Visiting friends or family with small children? Stuck for a present (toy drums and trumpets are not, I believe, generally considered thoughtful)? Well, my default gift is a collection of Jean de Brunhoff's wonderful Babar books. You cannot, in my view, and that of most tiny children, go wrong with Babar.
So, amidst all the sturm und drang on Wall St and the hurly-burly of the American presidential campaign, it was a relief to be able to turn to Adam Gopnik's lovely essay on Babar in this week's edition of the New Yorker.
It's a fine, perceptive piece, not just on Babar, but on French culture, colonialism, the bourgeoisie and the differences between British, American and French children's literature.
He concludes: Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the “Babar” books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life. “Truly it is not easy to bring up a family,” Babar sighs at one point, and it is true. The city lives on the edge of a desert, and animals wander in and out at will, and then wander out again to make cities of their own. The civilizing principle is energetic but essentially comical, solid-looking on the outside but fragile in its foundations, reducible to rubble by rhinoceroses. Even the elephants, for all their learning and sailor suits, can be turned into slaves through a bad twist of fate. The unruliness of natural life is countered by the beautiful symmetries of classical style and the absurd orderliness of domestic life—but we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are ever really safe. Death is a rifle shot and a poisoned mushroom away. The only security, the de Brunhoff books propose, lies in our commitment to those graceful winged elephants that, in Babar’s dream, at the end of “Babar the King,” chase away misfortune. Love and Happiness, who are at the heart of the American vision, are, in Babar’s dream, mere tiny camp followers. The larger winged elephants, which are at the forefront of this French vision of civilized life, are instead Intelligence, Patience, Learning, and Courage. “Let’s work hard and cheerfully and we’ll continue to be happy,” the Old Lady tells the elephants, and, though we know that the hunter is still in the woods, it is hard to know what more to add.