Big Unfriendly Giant

Roald Dahl’s story has been told before – most notably, and in greater detail, by Jeremy Treglown in Roald Dahl: A biography (1994) and Donald Sturrock in Storyteller: The life of Roald Dahl (2010). Dahl himself contributed a brace of unreliable memoirs in Boy: Tales of childhood (1984) Going Sol (1986). There’s not much in Matthew Dennison’s book that you won’t find in either of those previous biographies, but that is not to dismiss the volume at hand. Here, rather, is a crisply done and well-judged survey of the outline of the life: light on close reading of the fiction, discriminating, if (to my mind) sometimes a bit too generous, in its assessment of the man. Dahl was brusque, controlling, uncompromising; demanded and received attention; and could be charm itself when he wanted to, but arrogant and bullying when he didn’t. But a biography that calls its subject by his first name will tend to skew friendly, and there’s no harm in that.

The contours of Dahl’s strange and disaster-strewn life – in which his children’s writing career sometimes seems almost to have been an afterthought or an accident; he was well into his fifth decade before he was published James and the Giant Peach (1961) – are zippily mapped. There’s the death when Dahl was an infant of his older sister Astri, then of his father, Harald – a situation that left him the adored only boy in a family of women. His relationship with his Norwegian-born mother, Sofie Magdalene, was perhaps the most important in his psychological make-up (“Apple”, he was nicknamed) and they corresponded until she died. Their visits to his grandparents in rural Norway nourished his interior mythology and supplied him with the robust Norwegian grandmother in The Witches (1983).

Scattered usefully here are passing mentions of Dahl’s formative reading. His mother exposed him to Norse myths and nursery rhymes, which enchanted his world: he suggested that exposure to nursery rhymes “weaves a halo of romance” around everyday objects, so the viewer sees, if not the skull beneath the skin, the mouse in the grandfather clock. By nine he had Hilaire Belloc’s blackly sadistic Cautionary Tales, which his own work as a children’s writer contained definite throwbacks, off by heart. He thought Swallows and Amazons “too soft”, instead favouring imperial adventure stories – GA Henty, CS Forester, Frederick Marryat – and ghost stories before moving on to Dickens and Shakespeare. As a young man he read Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Karen Blixen and Damon Runyon (who came out in the twisty short stories that make up the first part of his broken-backed literary career), but it’s a childhood reading that seems to be most important. In his late-life “A Note on Writing Books for Children”, as Dennison puts it, he “inventoried a child’s requirements of fiction: he himself was the child reader he conjured”:

They love being spooked. They love suspense. They love action. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic.

From a cosseted home life in which he seems to have got away with pretty much anything he wanted (one vignette has him swaddling his sister in pillows and shooting at her with an air rifle), the roughness and rigmarole of school came as an unpleasant shock . He loathed the petty rules, the bullying and fagging, and the sadistic beatings – archetypes such as Matilda‘s Trunchbull leapt from his experience of Repton. Though, as ever, his self-mythologizing cast of mind and reluctance to truck in shades of gray meant his recollections painted the lily. In Boy he reported that the future Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher (who had been headmaster of Repton) had given a savage and unwarranted thrashing to Dahl’s best friend. Fisher had left the school by the time of the incident – ​​and the boy in question had been sexually interfering with younger boys. What’s telling is not (quite) that Dahl got it wrong, but that when the mistake was pointed out, he refused to revise the text.

There followed his white mischief period – a drunken prewar interlude in Tanganyika working for Shell, in which he lived the tail end of the colonial high life. Then are the wartime experiences – the first the much-mythologized crash landing of a plane in the desert in 1940. Though Dahl at various points claimed to have been shot down, it seems to have been a straightforward cock-up – he lost his bearings in a plane he was ill trained to fly, bungled a forced landing and was especially unlucky when it hit a rock. Another pilot came to his rescue, but that pilot appeared nowhere in Dahl’s subsequent accounts of the incident. As Dennison puts it pertly: “In one form or another, single-handed endeavor, colored by brilliance or even glory, was always his picture of himself.” He recovered from that, at least enough to be returned to his unit. There was aerial combat over Piraeus and then Palestine in 1941, Dennison crediting him with five kills. Dahl remembered dogfighting as “in a way the most exhilarating time I have ever had in my life”. Pain from the injuries he sustained in his crash, though, stayed with him just as long.

Dahl’s sexual career, in his single days, was quite something. At eighteen, en route to an outdoorsy boys’ camp in Newfoundland, he had an on-ship romance with an actress two years his senior. His early twenties saw “a sequence of more or less furtive romantic and sexual entanglements, including with older married women” in that hotbed of extramarital shenanigans, Bexley. He really hit his stride during his years in Washington as an assistant air attaché to the embassy. “I think he slept with everybody on the East and West Coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year”, reported one contemporary. He had a fling with the film star Phyllis Brooks, may or may not have had a thing with Ginger Rogers, “flirted with Marlene Dietrich”, and dallied (or so Dennison implies) with the sexagenarian make-up guru Elizabeth Arden, the oil heiress Millicent Rogers, the gold-mine heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean and the married congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. Of the last he reported to a friend: “I am all fucked out. That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights.” Odd, the streak of contempt or resentment there. He seems to have found seduction effortless – in a later short story Dennison quotes he calls it “ridiculously easy, like manipulating puppets” – but his relationship with Annabella, the actor wife of the film star Tyrone Power, was one that survived as a friendship (he moaned to her about the state of his marriage in later years) because “for all his sexual charisma, Roald was more practised in the role of brother than lover”.

That wasn’t the only respect in which his time in the US shaped and typified him. During his sojourn in the States he had his first literary success with a whimsical 7,000-word story (he called it “a sort of fairy-tale”) about supernatural “gremlins” that sabotaged RAF planes. The young Dahl was courted by Walt Disney to turn it into a movie – but he behaved towards the mogul with the same arrogance and implacability that would characterize his dealings with agents, editors and tax authorities through his career. The Gremlins never got made. No matter. Dahl made himself comfortable among the monied and well connected. He published stories in the New Yorker, cuckolded eminent citizens, dined with Roosevelt – and, as if living in a fantasy of his own life, even did some espionage work on the side. When he was shown in confidence a draft document by the vice president Henry Wallace, which suggested that the US should encourage Britain’s Pacific colonies to declare independence after the war, he sneaked it off, copied it and caused it to reach the eyes (at least in his account) of Churchill.

He returned from Washington with a film-star wife, Patricia Neal. Theirs was a marriage that nearly didn’t work – he wanted her to be the little wife and resented that she outshone and out-earned him – and then did for thirty years, and finally didn’t; he eventually abandoned her after an on-off affair with the younger Felicity “Liccy” Crosland, who was to become his second wife. Everything had to revolve around Roald, as it had in his childhood. As Dennison observes, there are no happy and well-balanced companionate marriages in his fiction: “Although Roald had been brought up with a strong sense of family, his exposure to successful marriage was negligible”. That said, any relationship would have struggled in the face of their misfortunes: a traffic accident in 1960 nearly their four-month-old son Theo, and measles claimed their seven-year-old daughter Olivia two years later. Neal was crippled by a cerebral aneurysm in 1965. And the Dahl children – especially Tessa, whom Dahl made cruelly complicit in his affair with Crosland – had more than their share of unhappiness.

Here was a life of plane crashes, bunk-ups, red carpets, secret agenting and amateur medical innovations – Dahl caused the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve to be designed so fluid could be drained safely from Theo’s injuries, and Neal later credited his martinet -like therapeutic efforts for her recovery from her brain injuries. Few writers, except perhaps Hemingway (whom Dahl admired, incidentally, until he saw him administering hair tonic), have been such men of action. Even his early fad for photography (shared, suggestively, with Lewis Carroll) and later manias for gardening and picture-framing showed a cast of mind that was above all practical. He declared at Tessa’s wedding that “action is always better than words” (“surprising apothegm for a writer”, Dennison notes). And the books aren’t just full of invention: they are full of inventions. Think of the ingenuity of the sleeping-pill-and-raisin dodge in Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), the pragmatics of air travel in James and the Giant Peachthe machinery of Wonka’s factory or the fabulously specific and hard-to-reproduce ingredients list for that marvelous medicine.

The key to Dahl’s success as a children’s writer, Dennison’s account makes it possible to suppose, was his world-view. The idea that Dahl’s work is “virtually amoral” – as Humphrey Carpenter put it in Secret Gardens (1985) – seems to me to get it quite wrong. Rather, Dahl and his work are animated by a fierce morality, but it’s one as black and white, and as capricious and sometimes self-serving, as a child’s. Whether you be a cane-wielding headteacher or a graceless, gum-chewing little girl, if you’re a baddie you are going to get what’s coming to you; and the audience will do nothing but rejoice in the cruelty of your punishment. As he put it himself towards the end of his life: “I’m afraid I like strong contrasts. I like villains to be terrible and good people to be very good.” That made for a strong natural connection with young audiences, who, rather than be preached to by “improving” literature or have their view of the world complicated by “literary” literature, enjoyed having their world-view affirmed with – I think it’s the right phrase – extreme prejudice. Children are vengeful little brutes.

It’s a view of the world that might have come back to bite him. Writers of the past are finding themselves sorted ever more enthusiastically into goodies and baddies, and Dahl’s hold on the first category is far from secure. Dennison doesn’t make especially heavy weather of Dahl’s antisemitism – “for all his denials, antisemitism did shape aspects of Roald’s thinking”, he concedes at the outset, and later regrets that “the shadow of antisemitism would generate opprobrium” – but the case for the prosecution is dutifully rehearsed. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason” is the phrase that especially stings.

Dennison makes the traditional argument for separating the art from the artist. He quotes the critic Kathryn Hughes arraigning Dahl for “grandiosity, dishonesty and spite”, and says that they “play no part in the writing that constitutes his continuing claim to our attention”. There, I wonder. As Matthew Dennison amply shows, Dahl’s work was intensely personal. Like many children’s writers, he wrote for and from his child self. And the spite? Well, when it comes to Dahl that’s the good stuff.

Sam Leith is literary editor of the Spectator. His most recent book is Write to the Point: How to be clear, correct and persuasive on the page2017

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