Maurice Sendak in his senescence raged like an Old Testament prophet – contemptuous of humankind, bitter about his personal losses and apocalyptic in his desires.
“Oh, it’s revolting,” he exclaimed not long before his death last year, describing the world in which he found himself trapped. “I mean really, what are we coming to? We’re coming to the end, I hope.”
For consolation in his last days, Sendak immersed himself in art, in particular the works of the visionary British author and artist William Blake.
“This is a good time for me to put aside all kinds of things and just to go back what it was like when I fell in love with William Blake, and saw the world through his eyes for a minute and was so happy,” Sendak said. “And that world still exists, in spite of us.”
In the posthumously published My Brother’s Book, Sendak gives us the fruit of his final inspiration. Clearly inspired by Blake, it is a song of innocence and experience combined, a daring, imaginative amalgam of the sort that only an embittered, grieving author of brilliant children’s literature might conceive.
The book consists of 64 short lines of poetry accompanied by 13 ravishing colour illustrations. The elliptical story tells of Jack and Guy, two brothers separated by an earth-shaking cataclysm, one left frozen in ice and the other alighting
on soft Bohemia …
Into the lair of a bear
Who hugged Guy tight
To kill his breath
And eat him – bite by bite.
This, of course, is the famous bear from Shakespeare’s Bohemia-set A Winter’s Tale, an identity confirmed in the language Guy uses when he pleads for his life in exchange for a story, almost identical to a passage from the play:
A sad riddle is best for me.
I have a winter one of long, long ago –
I’ll whisper it – the minutest cricket shall not hear.
The bear eats him anyway, and Guy finds himself “diving through time so vast – sweeping past paradise,” before he is reunited with his long-lost brother in a mystical merger of flesh and tree.
The story is no weirder than the illustrated mythologies that Blake produced, the books that inspired Sendak and which, he said, “I hope I don’t understand.” Its obvious origin is the author’s grief over the death of his older brother, his first collaborator in art and life.
“He wrote stories that I illustrated,” Sendak recalled. “He wrote a story about a brother and sister who liked each other so much they married. And you know, Freud just flew over the house. He never even stopped by.”
Any understanding of My Brother’s Book must begin in its spectacular illustrations, as lyrical and lovely as any Sendak produced in his long career. Combined with the illusive text, they make a whole that exemplifies Sendak’s late-life refusal to differentiate between books intended for children and those for adults.
If only his publishers had shared his faith, they might have decided to produce a book large enough – child-sized, in effect – to display the illustrations better. They are sadly small in this edition.
There was never anything small about Maurice Sendak. In My Brother’s Book, he composed his own epitaph with a transcendental flourish and Shakespearean wit.
Exit Sendak, he tells us, pursued by a bear.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
John Barber is The Globe and Mail’s publishing reporter.
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