THE great American children’s writer Maurice Sendak cultivated an image as a curmudgeon. “I’m not Hans Christian Andersen,” he told one of his last interviewers.
My Brother’s Book
by Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins, 32pp, £18.99
“No one’s going to make a statue in the park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it.”
Anyone who’s spent time with Sendak’s best books – Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen and Nutshell Library among them – knows that this querulousness was the salt crust on a deep and complicated well of feeling. He was also the man who said: “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die, and I can’t stop them. They leave me, and I love them more.”
Sendak’s posthumous new book is My Brother’s Book, written in memory of his brother, Jack, who died in 1995. This lovely if evanescent book – it deals with the great Sendakian themes of loss, danger and flight – also feels on an unspoken level like an elegy for his companion of a half-century, Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. The line that hangs over it, spoken by a young man who has lost his brother, is: “A sad riddle is best for me.”
At the beginning of My Brother’s Book a great screaming comes across the sky. A new star slams into Earth, separating two brothers, Guy and Jack, and heaving them out of paradise. Jack is catapulted “to continents of ice”. He is “a snow image stuck fast in water like stone./His poor nose froze.”
Guy, on the other hand, goes tumbling down into “soft Bohemia” and into the lair of a polar bear who threatens to eat him “bite by bite”. Guy ultimately does allow the bear to devour him. In death he goes “sweeping past paradise” to rejoin his brother.
My Brother’s Book has echoes of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the play that contains the stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and it contains some of Sendak’s richest and most incantatory language.
Sendak said that he never really wrote for children. “I write,” he said, “and somebody says, ‘That’s for children.’ I didn’t set out to make children happy.”
My Brother’s Book will, in fact, probably not make many children happy. It’s an elegiac volume that has little in the way of story; the hero isn’t as winsomely bossy and obnoxious as Sendak’s characters often are.
I disliked it my first time through; I found it a bit evasive, more artiness than art. I wasn’t sure that I cared about Jack or Guy, whose appeal we are supposed to take for granted.
Yet it’s a book that rewards repeat readings. Its charms are simmering and reflective ones. This moral fable may find its largest audience among adults.
Sendak’s drawings in My Brother’s Book have lost none of their surreal, unsettling potency. Chagall’s influence, always apparent in Sendak’s work, is on display here as well.
Guy does not rise into heaven after being consumed by the bear. Instead Sendak writes:
Guy sank upon a couch of flowers
In an ice-ribbed underworld
Awash in blossoming gold from a new sun
Tumbling out dark long-ago clouds,
In caverns and corridors paved with painted petals
Wound round a wild cherry tree dusted pink.
Although it has moments of humour, for the most part this book is ruminative. On the final page the brothers sleep arm in arm. Guy whispers: “Good night/And you will dream of me.”
As Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt notes in the foreword to the book, Sendak seems to have picked up on Shakespeare’s evocation, in The Winter’s Tale, of “unpathed waters, undreamed shores.”