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The best children’s books create their own world, and make it so ridiculous and rich that we have no choice other than to believe in it, subscribe to its newsletters, and even research the process of applying for citizenship there. In his 13-book stronghold A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket draws us a diaspora of sugar bowls and 40s movies references, revolution and alliterative road names, which seems to reside both in the 1920s and the era of Disneyland. His adult characters are uncompromisingly amoral figures, in turn disturbingly petty, yet capable of heavy-weight sacrifice. His child protagonists are prodigies, scapegoats, and usually the designers of their own catastrophe. To say that this is no ordinary children’s book series would be an understatement of the kind that Lemony Snicket is so fond of making for comic effect, as Violet is about to fall off the edge of a burning building, or Sunny about to be devoured by cannibalistic circus-people.
What is it exactly that the Baudelaire orphan series restores, so gravely and so secretly, to our jetlagged, landlubbing, efficiently updated modern bodies, bodies that discovered gravity far too long ago? Is it – could it be – mystery? That is certainly part of it, and I don’t mean an Agatha Christie pantry-door-left-ajar type of mystery, which Snicket does also indulge in the pantomime-style which forms 75% of his infuriating series. The remaining pages are eerie and poetic, their mystery a feeling rather than a problem, a magnet force unsettling everything: the deep sea, the sick storm below ground. The most terrifying and tragic moments do not involve kidnap or harpoon guns; they are more like the scene Neil Patrick Harris’ Netflix premiere so unexpectedly captures – Gustav, shot with a poisoned feather, murmuring ‘The world is very quiet here’ into his wireless radio, slinging forth his last ever second of received speech as he slips into a pond of water lilies.
This brings us to another fun accessory of Snicket-land – a land so hormonal and anachronistic, dressing up in different decades of the 20th Century as the mood takes it – and that is romantic telephones. An idea reduced to wishful ephemera by the post-Apple era. Sexy and also malfunctioning, old-fashioned phones, telegraph poles and radio transistors lay the scene for all kinds of red tape mix-ups which wouldn’t be possible in our indelible data world. A world without invisible ink, where a message in Morse code would have been cracked before it even left the building. The Netflix series exploits this wonderfully in the adaption of The Reptile Room, where Uncle Monty tries to decipher a message, hidden using Sebald Code in the subtitles of a film. It’s hard not to yearn for a time of greater mystery after watching that scene, a time where you could send a message without knowing if it would ever be delivered – plus the idea of decoding a matter-of-life-and-death message by the dusty light of a film noir is just really cool.
The charm of Daniel Handler, alias Lemony Snicket, lies in his understanding of an extremely silly literary secret: the idea of a thing is much better than the actual thing. Why have someone die realistically when they can quote from an anonymous Latin poem and leave the world the way a washed wine glass sparkles before being put back in the cupboard? How does he engineer things, as the semioticians never managed, so that ‘fire’ means both a literal ‘fire’, but also schism and danger and poetry? In typical meta-Snicketry, the mix-up of ‘literal’ and ‘figurative’ forms much of the wordplay in ‘The Bad Beginning’. The Netflix series is very good on this: Sara Canning’s character hisses in outrage at the child-exploiting villain during the ‘Marvelous Marriage’: “Not literally. Figuratively!” Why the neurotic fixation on grammar during a scene of horror and underage marriage? Why are we still utterly convinced? Damn you, Daniel Handler, I hate you for doing the impossible and mastering a tricycle of parody, narrative climax, and honest-to-muse beauty.
The rare quality of the Baudelaire series can only be measured (and treasured) in fathoms. It is in turn as coarse and banal as a reel of the John Letterman show then suddenly, it lets the thick snows fall. Lemony Snicket’s mysteries are the kind that you feel, rather than know. I’m thinking of an eleven-year-old girl with duvet up to her chin, shivering through the last three pages of The Penultimate Peril – the first book to ever make me wretchedly cry. In my child brain, this book had put something tremendous and ineffable into the world; it was saying things without saying them; it held invisible visions. Perhaps this is the charm of children’s writing: it allows for phrasings so simple that you feel sure they conceal labyrinths of deliciously dark meaning behind them, sentences so empty and transparent that the reader compulsively fills them with conspiracies from their own mind. Handler is a master of this sort of sentence: the shape that Klaus sees at the corner of his eye, coming into peripheral vision but then taking the end of the chapter with it. Or, again and again, a morally ambiguous adult saying something “sadly”, and probably “indistinctly”, too, then turning away. She said sadly. How does Handler stuff this mini adverb with Casablanca levels of heartbreak, civil unrest, fog twisting around the ankles?
A Series of Unfortunate Events only gives you its full benefit if you surrender yourself to a reading experience where you’re a stowaway in the dark engine rooms of HMS Snicket, holding onto a bell pull for support and seeing where it takes you – a reading process entirely natural to an eleven year old and very difficult for a twenty-one year old Literature graduate who spent the last three years putting half-lines by Keats underneath an Analytical Thoughts Amplifier. The thing that Lemony Snicket might teach me now, I am too old to benefit from, and can only hope to pass on the books to a solemn eleven year old girl who knows better than to straightforwardly search for that never-quite-nascent world at the corner of your heart’s eye which makes you want to yowl like an alley cat, or swallow 9-edged diamonds, or lie face down in a field of violets until you slowly recover the harmful ability to think things over.