Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: STORYTELLER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF ROALD DAHL by Donald Sturrock (Simon and Schuster, 2010)

It came as no surprise to me that Roald Dahl, as described by first-time biographer Sturrock, comes across as a "difficult" character.  Charming, generous, and convivial the great children's author could be, but also manipulative, cruel, and obstinate.  Sturrock is eminently fair in presenting both sides of the story, but I think that it is appropriate that he lingers a bit in describing how Dahl first whipped his first wife Patricia Neal into shape following the actress' debilitating 1965 stroke, then gradually pulled away from her in favor of another woman, finally divorcing her.  No incident in Dahl's life more vividly demonstrates the split personality of this complicated, frequently infuriating man.

The misanthropic bent of Dahl's stories for children and adults -- a tincture that also noticeably colors CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1964), his best-loved novel -- appears to have had many sources.  Along with the classic "bad time at a boarding school" (Repton, in his case), Dahl suffered a near-fatal plane crash as a young RAF pilot.  In keeping with his tendency to embellish the truth of events in his life, Dahl's smash-up, which was entirely due to "pilot error," was gradually transubstantiated into the tale of an heroic lost dogfight with enemy planes.  Dahl's opinion of human nature can't have been elevated by his subsequent service as an air attache and espionage agent in the United States, which gave him opportunities to both hobnob with the powerful (FDR, then Vice-President Henry Wallace) and bed-hop with willing older females.  How firmly established Dahl's jaundiced view of life had become by the end of the war is symbolized by the fate of The Gremlins, the little plane-sabotaging critters that represented his highest pre-CHARLIE flight of whimsical fancy.  Having seen the public take to the Gremlin idea and "wring it out" with remarkable speed -- so much so that Walt Disney's plans for a movie based on the creatures were ultimately shelved -- Dahl subsequently used The Gremlins as the dark-hearted, opportunistic inheritors of a world decimated by atomic war in his first, unsuccessful novel, SOME TIME NEVER (1948).  This novel was actually the first novel ever published about the aftermath of such a war; the mere fact that Dahl latched onto the idea gives us some idea of his mental state at the conclusion of World War II.  Dahl's ability to harness his "dark side" and use it to give his later, more whimsical children's tales that "cruel edge" that disturbed parents and professional do-gooders, but seemed to attract and intrigue children themselves, stands as arguably his most noteworthy contribution to children's literature.

The biography only really bogs down when Sturrock gets enmeshed in discussions of Dahl's frequent rows and disagreements with his American and English publishers.  Strangely, while Dahl felt loyal to certain individuals in the publishing business, his view of the business itself, like that of most manifestations of official authority, was extremely jaundiced.  Dahl's view of himself as the perpetual "naughty schoolboy" and rule-breaker makes it all the more surprising that, in the 1980's (his most productive decade insofar as children's novels went), he emerged as a fan of Margaret Thatcher.  Perhaps he sensed that Ms. Thatcher was, like him, something of an outsider, never really accepted by the British establishment?

My own impression of Dahl is that he was the type of man that you'd love to invite to a dinner party but wouldn't necessarily want to linger after the dishes had been cleared.  Whatever your previous impression of this significant children's author may be, you're bound to learn a number of new things about him in this well-written, well-researched biography.

4 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Anything about his vaunted anti-Semitism?

When I was in, I dunno, first or second grade, in the mid-eighties, our teacher read us James and the Giant Peach, and then got us to write letters and draw what I guess you'd call fan art to send him. And he (or at least some sort of secretary--hard to say) actually sent back a response. That was nice.

Chris Barat said...

Geo,

Several Dahl quotes mentioned Jews, but I don't regard any of them as being EGREGIOUSLY anti-Semitic.

Apparently, Dahl was very responsive to fan mail, so it is entirely possible that he wrote back to you himself.

Chris

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris,

When I was in third through fourth grade, Dahl was decidedly my favorite author, and I still look back very fondly on the experience of reading his books during that phase of my childhood. I'd never known you to mention him, so I was surprised to see this review (which is well-written, as always). I wasn't able to gleam from it -- are you familiar with any of Dahl's writing, or did you just find him an interesting biographical subject?

-- Ryan

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

This was a "library pick-up" -- I saw the bio in the "new books" section and thought it looked interesting. I knew Dahl from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and his script for YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, plus, of course, I knew of his work on GREMLINS and the titles of several of his other works.

Chris