My Brother’s Book
By Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins Publishers, 31 pages, $18.95
Probably the best stage direction in the history of theater occurs in Act III of William Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” A storm brews on the coast of Bohemia, where Antigonus, on orders of the king, is abandoning his child, Perdita. “I am gone forever,” Antigonus declares shortly before a wild thing chases him down. “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
It is a tribute both to the late Maurice Sendak’s erudition and to his mordant, morbid wit that this brief line could serve both as his epitaph and as a subtitle to his final work, “My Brother’s Book.” In this slim, gorgeously illustrated tale, set in Bohemia in “bleak midwinter,” Sendak, who died in May 2012 at the age of 83, riffs not only on Shakespeare, but also on poems by Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, and, perhaps most important, on his own oeuvre, as he relates the story of Guy, who lets himself be devoured by a bear so that he may find his brother Jack, who has been encased in ice.
Ostensibly, Sendak wrote the book as a sort of Kaddish both for his late brother, Jack Sendak — also a children’s book writer — who died in 1995, and for Eugene Glynn, Maurice Sendak’s longtime partner, who passed away in 2007. “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 told NPR’s Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in December 2011.
The playwright Tony Kushner, who collaborated with Sendak on “Brundibar,” has called “My Brother’s Book” “Maurice’s gut geschrei and grown-up goodbye.” But “My Brother’s Book” is more than just an elegy. It serves equally well, if not better, as an almost unbearably poignant reflection of an artist who is watching his entire life and career pass before his eyes as he confronts his own mortality.
And if there is any quibble at all to be had with this lovely book, it is that its size does not entirely do justice to the artwork, which would be best viewed on the walls of a museum rather than in a 6-by-9 inch hardback.