Having just finished A Series of Unfortunate Events, I have to take the opportunity to blog about it just once. I’ve never read anything quite like these books. They include murder, kidnapping, and drug use, and yet they clearly remain children’s books. By the end of the last number, the Baudelaire children doubt whether they can be called good people and in fact can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys with any confidence, and yet the series clearly promotes moral living. And the series really does present a string of misfortunes with only a bit relief at the end but no resolution, and yet I smiled and laughed a lot at every one of the thirteen volumes.
There’s no way to describe the unique prose of this series. To get the flavor across I’d have to quote it extensively, but then you might as well just go read the original. Suffice it to say that the narration slowly reveals a marvelous, quirky, mysterious, intelligent, troubled, caring, reckless narrator who never appears in the main thread of the story but continues to assert himself, against all current rules of novel writing, in the most marvelously entertaining and instructive ways. I suspect most people who enjoy the series like the wonderfully dreadful villain, Count Olaf, the most, but my favorite character by far is the Lemony Snicket of the narration (who is and isn’t the Lemony Snicket who authored the books in real life). We know he knows his readers are children, because he constantly defines words, phrases, and idioms that young readers would need help with; but this means he also constantly supplies his young readers with those new words and phrases and expects them to remember them. He gives twelve-year-olds a lot of credit with his grammatical structures as well, his sentences often running several lines through the use of relative clauses and participial phrases. Every definition is exactly correct, and yet almost all of them are also extremely funny.
I do have to complain, though, about one joke that I didn’t find funny at all. Baby Sunny speaks for most of the series in apparently nonsensical words that, like the new vocabulary in the narration, get translated or defined for the reader. A lot of chuckles arise from rethinking Sunny’s words to find the hidden association or pun. For instance, Sunny once says, “Neiklot,” by which she means “Why are you telling us about this ring?” I laughed at this one. (Should I let you discover the joke on your own?) But I frowned when the narrator explained Sunny’s “Boswell” as meaning “I don’t care about your life.” Did Snicket really have to slam one of my favorite books? As much intelligence as the SoUE expects from its readers, surely some of the humor, like that in cartoons, is intended only for the older folks. I hope that this reference is one of them and that it flies over the kids’ heads and doesn’t prevent any young person from eventually enjoying and benefitting from the greatest biography of history.
A couple of months ago, we watched a documentary called When Jews Were Funny, which suggested that the last fifty years’ simultaneous decrease in both American anti-Semitism and American Jewish humor is not coincidental. Author Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, grew up in a Jewish home, and I couldn’t help thinking as I read these last two installments that perhaps the Jewish genius for finding laughter in pain still has plenty of life in it.