My Brother's Book
Maurice Sendak issues a valedictory and visionary new work.
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When I heard the news of Maurice Sendak's death last spring, I felt the stricken, heartsick sadness normally reserved for family and friends. Mr. Sendak, a stranger to me, was of course neither – and he was both. Winner of, among other honors, the 1964 Caldecott Medal, the 1970 Hans Christian Andersen Award, and a National Medal of Arts, Sendak has famously insisted that he never set out to write books for children. "I write, and somebody says, 'That's for children,' " he told Stephen Colbert in a television interview.
No one should claim that his posthumous work, My Brother's Book, is for children. Let me make that clear from the outset. This is not a children's book. Most kids would be bored and bewildered by it, stirred and vaguely disturbed. Being a bona fide former child myself, that was my own first reaction. The text, with its Shakespearean undertones, confused me. The images looked eerie and both too much like and too much unlike William Blake. But that was only a first, foolish impression – my own dimwitted attempt to force the book into being something it was not: intended for children.
"My Brother's Book" is a beautiful, evanescent elegy, composed about Sendak himself and his late brother, Jack – who here stands for all of Sendak's beloveds, including his late partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn. (Aptly enough, Glynn was both an art critic and a psychiatrist for the young.) I use the word composed deliberately, for all of Sendak's best work was musical and strongly rhythmical, "a kind of muscular rhythm," as he once described it. The book echoes language from Shakespeare's "Winter Tale," a play of love, loss, jealousy, and imagination run amok. That play contains Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear." The note could not be more apt.
At the start of "My Brother's Book," the two brothers, Jack and Guy, are torn apart "on a bleak midwinter's night" by a meteoric event, the death of Jack. Guy is left alone to mourn and plummet back into the land of the living. There he's met by the terrifying figure of a fierce white bear who threatens to "kill his breath / And eat him – bite by bite." Defiantly, Guy offers himself as sacrifice, if the bear will only answer his "sad riddle." Where has Jack gone, these "Five years in iced eternity. / Bear! – Tell me! – Whither? – Where?" This is the turning point in "My Brother's Book." Sendak's paintings are dominated by images of falling and freezing – till Jack defies the bear. An almost visible melting follows, washed in shades of gold and green, and at last the figures begin to rise.
The bear, godlike in response to Guy (echoing, among other things, Dante's "Inferno" and the Book of Job), creates a whirlwind, scatters himself skyward into the Ursa Major constellation – but Guy slips inside the godhead, "Diving through time so vast – sweeping past paradise!" and finds his lost brother. The pair have a Sendakian reunion – Guy can't resist biting his brother's nose, just to be sure he's real, and Jack can't help sighing at being awakened. Jack has become one with the "blossoming gold from a new sun," entwined with "a wild cherry tree dusted pink."