Sunday, February 17, 2013

Loss ("My Brother's Book" by Maurice Sendak)

One of the greatest interviews I've ever seen took place only a few years ago between Maurice Sendak and Stephen Colbert for the latter's television show. Broadcast over two nights--three if you include clips broadcast the night after Sendak's death--the interview was noteworthy for more than a few reasons, the most important being the similarities both men shared. Yes, they were separated by decades--Sendak was in his 80s at the time and visibly ill, while Colbert was in his forties--as well as by backgrounds and careers. After all, Sendak was gay, Jewish, and from a small family, whereas Colbert grew up one of 11 children in a Catholic home. But they were also two men who found serious faults in the world in which they lived and chose to express their anger, frustration, and overall disappointment with humanity in different ways. Colbert took to satire, and four weeks a night he lampoons the thoughtless, compassionless, hypocritical, and megalomaniacal members of our society, often found in positions of great power and influence, by imitating their brazen selfishness and egotism to the point of hyperbole. Sendak, on the other hand, chose to be thoughtful, compassionate, and humble towards those who had the least amount of power and influence in our society: children.

As Colbert noted in his interview, Sendak's books do not talk down to children or attempt to sanitize the world they live in and will someday inherit; the truths, failings, and horrors that come with adulthood appear frequently in Sendak's books through the prism of a child's mind. There is death, disappointment, and loss, especially where animals are concerned, and few if any of his books come with what one would consider a happy, uplifting resolution. Sendak even illustrated Tony Kushner's Brundibar, a story based on the one performed by children in Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. When Colbert asked him, naturally, about his reputation as an author-illustrator of children's books, Sendak responded, "I don't write for children....I write, and somebody says, 'That's for children.' I didn't set out to make children happy or make life better for them or easier for them." When Colbert pressed him, Sendak admitted he liked children slightly more than he liked adults, which wasn't saying much because "I really don't like adults at all, practically." It's this outlook on adults--that they're unpleasant, unwise, and prone to stupidity--that makes Sendak's book all the more fascinating, considering he's essentially writing books about adult themes for readers who aren't yet adults, whether he intended to or not. In a sense, he's trying to teach millions of children a lesson about the world before they, too, are old enough and powerful enough to make the same mistakes. He wants them to be better, smarter, more mature, and he does this by presenting a world that exists both honestly and fantastically. Real life, he is telling his readers, can be strangle and ugly, yes, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful.

Perhaps the greatest similarity both men share has little to do with their adult work, ironically, but tragedies both suffered in their personal lives. Much of Sendak's extended family perished in the Holocaust, and Sendak's brother Jack--an inspiration and two-time collaborator--died in 1995 at the age of 71, while Colbert's father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash when Colbert was only 10 years old. Very little affects a child more than being surrounded by death and all the emotions it entails, and what is death but just another honest part of an honest world? It's this nakedness toward death and the emotions it entails that form the basis of My Brother's Book, Sendak's last work: a short poem inspired by Shakespeare and accompanied by artwork reminiscent of William Blake. The story concerns two brothers who are wrenched apart by a cosmic occurrence, a meteor standing in for death, and drift apart on a planet now split in two--Guy's world is light and populated by an anthropomorphic bear, Jack's world is cold and brutal, transforming him over five years into a tree--only to come together in the end, a bittersweet reunion, an embrace that is tinged with the knowledge that the only way both brothers can truly be together again is not in life or a stitched-together world but in death. Jack does not unfreeze, un-root, or de-branch to join the living; instead, he wraps his brother in his bark-branch arms to keep him safe and allow him to dream.

There's little question that Sendak's poem is profound and well-written, just as there's no question his artwork is stunning. But as you close the book, which can be read in around five minutes, you feel underwhelmed. There's so much here but, somehow, so little. You want more, crave more, even though you know that this story is as long as it needs to be, and any more would have soured this bittersweet morsel of a story. The feeling you experience after finishing the book is joy for having read it, followed by despondency--you're slowly but suddenly aware there will never be another Sendak book, ever. The man is gone now, sleeping in the arms of his brother, wherever that cold half-planet may be, deaf to our pleas for more. Yes, we are selfish for wanting more in the face of such an irreversible loss, one that touches us only distantly and impersonally as readers rather than family or friend, but what better reason to be selfish than for a book like this, and what better person to be selfish for than a man with such a heart for those he loved?