By Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster, 2010
As anyone who has read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could guess, Roald Dahl loved chocolate. So much so that he suggested teaching British kids the years when Mars bars and KitKats were invented, rather than the reigns of kings and queens. This detail from Donald Sturrock’s strapping new biography dovetails with the slot Dahl occupied when he wrote for adults: specialist in the story as dessert.
Arthur Conan Doyle was another master of this approach. The object is not to sound the depths of profundity—as, say, Thomas Mann does in his story “Disorder and Early Sorrow”—but to provide intelligent, high-class entertainment. Like the Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand, most of Dahl’s short fiction first appeared in mass-circulation magazines: The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Playboy, and others. In Dahl’s case, they were not tales of detection but of escape; of revenge (one is titled “Vengeance is Mine Inc.”); of the battle of the sexes; and, above all, of game-playing, betting, cheating, scamming, and poaching. In a glum putdown of his Collected Stories a few years back, Joyce Carol Oates harped on the macabre and cruel elements in Dahl’s fiction. What she overlooked is how artfully light many of them are, how infused with larcenous joie de vivre. (My own review of the stories for The Washington Post, on October 29, 2006, was much more positive.)
He was born in Wales to Norwegian immigrants who named him after the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. (The “d” in Roald is silent; the name is pronounced “Roo-al.”) Dahl’s father, a ship-broker, died when the boy was 3, leaving the family well-off but his widow with tied hands: her expenditures had to be approved by male relatives, who tended to be unavailable and imperious. In this atmosphere of precarious comfort, Roald’s mother came into her own as a storyteller, transmitting the fanciful legacy of Scandinavian folk tales to her enthralled children (Roald had an older half-brother and a gaggle of sisters). Roald was packed off to his first boarding school at age 9; a few years later he moved on to Repton, a public school (which is to say, a private prep school in American terms) that Sturrock describes as a “dour place.” Upperclassmen were allowed to make slaves, or “fags,” of lower ones, and to get an idea of how disheartening this practice could be, read Dahl’s story “Galloping Foxley.” While at Repton, Dahl crossed paths with another writer-to-be, Denton Welch, who grew up to be a pioneer of gay-themed fiction.
Never much impressed by authority, Dahl repeatedly broke the school’s rules but made it to graduation, after which he went to work for Shell Oil. The Dahls had relocated to the London suburbs, and for the next four years Roald commuted to the city and toiled away as a common office worker. In his reminiscences, he had little to say about this period, other than that he used his free time to read novels and bet on dog races. “It was the beginning of a love affair with betting that would last to the end of his life,” Sturrock observes. He might have gone on to mention some of Dahl’s stories that center on betting or cheating at games, including “Mr. Feasey,” in which a pair of rascally owners furtively replace their plodding pooch with a fast-as-the-wind lookalike in hopes of making a killing in the big race; “My Lady Love, My Dove,” in which a snooping couple discovers that their bridge opponents keep winning thanks to a complex code of words and finger positions in the holding of their cards; and “Taste,” “Man from the South,” and “A Dip in the Pool,” in which gamblers show astonishing recklessness in what they’re willing to risk.
World War II brought this suburban idyll to an end. After training as a pilot for the Royal Air Force, Dahl flew several missions, in one of which he shot down a German plane, killing its pilot. Before that, however, Dahl had gone through the ordeal that overshadowed the rest of his life. Assigned to ferry a plane by himself to a site in the North African desert, he was running out of gas as darkness fell. With his destination nowhere in sight, he landed as best he could, but the plane’s nose slammed into the ground: “He was thrown violently forward against the front of the canopy,” Sturrock writes. “His nose was driven back into his face, his skull was fractured, and he was knocked unconscious.” He recovered enough to fly again, but ever after he was subject to terrible headaches, and his heavy drinking helped dull the pain.
After leaving the military, he served England as a combined diplomat and spy, posted to Washington, D.C., where he ingratiated himself with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and did well at his main assignment: bolstering U.S. combativeness in the war against Hitler and counteracting any tendencies to fall back into isolationism. He also started writing in earnest, notably the short stories—many of them based on his military experiences—that composed his first collection, Over to You.
In old age, Dahl said he preferred highly imaginative writing over factual stuff, and starting in the late 1940s his stories became less autobiographical and more fable-like. As he sold them to magazines for sizable fees and gathered them in collections—Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss, Switch Bitch—that surprised his publishers by becoming bestsellers, he waved what Canadian novelist Robertson Davies called “the sorcerer’s wand”: the ability to hold a reader enrapt, to evoke a nerve-thrumming sense of anticipation. Perhaps even rarer was Dahl’s knack for finding the perfect exit route out of a tale. At his best he could write stories that have the same quality as the best popular songs: everything about them is so right and memorable that it’s odd to think they weren’t tossed off by a wizened old man on a mountaintop as opposed to being labored over by a writer with a pad, pencil, and rolled-up sleeves. Anyone who has read much Dahl will be able to recall the central feature of a favorite classic by him, whether it be the savory murder in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” the drugged pheasants whose awakening spoils a grand episode of poaching in “The Champion of the World,” or the overheard agony of snipped plants in “The Sound Machine.”
True, Dahl had a mean streak, but it rarely ruins a story. Oates convicts him of misogyny for subjecting a woman in “Nunc Dimittis” to humiliating punishment by a nasty male—without bothering to note that in the end she strikes back and gets the better of her persecutor. Admittedly, “The Last Act,” which Oates also reviles, is a cruel performance that Dahl would have been better off not publishing, but overall the comeuppances in his stories are meted out about equally between men and women.
While living in New York City after the war, Dahl met a movie star, Patricia Neal. They married in 1953, not for the best of reasons. He seemed to have felt it was time for him to settle down, and she was trying to get over the wrenching end to an affair with former co-star Gary Cooper.
The marriage was marred by a series of catastrophes, including the death of a daughter from encephalitis; a collision between a car and the baby carriage containing their son, who suffered grave head injuries; and a stroke that almost killed Neal. Dahl’s drill-sergeant approach probably helped Neal recover faster and more fully, but the marriage deteriorated in the 1960s and ’70s. By then Dahl had fallen in love with a younger woman, Felicity (Liccy) Crosland—the first time, in Sturrock’s opinion, that he’d ever lost his heart to anyone. Ultimately, he and Neal divorced so that Dahl could marry Liccy, who became an ideal spouse for the mercurial author. His last years, when he wrote almost exclusively for children, were his most productive and lucrative period, and Sturrock gives much of the credit to Liccy.
Despite the “authorized” tag in his subtitle, Sturrock never lets Dahl off easily. He could be a pain in the ass. He sometimes tyrannized his children and liked to be in charge of social occasions, acting as master of the revels even when he was in somebody else’s house. Some of the willfulness was pardonable, at least some of the time—those headaches were compounded by many other pains, including back trouble and cancer of the bowel. Otherwise, he could be marvelous company, especially when his sense of mischief was engaged.
Sturrock gives a melancholy account of the dwindling of one of Dahl’s powers: by the 1960s, he’d just about run out of ideas for the macabre, twist-ending stories that had been sought after by readers of The New Yorker and Playboy and, on television, by viewers of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Happily, Dahl reinvented himself as a children’s author. At first, he tried the kids’ market for lack of other options—and out of a need to produce something, anything, that might bring in money. With success, however, came a more willing embrace of his newfound metier; he prided himself—justifiably—on his uncanny ability to somersault back into a child’s sensibility. His kids’ books contain earthy and malicious passages that gave many a librarian the vapors, but the young readers themselves loved these bits, as well as the books in toto. Dahl was one of the first kids’ writers to intuit that the intended audience doesn’t like to be coddled, that getting acquainted with grossness is part of growing up.
Altogether Sturrock offers a rounder, fuller portrait of Dahl than the one in an earlier biography by Jeremy Treglown. But Sturrock’s careless writing does not hold up well against Dahl’s own precise fluidity. Sturrock is a bit of a Mrs. Malaprop, repeatedly using “prevaricated,” for example, when he means “procrastinated.” And he’s a great one for dangling modifiers, as in this sentence about Dahl’s elderly mother’s new television set: “Mounted in a grand wood veneer cabinet, her grandchildren clamored to come over and watch it.” (I must admit, however, that there’s something suitably Dahlian in the image of those kids clamoring from inside a cabinet.)
For all his success (in addition to his fiction, he wrote screenplays for such films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and You Only Live Twice), Dahl suffered from two common authorial maladies: novelist-envy and kids-writer inferiority complex. (His two novels for adults are only so-so.) But he reveled in identifying with those who succeed in life not by hewing to the rules, but by cutting corners, scheming, even betting life and limb. He was that way himself, choosing not to attend university and keeping at his writing even during rough patches when it brought him little income. Like so many characters in his stories, he was an inveterate gambler. His biggest wager, though, was not on dogs or horses but on his own talent. It paid off handsomely, not only for him but also for the legions of adults and children who still read his books, indifferent to whether or not they are edifying because they’re so wickedly engrossing.
Dennis Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World at The Washington Post and the author of Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).