The 13 Clocks

By James Thurber

All Posts Contain Spoilers

And now for something completely different.

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)

Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’

My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.

Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.

OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.

Creepy, right?

So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.

And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.

The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.

However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.

If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.

The cold duke

It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.

A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.

Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.

“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)

And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?

Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.

I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.

But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.

And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.

Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.

In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.

Finn Family Moomintroll

By Tove Jansson

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Finn Family Moomintroll“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.  It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.”

Fall is here, and I’m sure you know what that means:

It’s time to re-read ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

I’m not sure why it is that this time of year always draws me back to this book from my childhood, why the gray, chilly days remind me of the strange, bleak world of Moomin Valley.  Whatever the reason, I rarely make it to Thanksgiving without re-reading ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

Tove-Jansson
Tove Jansson

The Moomin books are Swedish (written by the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson), and they are quite famous there (there is actually a Moomin house, in Finland), but to my consternation, most Americans are unfamiliar with the Moomintrolls.  There are nine Moomin books, of which ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ is actually the third.  But it is my favorite of the books, the one I think best captures the sweet, weird, sad tone of them.

Thingumy and Bob Comfort Moomintroll
Thingumy and Bob comfort Moomintroll

The Moomins are a family of hippopotamus-like bipeds.  Moominpappa, Moominmamma, and their son Moomintroll live in Moomin Valley, in a turret-house which is always filled to capacity by the various friends and hangers-on that they acquire during their travels.  They are accompanied most of the time by their neighbors the Snork and the Snork Maiden, also hippo-like.  Other frequent allies include the Humulen, the Muskrat, Snufkin, Sniff, Thingumy and Bob.

In small bands or all together, the Moomins have small adventures and tribulations.  The chapters of ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ have descriptors like, “In which Moomintroll suffers an uncomfortable change* and takes his revenge on the Ant-lion, and how Moomintroll and Snufkin go on a secret night expedition” or, “In which Thingumy and Bob, bringing a mysterious suitcase and followed by the Groke, come into the story, and in which the Snork leads a Court Case“.

*This is NOT puberty – this is a transformation wrought by the Hobgoblin’s Hat.

Ant-lion Hedgehog
The Ant-lion has been transformed into the world’s smallest hedgehog (and he is surrounded by Outlandish Words)

All of which adventures are accompanied by little pen and ink drawings, done by the author herself, and which constitute easily the most charming part of the entire series.

If this all sounds too precious, it’s not.  It’s true: ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ has all the necessarily ingredients of a delightful children’s book: whimsical creatures, adventures with high stakes but good outcomes, magic, humor, and an essential sweetness.  It is lightly eccentric, and quite funny.

“Next morning the Muskrat went out as usual with his book to lie in the hammock, but he had just gotten comfortable when the string broke and he found himself on the ground…

‘Oh, dear,’ said Moominpappa, who was watering his tobacco plants.  ‘I hope you didn’t hurt yourself?’

‘It isn’t that,’ replied the Muskrat gloomily sucking his moustache.  ‘The earth can crack and fire come down from heaven for all I care – that sort of thing doesn’t disturb me – but I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation.  It isn’t dignified for a philosopher!’…

‘I know, I know,’ interrupted Moominpappa miserably.  ‘But there’s no peace in this house…And sometimes string wears out with the years you know.’

‘It must not,’ said the Muskrat.  ‘If I had killed myself, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But imagine if your YOUNG PERSONS had seen me! Now, however, I intend to retire to a deserted spot and live a life of loneliness and peace, giving up everything.'” (p. 45)

Snork on the DockBut good humor is not the most salient attribute of the Moomin books.  I think that the reason why they have worn so well, why I return to them year after year, is that they are melancholy.  There is a sad cast to them which I can’t pin down, a forlorn air which hangs over their adventures.  I find this inexpressibly moving; long after I have outgrown the whimsy of the books, I come back to this same still, quiet sadness.

It’s difficult to say where the sadness comes from.  It lurks in there, in the Hobgoblin’s endless, fruitless quest for the King’s Ruby, which has taken him finally to the blasted out and lonely landscape of the moon.  It’s in Snufkin’s need to set out on long journeys, but always alone, because it is only alone that he is really himself.  It is there in the Humulen, devastated by the completion of his stamp collection, because, as Moomintroll says, he is no longer a collector, now merely an owner.  There is something low and sorrowful here.

Hobgoblin on the Moon
The Hobgoblin on the moon

But that is not the only thing which has called me back to Moomin Valley all these times, not the only thing which makes ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘, to my mind, a rather perfect little book:  it’s also creepy.

Hattifatteners
The Hattifatteners (which are very creepy) swarm the Humulen

As I have mentioned before, creepiness is, for me, a requirement in children’s literature.  ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ isn’t ghost-story creepy; rather, it’s sort of weird-creepy, touched by a pall of uneasiness which lies over the whole story, over all of Moomin Valley.  There is a sinister whisper behind everything, which rarely comes out into the light but does occasionally, as in the character of the Groke:

“Then – they saw the Groke.  Everybody saw her.  She sat motionless on the sandy path at the bottom of the steps and stared at them with round, expressionless eyes.

She was not particularly big and didn’t look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever.  And that was awful.” (p. 116)

The effect is sort of mesmerizing, this strange, happy story with it’s sad, ominous undercurrents.  The stories aren’t swashbuckling-exciting, but because the creatures are so original, and because the narrative voice is so unusual, they are completely absorbing.  And even though the language is simple, clearly meant for children, the tone is subtle enough that, as adult reader, you still feel overcome by the story.  Moomin Valley exists for me, an eerie place, known and unknown, safe yet spooky, filled with ambivalent little creatures hiding in strange and unexpected places.

Party in Moominvalley
A party in Moominvalley

I always feel so incompetent at moments like this, when I try to describe the effect a beloved book has had on me.  The books are so much better than my descriptions of them will ever be – you cannot describe better, in words, an accomplishment of words.  And words are insufficient, too, for my feelings: I cannot paint for you, quite, the feelings which Moomin Valley evokes in me.

So I will leave you, instead, with the words of the book itself, with the sure knowledge that, if this can’t charm you, nothing can:

“While the Hobglobin was eating they edged a little nearer.  Somebody who eats pancakes and jam can’t be so awfully dangerous.  You can talk to him.” (p. 145)

Finding the Hobgoblin's Hat
Moomintroll, Sniff, and Snufkin find the Hobgoblin’s Hat

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I – The Bad Beginning

II – The Reptile Room

III – The Wide Window

By Lemony Snicket

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“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.  So if you do not want to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance to put this book down, because the misery of the Baudelaire orphans begins in the very next paragraph.” (‘The Wide Window‘, p. 2)

Children’s stories should be twisted.

I believed this when I was a child, and I believe it now: children’s stories should be dark, and troubling.  They should deal with the frightening and dismal, the grotesque and the foul.  Children have a need for this subject matter, and a particular aptitude for it.  They inhabit a world full of menace over which they have no control, and their literature must help them confront and name this.  Children’s literature which ignores the monsters that lurk in the night is pointless and, worse, insulting.  I love, and have always loved, the books for children which belly up to the reality of a world of which death and terror are immutable characteristics.

And children themselves are not at all the precious, immaculate angels that forgetful adults like to imagine.  The same troubles obsess them that obsess us: death, destruction, mutilation and violence.  They are creepy little beings who, like adults, need literature to speak to them as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

Trouble BeginsBy this measure, willingness to tell darkness plainly, Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ might be the finest children’s books ever written.  They tell the story of the three Baudelaire children, Violent (age 14), Klaus (“a little older than twelve”), and Sunny (age 1).  The children of loving and wealthy parents, the Baudelaires are orphaned one day in a fire which destroys their family and their home, and put into the temporary care of Mr. Poe, a well-meaning banker and the executor of their parents’ will.

“”Your parents,” Mr. Poe said, “have perished in a terrible fire.”

The children didn’t say anything.

“They perished,” Mr. Poe said, “in a fire that destroyed the entire house.  I’m very, very sorry to tell you this, my dears.”

Violet took her eyes off Mr. Poe and stared out at the ocean.  Mr. Poe had never called the Baudelaire children “my dears” before.  She understood the words he was saying but thought he must be joking, playing a terrible joke on her and her brother and sister.

“Perished,” Mr Poe said, “means ‘killed.'””(‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 8)

Count Olaf.jpg
Count Olaf’s shiny eyes.

That will states that they should be raised by a “relative”, and the relative that Mr. Poe first chooses is, disastrously for the Baudelaire orphans, one Count Olaf, a stage actor and thorough-going villain, whose only intention is to acquire the Baudelaire fortune for himself.  When his first plan, to force Violet into an under-age marriage and thus take possession of her inheritance, fails, Olaf goes on the lam.  In each successive book, he will hunt down the children, murder their new guardian, and attempt once again to seize their money.

Leeches.jpg
The leeches by whom Aunt Josephine is devoured

And these are not mild, child-friendly deaths.  They are grisly, terrible ends, often coming to characters to whom the reader has become attached, like Uncle Monty, who is injected with snake venom, or Aunt Josephine, who is fed to carnivorous leeches.  Although the orphans themselves are not killed, they are subjected to terrible threats and ordeals, such as being imprisoned in a birdcage and dangled from an open window, or held at knife point, or forced to eat food to which they are allergic.  These children suffer.

I have a good reason for endorsing darkness in children’s books – I’m not just a terrible, child-hating sadist.  The world is a large and frightening place, full of dangers, and children are particularly vulnerable.  They are small, and naive, and powerless within the systems which govern human lives.  Children’s literature should prepare them for this, warn them about danger, and give them a way of understanding misfortune.  The sorrows of good children’s books have morals.

And the moral of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events‘ is: Do not trust adults.  Count on your wits; count on each other.  Read, think, be brave, because no one is coming to save you.    Don’t count on adults.  They will fail you, either through corruption, or incompetence, or mortality.  Even the kind ones, the well-meaning ones, will not be able to save you when wickedness comes.  And wickedness will always come.

What a great moral!

One of the measures of a really good book is whether it can get you wound up even if you know what’s going to happen.  Each of the ‘Series of Unfortunate Events‘ that I have read so far (The Trouble Begins) adheres to a basic formula: meet a new guardian, lose the guardian to Count Olaf, escape Olaf’s clutches at the very last.

Zombie Snowman.jpgBut, despite my perfect certainty about what was going to happen, I found myself getting emotional, angry and scared, during each book.  Partly, this is because the consistent failure of the adults around the Baudelaires is hard to read about.  Each time that the children identify Count Olaf in disguise, and each time they are disregarded by their caretakers, you suffer with them a little.  You feel the rage of the child; you do not sympathize with the adults.  And the structures which bind them, like the law, like their parents’ will, which were designed to keep them safe, instead trap them and their guardians again and again.  These books are the best indictment of adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Most importantly, though: they are funny.  They are really funny, and weird.  They are studded all over with strange asides and examples, presented in the wry voice of an unknown narrator.

“Unless you are a lawyer, it will probably strike you as odd that Count Olaf’s plan was defeated by Violet signing with her left hand instead of her right.  But the law is an odd thing.  For instance, one country in Europe has a law that requires all its bakers to sell bread at the exact same price.  A certain island has a law that forbids anyone from removing its fruit.  And a town not too far from where you live has a law that bars me from coming within five miles of its border.” (‘The Bad Beginning‘, p. 153)

Series

“Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony.  This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there.  For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.” (‘The Reptile Room‘, p. 32)

I loved these books.  I wish they had existed when I was a kid – I would have loved them then, too.  Dark, funny, weird: these are hard things to do well in children’s literature.  To do all three well at once is remarkable.