THE WONDERFUL WORK OF MAIRA KALMAN
by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: Hey Willy, See the Pyramids by Maira Kalman, New York Review Children’s Collection, 2017; Max Makes a Million by Maira Kalman, New York Review Children’s Collection, 2017; Ooh-la-la (Max in Love) by Maira Kalman, New York Review Children’s Collection, 2018; Max in Hollywood, Baby by Maira Kalman, New York Review Children’s Collection, 2018.
EVERY NIGHT when he was little, I’d read my son Pascal a story when he went to bed. He had dozens and dozens of books, but the choice fell with alarming regularity on a small number of them. After a time, to maintain my interest and his, I would modify them in ways that would appeal to a 4, 5 or 6-year-old boy. This usually involved adding some chopped-off heads or other form of grossness to the sweetest of books. Goodnight Moon no longer began “In the great green room” but “In the puke green room . . .” Not particularly clever, but nothing gets a little boy to laugh than the gratuitous addition of vomit to an oft-told tale.
There was one author whose books that were exempt from this kind of rampant desecration, those of Maira Kalman. Happily, the New York Review Children’s Collection is in the process of making her books available to a new generation of children before they’ve been given their first cell phone.
The first two books republished were her 1988 Hey Willy, See the Pyramids and the 1990 Max Makes a Million. Both feature her marvelous, witty, colorful, action-packed, and utterly strange Florine Stettheimer- inflected illustrations, with all the action occurring on a single plane, the colors vivid and eccentric, the poses of the characters improbable, and enough action on each page to keep any child (or parent) occupied for many pleasant minutes.
The characters are, like the author, fond of hats, and if their heads aren’t covered in chapeaux, they might be wearing a bathing cap, or a shoe, or a challah.
In Hey, Willy…, Lulu is telling her sibling stories, bargaining down the number she will tell down from a million to five. The unlikely mixes with the impossible, so when three cross-eyed dogs get hungry, “they went to a fancy restaurant and got a table [they are seated calmly, patiently, and cross-eyedly in the illustration]. Maishel Schmelkin [the name alone when read aloud elicits laughter] our sweet neighbor next door walked into the room. He was carrying a big bouquet of cherry branches but he forgot to wear his pants.”
The very simplicity of Kalman’s language turns it into poetry: “In front of/blue mountains/ and green mountains/ a thin skinny man/ saw fish flying up.” There’s even a touch of William Carlos Williams in it: “A girl in a green dress/ bought three oranges and a chicken/ for dinner. Then she dressed/ her brother neatly in red pants/ and a little blue short. They/ danced and danced until it was late.”
POETRY TIES these two volumes together, in the form of the titular Max of the second volume. Max is Aunt Ida and Uncle Morris’ dog, who “wanted to live in Paris and be a poet.” He would attempt at night to sneak out of the house, valise in hand, but would be caught, although he would sometimes make it to a café where, chin on paw, he would contemplate his next oeuvre, works like: “Dig that boy/ with the box/ on his head. Is he buying bread?/ Is his name Fred? And that tall noodle woman/ with the polka-dot shoes — have you ever seen a nose so red?” (It’s worth noting Kalman’ s placing of an emdash in the poem to ensure its rhythm).
Max moves from being a supporting player to a starring role in Max Makes a Million. He lives with Morris and Ida Stravinsky, who “don’t have any children. But they have me,” he tells us. Like any parents, they hate it when Max brings up his desire to move to Paris and live his life as a writer. He loves New York, “A jumpy jazzy city,” but he dreams only of Paris, “The city of dreams. The city of lights. The city of love.”
Max has a studio he shares with his best friend, the artist Bruno, who paints invisible paintings, while Max writes verse inspired by the things he sees: “It was on a sunny summer day that I met Mrs. Hoogenschmidt wearing a fish on her head. Mr Hoogenschmidt was walking on his hands carrying an umbrella — dizzy fella.”
Finally, Max is told by his agent Leon Kampinsky his book has sold a million dollars, and Max reacts as any writer would: “I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe.” Max will be able to leave his New York life, his parents, his friend Bruno, his enemy Ivan Kazlinsky. “I’ve got to go, Daddy-O. So long. Farewell. Goodbye.”
Kalman’s verbal inventiveness, her mastery of a simple yet poetic language that children can love, her inexhaustibly original illustrations, rich with women with unlikely hairdos, men with beards that reach the floor, and upside down houses, keep a child enchanted through countless readings.
MY SON Pascal was 6 when Max Makes a Million came out, and the book upset him. Not the drawings or the text, but the fact that Max was heading to Paris and leaving his friend Bruno. Pascal was so upset that I told him it would be best if he were to write to Maira Kalman. I got him the publisher’s address and he wrote the author to express his distress. A couple of weeks later a large envelope appeared in the mail, the addressee and the return address in the squiggly writing Kalman is so fond of. In the envelope were two of her books, and a postcard that I’ve saved. She wrote:
What a wonderful letter you sent. You are right. Max does miss Bruno — but they will meet again in Hollywood to make a movie together. Pascal, I am sending you another book I wrote which I hope you like. Best wishes to you from Maira Kalman.
P.S. I love your name.
MY WAIT has been short between the first two Kalman books published by NYRB and the next two: Ohh- la- la (Max in Love) (1991) and Max in Hollywood, Baby (1992) .
Our poet beagle is in heaven on Paris, where his room is the Blue Suite (“Or as the French say, ‘Bleu.’”). The room is straight out of Picasso’s blue period, and Max dreams “that a bleu horse was playing checkers with a bleu woman in a garden of bleu trees. The sky was pink. Go figure.”
Kalman’s Paris is one inhabited by waiters with curlicue moustaches, and where Max’s French teacher explains that all he needs to learn in order to be a French speaker is “Ooh la la and non.” There are accordionists and lovers and baguettes so long they require three men to carry them.
Max goes from success to success, and while he’s living the high life on the banks of the Seine, his manager has managed to get him a gig as a screenwriter for “some cockamamie love story,” so Max has to return to America. But while in Paris, he can’t leave without being struck by love, in the form of “that divine Dalmatian” Crêpes Suzette, a piano-playing pooch. Crêpes loves Max every bit as much as he loves her, and so “Salut! Olé! We’re off to L.A!” and Max in Hollywood, Baby.
Stopping in New York upon their return from Paris, Max’s manager Leon sends him a telegram urging the two lovers to hie themselves to Hollywood: “DEAR MAXIE AND CREPES STOP WHERE ARE YOU STOP STOP STOPPING UP THE WORKS STOP START AT ONCE STOP STOP SHILLYSHALLYING AROUND STOP STOP WASTING TIME STOP START PACKING STOP PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS STOP START STOP START STOP START STOP LOVE LEON.”
So the loving canines head to Los Angeles with its polka-dot cars and tap-dancing bellboys and yes men who have yes men, and where meetings are held inside giant fish.
Max reveals his dark side, as Hollywood and filmmaking causes his head to swell and to become as bad as the “back-stabbing, power-hungry, status-seeking vegetarians” he been warned about. Crêpes Suzette saves him from his Hollywood syndrome and the book ends.
NYRB has promised us more of Kalman’s books, and they should be anxiously awaited by anyone who has kids and anyone who doesn’t have kids but enjoys writing and art infused with wit and fun.
I just realized, however, that despite Maira Kalman’s note to my son, Bruno and Max did not meet up in Hollywood. But Pascal has calmed down in the intervening years and never seemed to notice.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. His May Made Me: An Oral History of 1968 in France will be appearing any dayPswt. His latest translation is Daniel Guérin’s For a Libertarian Communism. Two of his translations, about the Paris Commune and French anarchists of the 1890s, are available at our Pushcart.