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Sendak's 'Brother's Book': An Elegy, A Farewell

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 12:09 pm

Maurice Sendak, one of America's most beloved children's book authors, evocatively captured both the wonders and fears of childhood. His books, including Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There, revolutionized picture books by adding danger and darkness to the genre.

Over the course of his life, Sendak wrote and illustrated more than a dozen widely acclaimed books and illustrated almost 80 more. And although he died last May at 83, Sendak still has one more volume on the way.

My Brother's Book was written as a tribute to Sendak's older brother, Jack, who died 18 years ago. Published posthumously, it pairs a meditative poem with a dreamscape of watercolors; in it, two brothers in a fantastic world confront separation, longing and reunion.

While the book looks backward toward Jack's death, it was written so close to the end of Sendak's own life that, for those who knew him, it has taken on a double meaning. The playwright Tony Kushner, who was a close friend of Sendak's, says, "I really feel that the book is a goodbye from him to everybody who loved him — which was a lot of people."

Kushner joins NPR's Renee Montagne to talk about Sendak's elegiac last work, his artistic heroes and why his characters were so often in danger of being devoured.


Interview Highlights

On the story behind My Brother's Book

"It's probably the only thing Maurice wrote and published that is perhaps more for adults than for children. It's a poem that he wrote and then kept in his drawer, waiting for what he felt would be the right time to turn it into a book. It's a very simple and also a very mysterious story. There are two brothers, Jack and Guy. ... It has the logic of a dream. I really feel that in a way, it's a book that he intended for those of us who grew up reading Maurice and who loved his work. It's a kind of a farewell for us."

On whom Guy represents

"I think that actually Guy is both Maurice and Maurice's partner, Gene Glynn — Eugene Glynn, who died of lung cancer and whose illness and death was a terrible ordeal and a terrible loss for Maurice. They'd been together for 50 years. And it's, like a lot of Maurice's books, a story of separation and then reunion after a series of difficult and perilous adventures."

On why Sendak's characters are often at risk of being eaten

"There's a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice's books. And I think that when people play with kids, there's a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring, because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

"One of my favorite drawings of Maurice's, it's pretty well-known, it's a fantasy sketch, and it shows a baby opening its mouth wider and wider and wider, and then its mother sort of jumps in its mouth and disappears head-first entirely inside the baby, and the baby is sitting there at the end, a little bit fatter with a big smile on its face."

On whether Sendak takes inspiration from fairy tales

"What I think is great about Maurice is that people who he borrows from are fairly adult artists — William Blake, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, John Keats, his pantheon of heroes. Mozart, who meant everything to him, and opera in general Maurice really loved — Verdi was a figure that haunted Maurice a lot. ... He really wanted to do with this book what he felt Verdi had done at the end of his life with Falstaff. ... In his early 80s, Verdi broke a long silence and composed one of the great comic operas, and Maurice was hoping that this book, My Brother's Book, would be sort of his farewell masterpiece. But I think that the borrowing from these people, his indebtedness to adult artists, is recognizable. He doesn't really borrow from fairy tales as much as generate his fairy tales from the same sources. His psyche was really an open book."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's venture once more into the realm of adventure and fantasy, conjured up by one of the most beloved authors of children's picture books. Maurice Sendak captured the wonders and fears, the lightness and dark of childhood. The author of "Where the Wild Things Are" was 83 when he died last spring. And he left behind a new work, "My Brother's Book," reads like a poem, a meditation on life and death and longing.

TONY KUSHNER: It's probably the only thing that Maurice wrote and published that is perhaps more for adults than for children.

MONTAGNE: That's "Angels in America" playwright, Tony Kushner, a longtime friend and over the years Maurice Sendak discussed the project with him.

KUSHNER: It's a poem that he wrote and then kept in his drawer, waiting for what he felt would be the right time to turn it into a book. I didn't really feel that, in a way, it's a book that he intended for those of us who grew up reading Maurice and who loved his work. It's a kind of a farewell for us.

MONTAGNE: That farewell is illustrated in a dreamscape of bright watercolors. "My Brother's Book" is a kind of love letter to those who've gone before, beginning with Maurice Sendak's brother, Jack, who died 18 years ago. The story follows two brothers, Jack and Guy, separated when a falling star crashes to Earth. And also, Maurice Sendak places himself in the story. He calls himself Guy.

KUSHNER: Sort of, although I think that actually Guy is both Maurice and Maurice's partner, Eugene Glynn, whose illness and death was a terrible ordeal and a terrible loss for Maurice. They'd been together for 50 years. And it's like a lot of Maurice's books of the story of separation and then reunion, after a series of difficult and perilous adventures.

MONTAGNE: Would you read for us the first few pages?

KUSHNER: Sure. It's hard to read it 'cause I - Maurice read it to me many, many times while he was thinking of starting work on it. And so I hear his voice and he read so beautifully. Anyway, I'll try.

(Reading) On a bleak midwinter's night, the newest star blazing light, so crystal bright, eclipsing the Moon, scorching the sky, smashed and heaved the iron Earth in two, catapulting Jack to continents of ice. A snow image stuck fast in water like stone. His poor nose froze. While Guy wield round in the steep air, a crescent in the sky passing worlds at every plunge, dropping down and down on soft Bohemia into the lair of a bear who hugged Guy tight, to kill his breath and eat him bite by bite.

MONTAGNE: It's hard to hear that line - and eat him bite by bite - and not think of Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are."

KUSHNER: Right, and where Max says, I'll eat you up.

MONTAGNE: I'll eat you up to his mother.

KUSHNER: Right, and which him in a lot of trouble.

(LAUGHTER)

KUSHNER: And there's a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice's books. And I think that when people play with kids, there's a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring. Because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

One of my favorite drawings of Maurice's, it's pretty well known, it's a fantasy sketch. And it shows a baby opening its mouth wider and wider and wider. And then its mother sort of jumps in its mouth and disappears, head first entirely inside the baby. And the baby is sitting there at the end, a little bit fatter with a big smile on its face.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: I mean, of course, this is all the stuff of the really original fairytales.

KUSHNER: Yeah, absolutely.

MONTAGNE: These primal scenes.

KUSHNER: Yeah. I mean, what I think is great about Maurice is that people who he borrows from are fairly adult artists - William Blake, Herman Melville, William Shakespeare, John Keats, his pantheon of heroes. Mozart, who meant everything to him, and opera in general. Maurice really loved Verdi, was a figure that haunted Maurice a lot.

He was very worried that he was - he really wanted to do with this book what he felt Verdi had done at the end of his life with "Falstaff." That in his early 80's, Verdi broke a long silence and composed, you know, one of the great comic operas. And Maurice was hoping that this book, "My Brother's Book," would be a sort of his farewell masterpiece.

But I think that the borrowing from these people, his indebtedness to adult artists, is recognizable. He doesn't really borrow from fairy tales as much as generate, I think, his fairy tales from the same sources. I mean, his psyche was really an open book.

MONTAGNE: Would you mind going to the last part of this poem? And it's Guy and Jack, and Jack has gone to this other place. And Guy who, as you would say - is partly Maurice Sendak and partly his life's partner who also has fallen into a different world.

KUSHNER: Right. (Reading) Guy saw Jack's nose and rooted toes deep buried in veiled blossoms. And he bit that nose to be sure. Just lost or I am saved, Jack sighed, and his arms as branches will wound round his noble-hearted brother who he loved more than his own self. And Jack slept safe and folded in his brother's arms and Guy whispered, good night and you will dream of me.

MONTAGNE: To the degree that this was Maurice Sendak - this character, Guy - whispering good night, was this in a way his way of writing his own ending; that place two egos to the reunions with his loves?

KUSHNER: I think so. I mean, Maurice, actually, when he was a little boy, used to bite Jack's nose. And he also, after Gene died, dreamed of Gene night after night after night, pretty much to the end of his life, which is why I really feel that the book is a goodbye from him to everybody who loved him, which was a lot of people.

MONTAGNE: Tony Kushner, thank you for sharing these stories with us about your friend Maurice Sendak.

KUSHNER: Well, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: That's writer Tony Kushner speaking on behalf of Maurice Sendak who died last May, and who has a new book out published posthumously, called "My Brother's Book."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.