At the Heart of the Onion

Roald Dahl: A Biography

by Jeremy Treglown
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 322 pp., $25.00

Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl; drawing by David Levine

Most of the stories Roald Dahl wrote for adults are built on tricks and surprise twists, usually nasty ones. A scientific genius who has bullied his wife finds a way of keeping his own brain and one eye alive after the rest of him has died: at the end of the story the wife is preparing to take brain and eye home and have her revenge. The secret wife swapper who arranges a bed trick with his neighbor one Saturday night finds his own wife purring and ecstatic on Sunday morning as she has never been after his love-making. A Don Juan of the twentieth century thinks he has seduced the beautiful wife of an Arab millionaire who has invited him to stay, only to find he has been tricked into spending the night with his leprosy-struck daughter. In real life too, Dahl liked to play tricks, serving disgusting cheap wine from bottles bearing old, expensive labels in order to study the reactions of his polite dinner guests—really to make fools of them, of course.

Such a connoisseur of humiliation might see the joke of falling into the hands of a biographer who gives the impression of telling much of his life story through gritted teeth. Jeremy Treglown embarked on his project enthusiastically enough: Dahl was not only one of the most successful children’s writers of the century, he was also someone who encouraged “his own, often controversial public myth,” effectively setting just the sort of challenge biographers enjoy. Even when Treglown found the family unwilling to authorize his project—one of Dahl’s daughters intends to write a Life—he was not put off, appreciating that there are advantages in being free from the shackles of family approval. What seems to have happened next is that, as he researched and interviewed, he found himself increasingly appalled.

He does his best to be respectful of Dahl, and shows sympathy where it is called for, but the overwhelming impression of the book is one of distaste. Dahl’s own taste, his character, and his behavior are all found seriously wanting. He is shown as a liar, a plagiarist, and a bully; as dependent on editors whose help he failed to acknowledge; as rude, disloyal, and conceited: as a snob and a name dropper, and as using the personal tragedies that afflicted him to promote his books. This is leaving aside his anti-Semitism and his hostility toward Salman Rushdie. After Rushdie was condemned to death by the fundamentalist Islamic fatwa and driven into hiding, Dahl wrote to The Times accusing his fellow author of being “a dangerous opportunist,” and claimed that he was responsible for his own fate because he had sought notoriety in order to increase his sales. He should have censored himself, wrote Dahl. It was a ludicrous attack. Dahl was not mounting an argument so much as asserting a prejudice. Treglown thinks there was personal…

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