BABAR'S ESCAPE TO PARIS, when he fled the jungle in 1931, was not, alas, via Brooklyn. If he had come my way, how I would have welcomed that little orphaned elephant and smothered him with affection. What a pity he didn't visit my house; some of that gentle spirit, those sensible ways, might have rubbed off on a child whose childhood was largely governed by ungoverned emotions. When I did make his acquaintance, as a young artist in the early 1950s, it was too late. By then, raised on a diet of Sturm und Drang, I inwardly condemned the Babar books for what I considered an overly reasoned approach to life: typically French, I said then. About this last judgment I was right, but not in my negative inference. So although I admired the whole series of books, their Gallic tone, which I interpreted as aloofness, continued to rankle. And while I loved the Babars, I loved them purely for their graphic splendor.
After all, the French, at the turn of the century, had practically reinvented the illustrated book. Along with the work of Andr,e Hell,e, Edy Legrand, Boutet de Monvel, Felix Vallotton, and Pierre Bonnard, de Brunhoff shared a freedom and charm, a freshness of vision that captivates and takes the breath away. Like an extravagant piece of poetry, the interplay between few words and many pictures, commonly called the picture book, is a difficult, exquisite, and most easily collapsible form that few have mastered. The successful results are so ingenious and profound that they should rightfully take their place with comparably sophisticated "grown-up" works of art.
Jean de Brunhoff was a master of this form. Between 1931 and 1937 he completed a body of work that forever changed the face of the illustrated book. Undoubtedly he had no such ambition. Like William Nicholson, who created two of England's best picture books, Clever Bill and The Pirate Twins, to amuse his children, de Brunhoff, inspired by his wife and young sons, created Babar.
Jean de Brunhoff was born in 1899. His father, Maurice, a Frenchman of Baltic and Swedish origins, was a publisher of art magazines, among them the very beautiful Program of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Jean, in fact, came from a family of publishers; his brother Michel was editor in chief of the French Vogue and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel published the fashion magazine Le Jardin des Modes and later Vu. Jean was a painter who put himself somewhere on the edge of the avant-garde stream. In 1924 he married Cecile Sabouraud, a pianist, and it is forever to her credit that one day in 1931 she invented the story of a little elephant to amuse the two young de Brunhoff children, Mathieu and Laurent. The children enthusiastically related the story to their papa, and thus began Babar.
My early indifference to de Brunhoff's writing was, in retrospect, a curious and significant blind spot. I was busy then, furiously learning what a picture book was and, more to the point, what it could be. That learning consisted mostly of swooping, magpie-like, into the works of Randolph Caldecott, Beatrix Potter, William Nicholson, and Edward Ardizzone and taking away what most suited my creative purposes. This was in the 1950s. I was then a green recruit fresh from the analyst's couch and woe betide the work that failed to signal loudly its Freudian allegiance. With a convert's proverbial fervor I rushed pell-mell into the very heart of what I considered Babar's unresolved problem: his mother's death, of course.
I never quite got over that death. It was a landmark experience for me in children's literature. The ease and remarkable calm with which de Brunhoff blighted the life of his baby elephant numbed me. That sublimely happy babyhood lost, after only two full pages, and then, as in a nightmare (and too much like life), Babar, cruelly and arbitrarily deprived of his loving mother, runs wildly out of babyhood (the innocent jungle) and into cozy, amnesia-inducing society (Paris, only blocks away from that jungle). It is there that he feverishly embraces adulthood, culture, manners, any surface, to hide the hideous trauma of that useless death. Or so it seemed to me then. Why, I wondered, give us a mother's death and then deprive us of a fulsome wallowing in its gory psychological repercussions? Why not, in fact, go back and find another less volatile reason for Babar to flee the jungle? Easy enough solution, thought I.
In summation, I judged this death to be a gratuitously punishing touch, an issue raised and bewilderingly passed over. Simply, I missed the point. It took years of further exposure to the work of many different artists, my own redefinition of the picture book form, and much growing up to complete my appreciation of Babar. Now, from a distance of more than 30 years, Babar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art. The graphics are tightly linked to the deceptively loose prose-poetry style that is astonishing in its ease of expression. The pictures, rather than merely echoing the text, enrich and expand Babar's world.
Laurent de Brunhoff, Jean's eldest son, and I are colleagues and old, good friends. In large part it is Laurent who urged me out of my frantic Freudian "dig," without ever denying the existence of those significant clues in Jean's Babar. He helped adjust my extremist view of his father's work to a more moderated, clear-cut understanding.
In the summer of 1977 Laurent invited me to his family home. We took the train at Gare St. Lazare to the small village of Ep.one and then walked a memorable two miles through the Seine valley to his house. It is an old, rather plain, stone villa surrounded by a high wall and covered with ivy. Marie-Claude and Anne, Laurent's wife and daughter, were there to greet me. In the garden I met Mme. Jean de Brunhoff, a beautiful, wonderfully young looking woman in her seventies, and Laurent's youngest brother, Thierry. I remember the comfortable quiet, a stalking cat named Ursule, and a three- mile hike through wheat fields, poppies, and roses with the Seine always in view. It was that relaxed quiet that impressed me most--not an isolating, disconcerting stillness but rather the sun and peace of a good Sunday in the country. One breathed in the sense of privacy and family and it felt wonderfully good. If I linger on this episode it is because it so sharply registers on my mind's eye as I reread Babar. This ordered, tight-knit feeling of family is the very essence of Babar. It is too simple to say that my day with the de Brunhoffs helped me to find my Babar bearings, but it is something like the truth.
Jean de Brunhoff, it seems, had to be oblique. Perhaps he knew, instinctively, what I was to learn, that this was the best way to reach and teach children. Beneath the pure fun, the originality of style, and the vivacity of imagination is a serious and touching theme: a father writing to his sons and voicing his natural concern for their welfare, for their lives. At the end of Babar and His Children, King Babar says, "Truly it is not easy to bring up a family." And truly it is this hard wisdom that lies at the heart of the books. Why was this such a vital issue in the creation of Babar? In the early 1930s Jean de Brunhoff contracted tuberculosis. Bettina Hurlimann, in her excellent Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe, strongly suggests that had he not been suffering from this disease, there might never have been a Babar. She implies that the books were written by a dying young father, far from his children, as his only means of staying in touch with them.
Laurent's memories disagree. He recalls much time spent en famille, ". . . winter months in the mountains, summer months in the country, and in between in Paris." He recalls too his father's naturally "humorous and gentle view of people and things." That Jean had intimations of death must be true. That he was a loving, generous-spirited man is true too. We see it in his work. And, in my many conversations with Laurent, it has been clear that Jean never communicated to his children the private fears and regrets he surely had.
He died in 1937. Laurent was 12 at the time and Thierry, the youngest, was not yet 3. Jean's bequest to his family, and the world, shines from the books that rushed from his pen at the extraordinary rate of almost one a year between 1931 and 1937. These contain, in Hurlimann's words, "glimpses of things dear to the de Brunhoff family as the background for a father's affectionate counsel"--his counsel on coming of age with grace and kindness, on weathering the inevitable storms of life.
The devotion to family and the circumstances of life that produced Babar must account for the special power and honest sentiment that is the very core of the books. This also helps to explain the balanced emotional climate that is never allowed to go out of control. And here I come back to my first appraisal of Babar, but in a new, most sympathetic light. These books are so traditionally French, filled with what might be considered old-fashioned ideas of manhood, womanhood, and manners. But there is always an underlying emphasis on developing a child's (an elephant child's) personal freedom and individuality through self-control. Not self-control in the repressive sense but defined rather as the awareness of choices of behavior, the awareness that some choices are better than others. "Do you see how in this life one must never be discouraged?" says la Vieille Dame. "Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy." In Babar the King a perfectly wonderful day suddenly turns into a nightmare. Babar is nearly overwhelmed by the arbitrary nature of disaster. But he is comforted by his dream, or vision, of graceful, winged elephants chasing Misfortune away from Celesteville and bringing back Happiness. Then he feels "ever so much better." He understands that it takes patience, with himself, and perseverance to be happy. It is an earned state of health.
My favorite among Jean's books, The Travels of Babar, is full of alarming and very amusing twists of fate. For the one and only time in all the books Babar loses his fine balance and has a good old temper tantrum. He is brought out of it by Celeste. The two alternately comfort each other in times of stress. Here they resolve many crises and, with the good Vieille Dame in tow, rush to the mountains "to enjoy the fresh air and try a little skiing." At this point the book stops short so we can study, at leisure, the stupendous double spread of Babar, Celeste, and la Vieille Dame calmly gliding down the Swiss slopes. It is a picture filled with intense concentration, yet soft with the sensuous pleasure of this favorite de Brunhoff sport.
Scale is crucial to de Brunhoff's pictures. Those first editions of Babar have an undiminished splendor with their huge, delectable formats and grand, spacious compositions. They are as pleasing to the eye and as totally original as anything coming out of that fine and rare period of French art. These early editions fell victim to the high cost of production and have been out of print for years. Children, sadly, can no longer "climb into" a Babar book.
No one before, and very few since, has utilized the double-spread illustration to such dazzling, dramatic effect. When Babar and Celeste are taken prisoner, there is a spectacular circus scene. The handsome red arch that denotes the arena floor is also a perfect symbol of their glittering confinement. This is a tour de force of composition and a perfect example of de Brunhoff's sly sense of counterpoint. There is no doubt that the artist is enjoying himself immensely. He has even placed himself in the scene, the young man sitting in the audience pedantically measuring Celeste for anatur portrait with his outstretched thumb and pencil. The line of text below the picture ("Fernando took Babar and Celeste to his circus. He made Babar play a trumpet while Celeste danced! They were very unhappy") is so simple that the art absolutely "blooms" above the words. One can hear Babar's trumpet music.
But these books are full of music, both literally and figuratively. The ravishing theater picture in Babar the King, with every element of architecture fancifully elephantized, is accompanied (at least for me) by the most delicious harpsichord music, Rameau perhaps. And where the grand parade scene from the same book is set to a joyous march, Berlioz would be wonderfully suitable. The pictures, by the way, actually move rhythmically in step if you keep your eye on those stolid elephant feet, all thumpingly clumping to the same measure. Color, costume, high comedy mixed with touching solemnity, blend into a characteristic composition that appears ingeniously simple on the surface but is, in fact, extravagantly complex. This is one of my favorite Babar pictures. And it makes a superb psychological point. The celebration catches Babar, and all of Celesteville, at the very peak of happiness and security. Immediately following, and in a series of swift, comic book style squares, shockingly unlike the grandeur of the previous picture, we see the deterioration of that happiness: the near death of la Vielle Dame from snakebite. The composition falls apart and only comes together again in the double spread of Babar's vision and, not surprisingly, at the very end when we are treated to a small version of that selfsame parade. It is still led by the blithe- spirited Zephir, this time carrying a flag with the motto "Long Live Happiness."
The little known Babar and His Children is the most moving of the series. How happy Babar is to be the father of three little elephants. He knows well how to love his babies. After all, his own brief childhood was graced with the most intense and happy mother's love. And like all wise elephants, Babar does not forget. He never forgets la Vieille Dame and he never forgets his mother. "He often stands at the window, thinking sadly of his childhood, and cries when he remembers his mother." Although Babar finds a wonderful second mother in la Vieille Dame, this does not erase his early loss. That permeates all the books, but it is never allowed to overwhelm or destroy Babar's self-confidence. It is living that concerns and delights de Brunhoff. He recognizes death as inseparable from the fixed order of things and is never obsessed with it.
At this point I cannot resist quoting Laurent on the death of the old elephant king in The Story of Babar. "I do not want to be cynical," he said, "but he dies for the purpose of the plot, to make room for Babar! It is also done in a way to show death as a natural thing." How similar to the death of Babar's mother. How like de Brunhoff's own death, a natural occurrence moving the plot along.
The precious sense of reason that at first struck me as lack of feeling now moves and excites me. Babar "the very good little elephant" deserves his kingdom. He is noble, certainly, and it is by proving this inner worth that he gains his position in life. But de Brunhoff's lessons are suggested in a tone at once so right and humorous, so engaging, that they are irresistible. The grace and graphic charm are almost sufficient by themselves, but to deny the message is to deny the full weight of Jean de Brunhoff's genius. I would like to carry this thought a bit further because it seems to me that Laurent de Brunhoff's Babars are both a continuation of the order his father bequeathed and an answering letter back from son to father. A letter brimming with health and pleasure, confirming all those father's fondest hopes.
Bon anniversaire, Babar, Ma votre sant,e.