Although the following pertains to A Series of Unfortunate Events, it contains language that is not G-rated.
Move over Harry Potter
The sad adventures of the Baudelaire siblings, the unluckiest children in the world, are starting to rival those of the young wizard himself. But just who is their mysterious author, Lemony Snicket? Anna Vaux finds out
Tuesday December 4, 2001
This is what it says on the back of a beguiling-looking book I came across in Borders while cruising for Harry Potter tapes for my seven-year-old son. It had a beguiling title (The Bad Beginning), a beguiling dedication ("To Beatrice; darling, dearest, dead") and a beguiling author's name: Lemony Snicket. Who could resist? Not me.
In fact, neither could my son, hooked, perhaps by the opening lines: "In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle." Already bleary-eyed from Stephen Fry (uninterrupted for eight hours), he embarked on a ruinous regime with Snicket that has left him high on sleeplessness and hunger. He now reads non-stop, even in the bath - a place he had hitherto shown no interest in.
So I bought Books the Second, The Reptile Room (For Beatrice - My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not); the Third (For Beatrice - I would much prefer it if you were alive and well); and the Fourth (To Beatrice - My love flew like a butterfly/Until death swooped down like a bat/As the poet Emma Montana McElroy said:/"That's the end of that").
I had to order Five, Six, Seven and Eight from America, the only place where, as I write, they are available, but where they are, apparently, selling very very well. On the New York Times bestseller list for children's "chapter" books, JK Rowling's Harry Potter (of course) is at one, two, three and four. But Snicket is at six with The Bad Beginning (56 weeks on list), seven with The Reptile Room (34 weeks), and 10 with The Hostile Hospital (11). Nickelodeon has bought the film and television rights.
Which means that it will not be long before Klaus, Violet and baby Sunny Baudelaire are winging it over here - and with them the accompanying mystery of their creator. Or their expositor - a figure who refuses to be photographed unless from the back, in shadow, and preferably in a suit. He signs his name on the back in curly script, "with all due respect", having wearily explained, "It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing."
"The Afflicted Author" is how he gets billed on his website, which tells us that his formal training was "chiefly in rhetorical analysis", and that he has spent the last several eras researching the travails of the Baudelaire orphans - a project that takes him to the scenes of numerous crimes, "often during the off season". He "was born before you were, and is likely to die before you as well" - and is, alas, "eternally pursued" and "insatiably inquisitive", "a hermit and a nomad".
I should say that my son Harry has virtually no interest at all in Lemony Snicket the author - and is unlikely to pursue him, eternally or otherwise. Although he has questions to ask, they do not correspond to the FAQs on Snicket's website, the first of which is, "Are you a real person?" Harry doesn't doubt that Lemony is real. He is also sure that Lemony is a woman. He thinks the Baudelaire orphans are real too, persuaded no doubt by the fact that really and truly nothing good does ever happen to them (as he believes it never happens to him). He'd like to know - more prosaically - whether Klaus gets older, whether he is 11 or 13, and why he is 13 in one book and 11 in the next.
I, on the other hand, am less pedantic and much more childish, and send Snicket an email, requesting an interview ("PS, you owe me, I've ordered all your books from the States") - a request that bounced back to me with Recipient Unknown - appropriately enough, I thought. I put in a call to HarperCollins USA and left a message on the voicemail of someone called Zack, explaining that I wanted to talk to Lemony Snicket and was on a deadline and would appreciate a quick response. He didn't get back to me.
But hey, that's OK, Zack, because one of the other things it says on Snicket's (by now very useful) website is that "due to the worldwide web of conspiracy which surrounds him, Mr Snicket often communicates with the general public through his representative Daniel Handler". And it doesn't take long to find out about Handler, the author of (for grown-ups) "a comedy about incest" called Watch Your Mouth (three-and-a-half stars on Amazon.com; no review) and The Basic Eight (four-and-a-half stars on Amazon; no review; set in a high school). I find a picture of him - dark-haired, 30-ish, in a suit and a kooky pose. I find a quote about Watch Your Mouth that says, "I was definitely going for the 'Holy shit, what the fuck was that?' effect."
An author's note for his contribution to the Freedonian, an internet magazine, reads, "Daniel Handler moved to San Francisco in early July and has still not received his fucking furniture from Mayflower Movers. Also, he has written some books." So it's not much of a surprise to learn that A Series of Unfortunate Events, his series of books under the Snicket pseudonym, was hatched one long night drinking whisky sours with his publisher friend Susan.
And well, yes, I think we can all smell the breath of whisky sours, late nights and San Francisco breezes on these stories, in which the principal villain, Count Olaf, has a single eyebrow and an eye tattooed on his ankle. I asked my son what's happening now that he's halfway through book eight, and he told me that Violet is about to have an operation to have her brain removed. He particularly digs baby Sunny, who is permanently at the biting stage of infancy, and who recently climbed an elevator shaft using just her teeth. I myself was impressed that in Book the First, when asked to prepare a meal for Olaf, the orphans rustled up a little puttanesca sauce.
And just how stoned are the answers to the website FAQs? Is Count Olaf still at large? What a dreadful question. Unfortunately the answer is just as dreadful. In fact it is so dreadful that I can only answer it in Spanish: si. Who is Beatrice? That is the most dreadful question of all, and the answer is so terrible that I cannot even begin to say it without weeping, "O Beatrice! My Beatrice!" (I asked Harry who Beatrice is. "Er, his wife, I think, who died. I'm not sure. She was in book six.") Handler confesses to not much liking children's books (actually, he calls them "crap") - by which he means books "where everyone joined the softball team and had a grand time or found true love on a picnic". As a child he liked "stories set in an eerie castle that was invaded by a snake that strangled the residents... Edward Gorey's The Blue Aspic was the first book I bought with my own money".
In fact he didn't suppose that anyone would like his books much either. "We waited for the publishing house to hate it and then we at the publishing house waited for the librarians and parents to hate it, and then we all waited for children to hate it." None of which happened - though his books have apparently been banned in Decatur, Georgia, where elementary school teachers cancelled Handler's planned visit, objecting to a suggestion of incest in one of the books and Count Olaf's use of the word "damn". "Its use was precipitated," says Handler, "by a long discussion of how one should never say this word, since only a villain would do so vile a thing! This is exactly the lily-liveredness of children's books that I can't stand."
So don't think these are not moral books - because they kind of are. They are also really good. I asked Harry to explain to me what it is he likes about them - but he just shrugged. And turned back to book eight, page 177, "Watching Esme and the enormous assistant laugh together made the butterflies in the Baudelaires' stomachs flutter all the more..."
And as for the pseudonym, it has "been around since I did research for The Basic Eight, when I used it to contact rightwing organisations to get pamphlets and learn their dogma... [my friends] gave me Lemony Snicket business cards one year, we invented a drink called the Lemony Snicket." Sounds yum.
A series of fortune-making books
Protagonists: The hapless Baudelaire siblings, orphaned when their super-rich parents perish in a fire: Sunny, a preverbal baby whose gurglings the others understand ("This morning she was saying 'Gack!' over and over, which probably meant, 'Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!' "); Klaus, a bookish, bespectacled Potteresque middle child; and Violet, an entrepreneurial inventor ("Her brain was often filled with images of pulleys, levers, and gears.")
Arch-villain: The treacherous Count Olaf, "one of the world's six worst villains", who claims to be the Baudelaire children's long-lost uncle and deploys his ingenious talents for disguise in his desperate bid to get his hands on their fortune. His sinister companions include "a hook-handed man, two women with white faces, a sinister bald man with a long nose and an enormous creature who looks like neither a man nor a woman."
Typical quote: "If you are interested in reading a story filled with thrillingly good times, I am sorry to inform you that you are most certainly reading the wrong book, because the Baudelaires experience very few good times over the course of their gloomy and miserable lives. It is a terrible thing, their misfortune, so terrible that I can scarcely bring myself to write about it."
Predictable sales-boosting moral panic: Not Satanism, as for the Harry Potter books, but incest. The books were banned at an elementary school in Georgia because of Count Olaf's dastardly attempt to marry Violet in order to purloin the Baudelaire millions.
What the critics say: "Written with old-fashioned flair, this fast-paced book is not for the squeamish: the Baudelaire children are truly sympathetic characters who encounter a multitude of distressing situations. Those who enjoy a little poison in their porridge will find it wicked good fun." - Kirkus Reviews
What the readers say: "This book is awesome. I can't put the series down. I just picked it up one day, and I only have three more books to read. I am kind of obsessed with it. It is so incredibly distressing it just rips at your heart. I love it! It is wonderfully written, and just gives me chills." - Amazon.com reader review