Snicket and Swift

The Netflix show of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket’s mock Gothic children’s epic A Series of Unfortunate Events is pretty good, anchored by some admirable clowning by Neil Patrick Harris and hewing closely to the plot and characterizations of the books. What it mostly misses, of course, is the books’ pleasures in language itself, with the self-indulgent narrator frequently interrupting the flow of the action to dive into the meaning of some cliché or idiom, and then turning it around to a direct oration to the reader before redirecting things back to the story:

Wrong! The clanging of the clock announced that it was one in the morning, and without another word, Dewey took Violet’s hand, and Justice Strauss took Klaus’s, and Jerome Squalor leaned down and took Sunny’s hand, and the three adults led the three orphans up the stairs toward the hotel’s entrance, walking past the taxi, which still sat there, engine purring, with the figure of the driver just a shadow in the window. The three adults smiled at the children, and the children smiled back, but of course the Baudelaires were not born yesterday, an expression which means “young or innocent enough to believe things certain people say about the world.” If the Baudelaires had been born yesterday, perhaps they would be innocent enough to believe that all of their troubles were truly about to end, and that Count Olaf and all of his treacherous associates would be judged by the High Court, and condemned to the proper punishment for all their ignoble deeds, and that the children would spend the rest of their days working with Dewey Denouement on his enormous underwater catalog, if they only waited for tomorrow. But the three siblings were not born yesterday. Violet was born more than fifteen years before this particular Wednesday, and Klaus was born approximately two years after that, and even Sunny, who had just passed out of babyhood, was not born yesterday. Neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life. But if you were not born yesterday, and you have read anything about the Baudelaire children’s lives, then you cannot be surprised that this happy moment was almost immediately cut short by the appearance of a most unwelcome person at the moment the children were led through the fog of steam coming from the laundry room funnel and through the entrance of the Hotel Denouement as the one loud “Wrong” faded into nothing. This person was standing in the center of the lobby, his tall lean body bent into a theatrical pose as if he were waiting for a crowd to applaud, and you will not be surprised to know what was tattooed on his ankle, which the children could see poking out of a hole in his sock even in the dim light of the room. You were not born yesterday, probably, so you will not be surprised to find that this notorious villain had reappeared in the Baudelaires’ lives for the penultimate time, and the Baudelaires were also not born yesterday, and so they also were not surprised. They were not born yesterday, but when Count Olaf turned to face them, and gazed upon them with his shiny, shiny eyes, the Baudelaire orphans wished they had not been born at all.

This isn’t quite Jonathan Swift, but the “neither were you, unless of course I am wrong, in which case welcome to the world, little baby, and congratulations on learning to read so early in life,” after the tumbling clauses that precedes it, has some of the same rhythm and pleasure in the switcheroo. For example, in Swift’s A Tale of a TubSwift does a self-serious meditation on the question of whether the superficial surfaces of things are really so much inferior to their deep interiors, and whether we should really be spending so much time dwelling within the hidden depths of philosophy, before pulling the rug out from under us:

In the proportion that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity, so far preferable is that wisdom which converses about the surface to that pretended philosophy which enters into the depths of things and then comes gravely back with informations and discoveries, that in the inside they are good for nothing. The two senses to which all objects first address themselves are the sight and the touch; these never examine farther than the colour, the shape, the size, and whatever other qualities dwell or are drawn by art upon the outward of bodies; and then comes reason officiously, with tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate that they are not of the same consistence quite through. Now I take all this to be the last degree of perverting Nature, one of whose eternal laws it is to put her best furniture forward. And therefore, in order to save the charges of all such expensive anatomy for the time to come, I do here think fit to inform the reader that in such conclusions as these reason is certainly in the right; and that in most corporeal beings which have fallen under my cognisance, the outside hath been infinitely preferable to the in, whereof I have been further convinced from some late experiments. Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.


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