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Friday, February 15, 2013

Memento Maury

(C) 2013 by the Estate of Maurice Sendak.

My Brother’s Book, the last book completed by Maurice Sendak before he died in May of 2012, was published ten days ago and it has already sparked a number of interesting literary associations ranging from Shakespeare to Austen.  It makes sense that a number of reviews so far have examined the book through a Shakespearean lens—one reason being that no less a Shakespeare scholar than Stephen Greenblatt wrote the foreword to the book and recently published a reflection on it in the New York Times, and no less a playwright than Sendak’s friend and collaborator Tony Kushner has done interviews about the book for NPR and elsewhere.  As both Greenblatt and Kushner have noted, Sendak’s love of Shakespeare ran deep, and My Brother’s Book makes use of characters—among them a bear—dialogue, and motifs from Shakespeare’s late “romance” A Winter’s Tale (ca. 1610-11).  

But as is true for most of his books, Sendak conjured My Brother’s Book from more than one element, drawing on not just Shakespeare but venturing into the cosmic imagery of William Blake, echoing the fraternal bonds of Theo and Vincent van Gogh (whom Sendak greatly admired), and giving shape to existential questions Sendak grappled with after the deaths of those closest to him, including his partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, and his own brother, Jack.  Five years Maurice’s senior, it was Jack who co-oped “Maury” (as Maurice was sometimes known during their childhood in Brooklyn) into illustrating the outlandish tales he wrote when they were kids (Sendak recalled one of those stories, “They Are Inseparable,” in this interview we did with him in 2007).  Maurice said they were like the Brothers Grimm, and he always looked up to his big brother and his big imagination.  The Brothers Sendak collaborated on two books together: The Happy Rain (1956) and Circus Girl (1957).  When Jack died, Maurice struggled to give expression to his grief.  In another interview (while it’s not available online it is on our DVD There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak), Sendak talked about how a favorite weeping cherry tree outside his studio window happened to bear the brunt of his sorrow: “I quit noting that tree right after my brother died.  I thought if my brother could die, then I don’t care about that tree.  So I took it out on the tree.  The tree was no more aware of me taking it out than it was when I hugged and kissed it.”  Sendak’s other, and more important outlet for his grief was poetry, and he began writing the poem that eventually became My Brother’s Book.  In the story, a fairy-like “meadow bird,” assisting Guy in his quest to find his lost brother, says, “Ask of the wild cherry tree: Does he live?  Is he dead?”  At the book’s climax Guy finds his way from a winter limbo to a kind of spring-time purgatory, “Its caverns and corridors paved with painted petals, wound round a wild cherry tree dusted pink,” where he finds his exiled sibling.  Just as Max imagines a forest growing in his bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak associated nature with an escape to another world in My Brother’s Book, the key difference being that Max returns from that place to his world as it was, while Guy’s world is forever altered, shattered, and without the promise of return.  Yet the ending of the book—the reunion of Guy with his brother Jack amidst the branches of the cherry tree—implies a certain reconciliation with that loss because it is not really a loss at all, but a transformation, a “sea change” to borrow again from Shakespeare.  

My Brother’s Book is an unusually cosmic book for Sendak, taking place across continents, galaxies, constellations, and netherworlds.  But at the center of this vastness we see Sendak again wrestling with death and what lies beyond.  My Brother’s Book may be more Sendak’s Tempest than his Winter’s Tale.  It begins with a similar violence from the heavens, stages its own monstrosities (the bear) and ethereal spirits (the “meadow bird”), and acts as Sendak’s literary goodbye: just as Prospero voiced Shakespeare’s farewell to theater (recall his “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” speech), so Sendak signed off his final book, “Goodnight, and you will dream of me.” 

Tell us what you think about Sendak's posthumous book: What literary and artistic associations do you see?  What other Sendak books does it bring to mind?  

--Patrick Rodgers is the Curator of the Maurice Sendak Collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library

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