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At the Heart of the Onion

Roald Dahl: A Biography

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

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 animosity against Rushdie, whom he had met and disliked, as well as jealousy of his literary standing. Rushdie had won the Booker Prize, and received generally respectful reviews. Dahl made a speech later saying the Booker judges picked boring books, and that the truly great writers were not the ones the critics acclaimed but the ones whose books sold. He found it galling to see Rushdie sell in the millions as well as get so much praise from the serious critics who slighted his own adult fiction.

Treglown suggests, in what is the crucial formulation of the book, that Dahl should be thought of “less as a writer than as a capricious tycoon.” He shows how he was driven by the need to make money and to succeed, always measuring success by business standards. In fact he approached literature as a business, locating his market and then pursuing it with enormous energy; and he treated publishers and editors as dispensable middle management. It made some of them hate him, but he could afford to be hated when his books were bringing in millions—and the love of millions of child readers all over the world—year after year. You can see Dahl’s point where certain publishing bosses were concerned, but not in the case of an editor like Stephen Roxburgh, who did an enormous amount to improve Dahl’s books—it is all documented—and was cast aside with chilling ingratitude.

The most sympathetic aspect of Dahl is the one that has nothing to do with literature. It is the way in which he faced the series of personal tragedies that hit his family, fighting their effects with the same energy and determination he put into earning money. “I want my children to be brave,” he said once, and he never lacked physical courage himself. When his first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, was struck down by a massive stroke in her thirties, it was he who forced her back to normal speech and movement, buying the best help, earning the money to pay for it, organizing her treatment. It took time, and a lot of money, but above all the huge Dahl will power; and he succeeded. In a crisis there is no doubt that he was the man to have around, his brilliant practical intelligence and absolute insistence on having his way bringing results that no one could have expected. When his infant son’s baby carriage was run into and the boy was severely injured and brain damaged, Dahl not only masterminded his treatment, he helped to invent a valve to deal with the effects of hydrocephalus; and the Wade-Dahl-Till valve was used, for some years, by thousands of other afflicted children. This is the heroic Dahl, who loved family life and children with passion, and had to endure not only the permanent damage to his son but also the death of his eldest daughter from measles at the age of seven.

Dahl had a strong sense of allegiance to the memory of his father, who had also lost an adored daughter, and then died himself when Roald was only three. Harald Dahl was a Norwegian from a modest family who settled in the Welsh port of Cardiff as a shipbroker, and quickly made a fortune; his first wife died young, his second, Sofie, came from Norway to take over the family. Roald, born in 1916, was her only son among several sisters. Sofie Dahl was a woman of powerful personality who never remarried and did not think of returning to Norway, but lived out nearly half a century in England as a widow and closely attached mother. The whole family was strongly bound together, and always comfortably off; there were tennis and golf and, as Roald grew up, gin and betting on the horses, while the girls played Beethoven and read much more than their restless brother.

Roald was sent to Repton, an English public school, as his father had wished. Probably Dahl senior felt an outsider’s reverence for the English social and educational system without any awareness of horrors lurking in boys’ boarding schools, the torture of new boys, the fagging system which institutionalized the infliction of cruelty by large on small, the beatings and sexual squalor. Dahl suffered and was lonely, though he was apparently as capable of bullying weaker boys as anyone else; he did not do well academically, but excelled at games, driven by his fiercely competitive spirit and helped by his height—in his last year he reached six foot six. And he worked out his own escape routes from the oppression of school, taking up photography and retreating to the darkroom he set up, acquiring a motorbike. Within the school he felt he was never given his due: he was not, for instance, made a prefect, which would have allowed him to exercise the authority he resented in others.

All his life Dahl liked to see himself as socially subversive, while at the same time he yearned for public recognition. Treglown shows that he was not above allowing slight adjustments to his war record, for instance, although it was gallant enough not to need such treatment. He wanted a knighthood and he cared about knowing famous people and winning awards, and in spite of his success resented the fact that the British literary establishment did not find his work interesting. The jacket of this biography quotes praise from Erica Jong, Noël Coward, The New York Times, and Malcolm Bradbury, but it is clear that Treglown, although he praises some of the children’s books, has very moderate enthusiasm for Dahl’s writing for adults. He is surely right: Dahl’s view of human nature is paper thin and crude at the same time, and his knowingness is that of an adolescent who prides himself on his sophistication about nymphomaniacs and expensive cars and greed and sex.

Treglown is a literary scholar and not a biographical shark. He is notably gentle toward Dahl over the breakup of his marriage and the many problems of his children. He gives him credit for being practical, brave, resourceful, and clever, and for his undoubted affinity with children. He does not line up with feminist critics who attacked Dahl for inciting hatred of women, although he accepts that some of their charges have a basis—and his account of the way in which “prim, stupid and snobbish” British publishers (Dahl’s words) turned down Charlie and the Chocolate Factory one after another makes you sympathize with Dahl’s exasperation with all publishers.

But Treglown also cites Eleanor Cameron’s 1972 attack on Charlie approvingly and considers her the winner of the subsequent exchange with Dahl; Cameron’s view was that Dahl’s children’s books gave instant satisfaction, like television or junk food, but were cheap, tasteless, sadistic, ugly, and harmful. Goodness in fiction, she insisted, was bound up with “the goodness of the writer himself, his worth as a human being.” The point is highly disputable and whatever Dahl’s stature as a man, there is something worrying about such a determined dismissal of books so many children love so much. Perhaps the real objection of critics like Cameron—and there are many more among British schoolteachers—is that Dahl assumes readers who cannot take on anything beyond the simplest binary view of the universe. With him, things and people are either wholly good or bad, either delicious or disgusting; and the stories are often simplistic and violent. Matilda is a particularly crude and unpleasant example, which I would not willingly read aloud to any child myself.

At their best, though, the books are funny and ingenious too. Young children do see things in black and white, and Dahl uses the same devices as many children’s writers: the small, illused, misunderstood child (or animal) up against the sadistic, overbearing parent, teacher, relative, or other enemy. There is magic, there are pills that go wrong, size changes, funny language and verse; food is a constant preoccupation and source of humor, and the Big Friendly Giant makes a great joke of farting, too. Farting in the presence of the Queen of England is an old joke, but Dahl carries it off very well, and you can see why children respond to all this, and to the sheer brio of Dahl’s narrative. Willy Wonka is an exciting character, and the Big Friendly Giant is another. And when Dahl makes himself into the hero in Boy and Going Solo, he also writes effectively; romanticized autobiography suits him. On the whole, I believe children can be trusted to take and enjoy what they want from his work, as from Hans Andersen, Enid Blyton, or Walt Disney: the risk of catching moral measles is not great.

Dahl was nettled by Cameron’s strictures but, according to Treglown, managed to produce only a superficial reply that “depended on personalia.” Authors are never at their best defending their own reputations, and Dahl might have done better to ignore attacks and know that his popularity made him invulnerable. Treglown ends his discussion of this episode with the remark that “from now on, Dahl was often to find his books read… with a critical thoroughness he wasn’t used to and didn’t always care for.” It is not a sympathetic formulation. If you go through the book marking the pages on which a lack of enthusiasm for Dahl, both the man and the writer, is manifest, you end up with a great many marks; and for all Treglown’s efforts to finish on a kindly note; the best thing he can say at the end is that his subject resembled a large, toughskinned, many-layered onion.

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