As soon as The End was published, Pippa and I hastened to town to obtain a copy. She read it immediately and pronounced herself satisfied. I delayed, partly as I’m even busier this year than usual (I know, I know, that is usual) and partly because I wasn’t sure Daniel Handler could make the last volume in the series succeed. He had taken the first twelve volumes to the brink — perhaps past the brink — of repetitive plot devices and rhetorical gestures. If he lived up to the grim promises from the first twelve books, the thirteenth would be an arduously bleak exercise in defying the conventions of children’s literature, and if he reneged on his promises, he’d falsify the premises he had constructed so carefully.
When, after a couple of days, I did read The End, Handler proved his mettle. The last book in the Baudelaire triskaidekalogy attains a diverse array of impressive achievements, not least of which is Handler’s perceptive critique of Ishmael’s passive-aggressive paternalism in the name of the Baudelaires’ mutuality. The book offers neither a glibly happy resolution of the series of unfortunate events, nor facile answers to the series’s difficult questions, nor the cataclysm of the main characters’ demise. Instead, Handler gives a fair treatment of how the world goes: hearts break, dear ones die, the best among us bear the wound of sin, and life goes on. I wouldn’t have guessed that Handler would make so impressive a summing-up, and I commend him highly.
I was moved to remember The End because a friend of a friend died recently. As I was meditating about this death and the dreadful loss it entails, I looked again at the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This chapter recounts Harry’s presence and feelings at Dumbledore’s funeral so convincingly that my assessment of Rowling as a novelist clicks upward a notch just recollecting it. Harry’s by turns distracted, subject to inappropriate mirth, profoundly grief-stricken, and filled with adolescent bravado, all in a narration that underscores the realism of Dumbledore’s death. (This chapter alone militates against my accepting the ingenious exegesis that Dumbledore is just mostly dead.) Rowling may manage to pull off a Dumbledorian resuscitation without vitating the grandeur of the funeral (at which even merfolk cried) — but that unlikely hypothetical feat aside, these two books teach well the sober lesson that our lives fall subject to forces outside our control, and at our best we can but give gifts, share gifts, with those we love. We share the gifts that have been given us first: love, and trust, and wisdom, and determination in the face of entropy, a few knick-knacks of joy and ingenuity, a song and a poem and a dance. We catch these from our predecessors and pass them to another generation, to our children and our students, and by our transmitting these gifts we testify to a light that darkness cannot comprehend. We cannot defeat death or decay, but we have the opportunity to live victoriously, nobly, under circumstances we cannot control.
In whatever name moves you to resist evil, to flourish free from fear, to beam with the joy that heals, to pledge solidarity with your sisters and brothers, to love: in that name, live, world without end.