cover image My Brother's Book

My Brother's Book

Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins/di Capua, $18.95 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-223489-6

To say "Sendak" is to conjure up busy pages of bossy children, oversize creatures, and small rooms filled with homely furniture. His final work is absent of all of these. Instead, a series of small, jewel-like watercolors shows two brothers, lithe as acrobats, floating through a desolate world of murky forests and starry skies. The brothers' names are Jack and Guy. Sendak's beloved older brother, Jack, the brother of the title, died in 1995. (The two also share their names with the homeless brothers in We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.) In this story, Guy is Sendak's stand-in, and his journey to the underworld is an allegory of Sendak's own approaching death and the fraternal reunion for which he longed. In order to find Jack, Guy must offer himself to Death, a huge, slavering polar bear whose massive paws hold him fast. He slips into the great beast's mouth, "Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise!" and arrives at last in a clearing where Jack lies imprisoned, like Ariel from The Tempest, "Deep-buried in veiled blossoms." The brothers are permitted one brief exchange before their tranquil end: "Jack slept safe,/ Enfolded in his brother's arms." The scale of the work is compact, but its antecedents are noble. Guy's conversation with the bear ("Come on then! Give it quick in mine ear!") gestures toward the sweet exchange between mother and son from The Winter's Tale, but the gently teasing lines are darkened by the bear's menace and Guy's fear. The paintings, with their luminous colors and weightless forms, suggest Blake's—especially his illustrations for Milton's Paradise Lost—while the taut verse recalls, in places, Emily Dickinson's. The start of Guy's riddle plays on Sendak's own Chicken Soup with Rice: "In February it will be/ My snowghost's anniversary." To read this intensely private work is to look over the artist's shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever. (Feb.)