Don’t Be Deterred By Its ‘Ten Up’ Label— ‘Austere Academy’ Is Fun
by ANNE GITTINGER, Managing Arts Editor
Had enough of a certain bespectacled little wizard, but haven’t quite recovered enough from summer to attack the pile of multiliths beginning to build on your desk? “The Austere Academy,” the fifth book in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is written for children (the back reads “Ten up”) but has a sarcastic and dark humor that—like another series you may have heard of—entertains adults (and college students) as well.
The protagonists of Snicket’s stories, Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, are about as lucky as turkeys on the third Thursday of November and suffer from enough unfortunate events that they may have a spleen-esque feeling similar to that of their namesake.
The Baudelaires’ parents have been killed in a fire, so they have foster-home hopped while Count Olaf, their nemesis, commits dastardly deeds in an attempt to get his hands on their inheritance.
In “The Austere Academy,” the siblings’ kind banker, Mr. Poe, has placed them in a boarding school whose motto is “Momento Mori,” which Klaus explains is Latin for “Remember you will die,” and whose main dormitory is in the shape of a grave (or a toe depending on how you view your cup).
At Prufrock Prep, the Baudelaires meet obnoxious fellow student Carmelita Spats and cruel Vice Principal Nero, who not only requires students to listen to his cacophanous six-hour long violin concerts, but also forces the unlucky orphans to live in a shack that has snapping crabs, dripping mold and tacky wallpaper.
The children do run into a bit of luck when they meet the Quagmire triplets, whose parents also died in a fire and who attempt to help the Baudelaires when Count Olaf manages to infiltrate the academy.
Snicket, born Daniel Handler, clearly had both the young and the old in mind when constructing his novel. Not many 10- or 11-years olds are up on their French poets, nor do they probably catch the reference to the famous modern dancer (whose own unlucky life included having her children die in a car accident and who met her end when her long scarf was caught in the wheel of car) in the names of the orphans’ new friends: Isadora and Duncan.
Spicket also includes some clever commentary; for example, he pokes fun at our computer-obsessed society after Nero puts information on Count Olaf into a computer to protect the children. “But how can a computer keep Count Olaf away?” Violet asks. “It’s an advanced computer,” is the response she gets.
“The Austere Academy” even makes a crack about private school tuition: “‘He is neither your parent nor your guardian. He is a banker who is in charge of your affairs.’
‘But that’s more or less the same thing,” Klaus protested.
‘That’s more or less the same thing,’ Nero mimicked. ‘Perhaps after a few semesters at Prufrock Prep, you’ll learn the difference between a parent and a banker.’”
But Spicket is careful to define any words and expressions that might not be familiar to the younger set. “The waning light of the sunset—the word ‘waning’ here means ‘dim, and making everything look extra-creepy.’”
To keep older readers from being bored by his definitions and explanations, Spicket adds touches of humor: “Duncan’s and Isadora’s faces fell, an expression which does not mean that the front part of their heads actually fell to the ground.”
Spicket clearly has a somewhat morbid sense of humor, since he writes and jokes about death and gravestones. Even his dedication is a little grim: “For Beatrice—You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave.”
And don’t expect a happy ending just because this is a children’s book: Spicket writes, “The last few events in this chapter of the Baudelaire orphans’ lives are incredibly unfortunate, and quite terrifying, and so if you would prefer to ignore them entirely you should put this book down now and think of a gentle ending to this horrible story.”
Published 09-03-2000 23:07:23