My Brother's Book
Maurice Sendak issues a valedictory and visionary new work.
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In this cosmic game of hide-and-seek the brothers are at last reunited. Jack forgives Guy for finding him. "And his arms, as branches will, / Wound round his noble-hearted brother, / Who he loves more than his own self."Skip to next paragraph
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Sendak claimed to have been terrified of death all his life. He had the kind of sickly childhood that tends to form great artists. (Robert Louis Stevenson was another, along with Edvard Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Proust.) Small wonder that so many of his young heroes and heroines face death, whether they laugh in its face or flee. Max terrifies and rules the Wild Things that menace him. Ida rescues her baby brother from the ice goblins of "Outside Over There," and Pierre, who famously "doesn't care," lightly flings himself into the lion's mouth. This is not new territory for Sendak, but he newly mints it in the absolute conviction with which he throws himself into his eternal themes. If there is a message to the book it is that some things are worth dying for, including love.
Most readers will be immediately aware of Blake's influence, which hovers over every page of "My Brother's Book." But what I first saw as a blurred and watery reflection of the plates in "Innocence & Experience" is a deliberate erasure – like Cézanne's vanishing pears and apples painted at the end of his life. The things we love disappear. Here they are, disappearing, and yet we love them. That seems to be the undercurrent of Sendak's valedictory last book: as in Shakespeare's last great work, "The Tempest," the magician drowns his book.
During his life, Sendak wrote and delivered brilliant insights – published in "Caldecott & Co." – on the artists he admired most. Nearly everything he wrote of them is equally true of himself. On Blake: "The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his poetry. His inspired interweavings of ornament, illustration, and calligraphy animate ... and create a transcendent vision of otherworldliness." Meggendorfer's pop-up pictures, Sendak declared, "don't merely move; they spring to life." He acknowledged his kinship to cartoon strip artist Winsor McCay, serving "the same master, our child selves. We both draw not on the literal memory of childhood but on the emotional memory of its stress and urgency. And neither of us forgot our childhood dreams."
Sendak also offered a tribute to Lovat Fraser, the illustrator of Walter De La Mare's "Peacock Pie," and in so doing created a perfect self-portrait: "He was free of aesthetic snobbery. With the same care and integrity, with relish and joy that are altogether beguiling, he embellished, decorated, and designed everything from charming ephemera to his glorious stage productions. No form was beneath him."
In his dedication to a popular form disdained by others, Sendak taught us how a picture book could stand unashamed next to the work of Melville and Mozart, and how truth telling was as important in a bedtime story as in a poem by Emily Dickinson. Most of all, he gifted us with a quickened, ever-experimenting sensibility. "The artist," Sendak wrote, "has to be a little bit bewildering and a little bit wild and a little bit disorderly." For the delights of such bewilderment, and for countless indelible phrases and images, we must be forever grateful.
Liz Rosenberg is the author of the novel "Home Repair" and of two recent books of poems, "Demon Love" and "The Lily Poems."