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The Miserabilist

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
By Donald Sturrock
(Simon & Schuster, 655 pp., $30)

Roald Dahl, the beloved laureate of modern children’s fiction, who often boasted of his uncanny access to the seven-year-old mind, who preeningly referred to himself in old age as a “geriatric child,” did not actually get around to following his agent’s advice and writing a children’s book until he was well into his forties. Even then he did so grudgingly, and only because his short stories for adults were not selling. Prior to the publication of James and the Giant Peach in 1961, he seems to have regarded the idea of writing for children as something of a joke. “Parenthood is a great strain,” he wrote to a friend shortly before the birth of his first child in 1954. “I can see it all. Nursery books for Knopf. Once upon a time there was a dear little bunny.”

Dahl was never a dear little bunny man. He plighted his troth to a peculiarly sour view of the world very early on in his youth. As a teenager, he wrote an angry little poem for a school competition, on the subject “the evening sky.” (“Evening clouds, like frog spawn, spoil the sky.”) When one of Dahl’s classmates, who had written a romantic, rhyming paean to the beauty of dusk, was moved to question the grimness of his poetic tone, Dahl witheringly informed the other boy that “life isn’t beautiful and sentimental and clear. It’s full of foul things and horrid people, and incidentally, rhyming is old hat.”

This schoolboy brand of misanthropy never lost its appeal for Dahl. Throughout his adulthood, he continued to hoard evidence of life’s foulness and to pore, with connoisseurial relish, over what was horrid: 

Things I Hate:
All piddling spindly tables, specially the kind that slide into each other—six of them.
Women who say “What are you thinking?”
Bookshelves with an unread look.
Men who wear rings that are not absolutely plain.
The larger the ring the worse it is. A diamond worst of all.
Men who wear bow ties, pointed shoes, shoes in two different leathers, tie clips, sock suspenders.
Men who have four or five strands of hair and they let it grow long and paste it to their domes.
Men or women who hold a cigarette between thumb and first finger.

Dahl composed this list when he was thirty-four years old. A fuller, though by no means exhaustive, inventory of his adult animosities would have included fat people, ugly people, Jews, “half-successful painters with long side-burns,” men with beards, “intellectual writers,” “bad musicians,” “queer foreign office types,” and almost everyone who ever published or represented his writing over the years.

Biographers too, apparently. According to Donald Sturrock, the author of this huge new chronicle of Dahl’s life, Dahl regarded biographers as “dreary fact-collectors” who produced dull “assemblage[s] of detail” and who failed to appreciate that invention was “always more interesting than reality.” Intriguing as these remarks are, Sturrock’s decision to quote them at the very start of his book seems a little foolhardy, for he is not, as it turns out, particularly well-equipped to confound Dahl’s prejudices. He suffers from an ungainly prose style and a very limited ability to write interestingly about writing. He evinces an excessively wide-eyed regard for Dahl’s “genius.” (There was, he claims, “something of Charles Darwin in Roald.”) And he has a maddening habit of serving up clichés with the meditative air of a man minting startling aperçus. Jeremy Treglown’s unauthorized biography of Dahl, which appeared in 1994, is in many ways a superior work to this: better written, brisker, and infinitely more perceptive about Dahl’s fiction.

That Sturrock has managed, in spite of his handicaps, to produce an interesting and even memorable book is owing partly to the privileges of his authorized status. He was hand-picked by the Dahl family to write this biography, and he benefited from access to thousands of previously unseen letters and drafts. Mostly, though, the book is saved by the magnificent, and frequently malign, force of its subject’s personality.

Dahl was born in Wales, in 1916, to rich Norwegian émigrés. He was, at various times in his life, an oil executive, an RAF fighter pilot, a Washington-based spy for the British, an art collector, an antiques dealer, a gambler, and a greyhound racer. (He once seriously considered chucking in writing and starting over as a bookie.) He had a vast and starry circle of trans-Atlantic acquaintances (Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hoagy Carmichael, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Bacon, Noël Coward, C.S. Forester, Spencer Tracy) and a no-less-starry record of sexual conquests (Martha Gellhorn, Clare Booth Luce, Gloria Vanderbilt, Ginger Rogers, Elizabeth Arden, as well as, according to one American witness of his wartime adventures, “everybody on the east and west coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year”).

For all its frolicsome and glamorous interludes, Dahl’s life was characterized by an inordinate degree of catastrophe and misfortune. His older sister and his father died in quick succession when he was three years old. At the age of nine, he had to have his nose sewn back onto his face after it was torn off in a car accident. The injuries that he sustained in a near-fatal crash on his first day of flying with the RAF left him in pain for the rest of his life. His infant son, Theo, was brain-injured after a New York taxicab crashed into his pram. His daughter, Olivia, died of complications from measles when she was seven. And at the age of thirty-nine, his wife, the Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, suffered a series of disastrous strokes while pregnant with their fourth child.

This biblical catalogue of suffering goes some way to mitigating Dahl’s miserabilist view of things, although it never quite explains the fantastic nastiness of his behavior toward his family, colleagues, and friends. Dahl had reserves of charm, and he was capable of enormous generosity. But he was also a champion grudge-holder, fight-picker, and tantrumthrower. “Success did not mellow my husband,” Patricia Neal once noted. “Quite the contrary, it only enforced his conviction that although life was a two-lane street, he had the right of way.”

At dinner parties, Dahl’s potent gifts of vituperation regularly sent fellow guests home early. He was once thrown out of a London gambling club for complaining at the top of his voice about the disgusting Jews who were spoiling the place. When his seventeen-year-old daughter Tessa accused him, accurately, of having an affair with Felicity Crosland, the family friend for whom he would later leave Neal, he berated her for being “a nosy little bitch.” He was forever bashing out bitter letters to his publishers and his agents, complaining about perceived slights to his authorial dignity. When he finally threatened to leave Knopf, his editor Robert Gottlieb was only too happy to show him the door. “Let me reverse your threat,” he wrote to Dahl. “Unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to publish you. Nor will I—or any of us—answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we’ve been receiving.”

In Britain, the discovery that the country’s “best-loved children’s writer” was a bit of a shit has been received with the sort of awe reserved for the most breathtaking of paradoxes. In truth, though, the news of Dahl’s personal unpleasantness is not at all at odds with the character of his fiction. With the exception of some of his earliest stories, which strike a glumly mystical note, all of his work—the dark adult fables and the children’s books—evince a strong streak of misanthropy and aggression.

The stories for adults tend to focus on perverse forms of human vengeance and cruelty. At their best, they have a sinister sort of élan. More often they evince an oddly naïve idea of “sophistication,” an adolescent confusion of amorality with worldliness. Early on in his career, several of Dahl’s stories were published in The New Yorker, but increasingly they were to find their first home in Playboy. In “The Way Up to Heaven,” a wife leaves her doddering old husband trapped in the elevator of their townhouse while she goes off to Europe for six weeks. She returns home to find “a faint and curious odor in the air that she had never smelled before.” In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a wife kills her husband, a detective, by bashing him with a frozen leg of lamb; when his colleagues come to investigate his murder, she roasts her weapon and feeds it to them. In “My Lady Love, My Dove,” a married couple conspire to bug their houseguest’s bedroom. “I’m a nasty person,” the wife tells her husband. “And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.”

Several of the plots turn on acts of grotesque sexual humiliation. In “Nunc Dimittis,” a rich old man punishes a gossipy female friend by displaying a naked portrait of her to their mutual friends. In “Bitch,” a man is compelled to make love to a hideous woman by a perfume with prodigious aphrodisiac powers: “Never had I seen a female so tall and broad and thick as this one. Nor so thoroughly repugnant.... I was able to take most of it in—the metallic silver-blue hair with every strand glued into place, the brown pig-eyes, the long sharp nose sniffing for trouble, the curled lips, the prognathous jaw, the powder, the mascara, the scarlet lipstick and, most shattering of all, the massive shored-up bosom that projected like a balcony in front of her.”

Dahl’s repeated depiction of sex as a foul, vengeful act and his obsessive disgust with human bodies—with sagging cheeks and bow legs and wet salmon mouths—are, to say the least, dispiriting. The later stories, in which the sexual sadism is at its crudest and the “wit” at its most vestigial, are almost unbearable to read. One of the last short stories Dahl ever wrote, “The Last Act,” describes in obscene detail the rape of a menopausal woman by a gynecologist. Dahl cheerfully referred to it as an attempt to describe “murder by fucking.”

Writers of adult fiction rarely enter willingly into the ghetto of children’s fiction. (When Martin Amis was asked if he would ever consider writing a children’s book, he allowed that he might, if he were to find himself severely brain-damaged.) For Dahl, however, the dreaded Kiddy Korner proved to be his liberation. The miracle of his children’s work was not that it banished his nastiness, but that it transmuted the nastiness into something vigorous and even joyful. The misanthropy that fatally limited his capacities as a writer of adult fiction brought energy and subversive humor to the children’s books.

Dahl has had such a pervasive influence on children’s literature over the last fifty years—farts and burps and rudeness are common fare in children’s books these days—that it is hard to appreciate quite how odd and dangerous his style seemed back in the early 1960s. It took him almost seven years to find a British publisher for James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When they were published, librarians attacked them for their “lack of taste.” The children’s science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin went so far as to claim that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had exerted a malign influence on her daughter’s personality.

The children’s books, it is true, feature a good deal of gleeful vulgarity and cartoonish violence. Children get squeezed and squashed and turned into mice. Wicked old aunts get mown down by outsize fruit, and malevolent grannies are poisoned. The villains are grotesques, and even the benign adult protagonists—Wonka, Mr. Fox, the centipede in James and the Giant Peach—are not altogether safe or “nice;” they are mercurial, mendacious figures, sarcastic and brusque and ever so slightly cruel.

Yet the foulness that pollutes the adult stories is contained, and contested, in the children’s books. The avid descriptions of what is vile are tempered by an unembarrassed sense of what is beautiful and wondrous. Writing about the joy of chocolate, or a boy’s flight on the back of a swan, or the experience of crawling through a peach, Dahl comes as close to the sublime as any children’s writer has. “The tunnel was damp and murky, and all around him there was the curious bittersweet smell of fresh peach. The floor was soggy under his knees, the walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.”

“I do not believe,” Dahl wrote toward the end of his life, “that any writer of adult books, however successful or celebrated he may be, has ever gotten one-half the pleasure I have got from my children’s books.” One hopes, for the miserable old man’s sake, that this was really so.

Zoë Heller is the author, most recently, of The Believers (HarperCollins). This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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