be a meaty smell mixed in with any cooked dinner. At first I thought it was an olfactory hallucination, until we discovered a hole at the back of the oven, where a small rat had died, unnoticed, and slowly crisped. After that we started putting these huge rat traps in the oven, and in the morning there'd always be a rat staring out through the glass oven door, its neck snapped, its eyes bulging, accusing. "If meat is murder, what would you call this, hippie?"


My oars drip with phosphorescence, fish below me surge in a flare of light and the stars are fused to the water by their own brilliance. We are all blurred by this pale-green blaze and the confusion of elements leaching in to each other; this dream of water and midnight.

Mullets fly by me trailing their lime gauze as my oars spring spot fires and the bow curves ribbons of green glass in its wake, a molten, ephemeral celebration of our passage.

The bow screeps into the sand of the bank and I pretend to fish while awed by luminous fish creeping to the bait and slinking away into the deeper trenches of the river. I remove the prawn to avoid the distraction of dealing with a fish out of water. And the water is so warm it's hard to know, when you slide your hand below the boat, whether you are feeling water or glowing air.

A night heron lands beside the boat with a kwow of alarm, scandalised by my presence. He stalks away from me, his indignation betrayed by pearls of light dripping from his skulking toes. This is his bank, how dare I invade his sanctuary, his hunting ground.

A nightjar has been calling since an hour after dark, a swooping runnel of sound in the silence. The cormorants disputing their roosts above me bleat like querulous goats and I find myself smiling in the dark. A grown man smiling to himself in the dark.

■ The Wheeler Centre Gala: Where the Wild Things Are is on February 9 at the Melbourne Town Hall, tickets $20-$12,

■ The full line-up is: Hannie Rayson, Bruce Pascoe, Monica Dux, Arnold Zable, David Marr, Clare Bowditch, Robyn Davidson, Alison Lester, Luka Lesson, Anthony Morgan and Josephine Rowe.

This story Return to Sendak first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.