A sad riddle is best for me…
I will confess the first time I read My Brother’s Book, I was confused. Also the second, third, and fourth time. I am still confused, but enthralled. As with all Sendak creations, the mystery beckons. The writing is obtuse, referencing Sendak’s own life, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and other works of literature (even Chicken Soup with Rice, Sendak’s 1962 publication.) The art is beautiful, in a watery, unformed way, like a dream, or a painting from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Melancholia permeates his last completed book, and yet, there is a kind (and kind of) resolution to the story. My Brother’s Book is a paean to love, loss, and literature. It is a conundrum. It is a treasure.
On a bleak midwinter’s night, a comet rends the earth in two, catapulting Jack to the continent of ice, and Guy to Bohemia, to the lair of a great white bear. Jack and Guy are brothers, perhaps the homeless brothers from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, Sendak’s 1993 picture book. Most certainly, they are Maurice and his older brother Jack, and very likely Maurice and his partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn. Whatever the true nature of Jack and Guy, they are wretched without one another, and Guy in particular longs to be reunited with the brother he ‘loves more than his own self.’ Trouble is, Jack is encased in ice, ‘his poor nose froze’, and Guy is facing down a bear.
Seeking to delay the inevitable, and perhaps discover the whereabouts of Jack, Guy suggests a riddle. ‘Come on then! Give it quick in mine ear!’ says the bear, who is about as receptive to riddles as I am. Guy begins, “In February, it will be my snowghost’s anniversary”, which is a play on “In February, it will be my snowman’s anniversary” from Chicken Soup with Rice, and also, I think, a heart-wrenching reference to the five year ‘anniversary’ of the death of Sendak’s partner Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007.
In the illustration where the bear hugs Guy tight, ‘to kill his breath, and eat him bite by bite’, I am reminded of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, a charming bit of grotesquery from the 19th century. Saturn was an insecure fellow who dealt with his paranoia by eating his sons. Multiple meanings of the symbolism abound, and Sendak’s homage, if it is indeed an homage, suggest one of the more common interpretations-time devouring all things. As an elderly man, loss was ever-present in Sendak’s life.
“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”*
Unlike Saturn’s unfortunate progeny, in My Brother’s Book, Guy ‘slips dutifully into the maw of the great bear’, and in doing so, accepts death. ‘Sweeping past paradise’, Guy is reunited with his brother.
My Brother’s Book is not a book for children. Of course it’s not. Is the content textually or visually inappropriate? No, just perplexing, and not particularly jolly. However, should this book find it’s way into the hands of an older child, there is opportunity here to start a conversation about art, and literature, and the power of grief to rip the world asunder. As Sendak said in his spendid interview with Stephen Colbert, “I don’t write for children. I write, and then someone says, ‘That’s for children.” My Brother’s Book, I think, is for him; beautiful and poetic, and very, very personal.
With each successive read of My Brother’s Book, I am more wrecked. Written as an elegy to lost loves and to Sendak’s own winding-down life, My Brother’s Book feels impressionistic and yet deeply sacred, as if written by a man no longer fully materialized in the world. We may never understand the significance of each word or brush stroke, or why Guy seems obsessed with Jack’s nose, but I feel privileged that he gave us this book at all.
“Goodnight, and you will dream of me.”
Yes, Mr Sendak, we will.
My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak, published by HarperCollins, 2013
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
Another moving book about brotherly loss~My Brother’s Ghost by Allan Ahlberg
*from a 2011 interview with Terry Gross