“A Series of Unfortunate Events” is actually a series of simultaneously-occuring events: The name refers to both a bestselling series of children’s books and an Oscar-nominated movie, its author is both Lemony Snicket and Daniel Handler and, even in the actual story, a Victorian atmosphere is dotted with 20th-century artifacts: phones, cars, refrigerators.
And so, when Handler, who writes under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket, got together with the Forward this month, it only made sense that it be in a place where time is out of joint.
The Persian Aub Zam Zam, a bar on San Francisco’s fabled Haight Street, is a mishmash of times and places. The “retro sheik” interior dates from 1940; the jukebox is anchored in 1955, and the scene outside will forever be associated with 1967. But with its well turned-out 20- and 30-something clientele (Handler himself was dressed in a smartly striped bowling top and black zippered sweatshirt), the bar had all the markings of a 21st-century hipster hangout.
The Zam Zam wasn’t always so inviting. In the days of longtime owner Bruno Mooshei — a larger-than-life character whom poet August Kleinzahler has described as looking “a little like a deep-sea creature out of his element when you saw him in the sunshine” — hippies, teetotalers and New Yorkers entered at their peril. “If someone opened the door, especially in daylight, and hesitated before coming in,” Kleinzahler wrote recently, “Bruno would shout: ‘Shut that door, there’s a stench out there. Away with you, barbarian!’”
Add to this Handler himself, who, with his quick wit and Lemony mask, has left many an interviewer in tangles. The Forward was forearmed.
But Handler, 35, was charming from the first. “How does this work again?” he asked ingenuously when it came time to pick up the first round. “Which of us isn’t supposed to pay?” (The accepted journalistic practice is that the subject never pays, lest he sway the steady reporter.) Even Handler’s drink order seemed designed to put the Forward, which is based in New York, at ease. He asked for a Manhattan.
“It occurred to me on the way over here,” Handler said, settling into his seat, “that I’m meeting with the Jewish Forward to talk about my Jewishness — and it’s a Friday night.”
Handler grew up in San Francisco’s Balboa Terrace neighborhood, a part of town “utterly unknown to the casual visitor,” he said. His family lighted Sabbath candles on Friday nights, and belonged to a synagogue. In 1987, Handler was chosen to be among the first of the Bronfman Youth Fellows, a program that took smart high school students from across the Jewish spectrum to Israel. “I was on the far secular end of the people who were there,” he said, “but I felt more Jewish when going, and that’s really stuck with me.”
Today Handler says he has trouble finding a Jewish community that’s a good fit for him. “If you’re craving the kind of Judaism where most of the services are in Hebrew,” he said, “and you don’t want teriyaki shrimp served at the [post-Yom Kippur] break-fast, then that means taking on things like strong religious beliefs and Zionist politics. If you don’t want all that, then there’s a whole lot of hesitation.”
What’s perhaps not clear to those unfamiliar with the Snicket series is that though marketed to children between the ages of 8 and 12 — and with more than 25 million copies sold, they’re certainly succeeding — they are, at the same time, exceedingly learned books. Allusions abound, from Dante to T.S. Eliot and from Salinger to Pynchon. Handler is clearly the sort of writer whose prose is the product of a lifetime of reading. He once said that his books are set “in a space that only has to do with other books.” And in some cases he’s drawn readers who share his devotion to words. “There are readers of the Snicket books who’ll reread them with the thorough attention of one of those Yeshiva guys who’ll stick a pin through the Talmud and tell you what letter it’ll go through on every page,” he said.
After that, we had to ask: Are the Baudelaire orphans — the luckless trio who lose their parents in a fire on the first pages of the Lemony Snicket saga and are then shuttled from relative to relative for further misadventures in the books that follow — Jewish?
In an answer that only brought attention to its own insufficiency, Handler said, “Yes.”
And what about Harry Potter?
“If you subscribe to the current Zadie Smith dichotomy,” he said referring to the British author’s recent book “The Autograph Man,” in which the protagonist sees the Jewish/goyish divide wherever he turns, “then yes, the Baudelaires are Jewish and Harry Potter is gentile, but if you’re talking about some sort of grander philosophy, I’d have to say no.”
Handler has maintained that the Baudelaire orphans may have had their origins in the story of his own father, who, in 1938, at the age of 10, fled Danzig, which was then part of Germany. But he is careful in how he characterizes his father’s experience. “He has always been reluctant to over-dramatize his story,” Handler said of his father, “and so I’ve been doubly reluctant.” When a recent New York Times article referred to Handler’s father as a “refugee” — a word Handler eschews — the author placed a nervous phone call to his father, worried that he might have been upset. In the end, Handler’s worry was misplaced. His father was happy simply to have been mentioned in the venerable paper. “I could have called him a storm trooper, and it would have been okay,” he said with a sly laugh.
Asked about how he has come to grips with his own fame, Handler was characteristically thoughtful. “It’s an enormous thing that’s happened,” he said. “The only metaphors that make any sense are catastrophic, and yet what has happened isn’t catastrophic at all.”