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The Art of Vengeance

Collected Stories

by Roald Dahl, with an introduction by Jeremy Treglown
Everyman’s Library, 848 pp., $30.00

1.

Born in Llandaff, Wales, of well-to-do Norwegian parents, educated in England, and a pilot with the Royal Air Force for part of the Second World War, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is the author of numerous books for children1 and a relatively small but distinct body of prose fiction for adults: Over to You (1946), Someone Like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960), Selected Stories (1970), Switch Bitch (1974), and Eight Short Stories (1987). The Collected Stories, with an excellent introduction by Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown, is a gathering of forty-eight stories of considerable diversity, ambition, and quality, with settings ranging from Kenya to rural England, London, and New York City and narrative styles ranging from the realistic to the fabulist and surreal.

Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.

Though in his fiction for adults as in his books for children Dahl exhibits the flair of a natural storyteller, for whom no bizarre leap of the imagination is unlikely, he seems to have begun writing, at the urging of C.S. Forester, as a consequence of his wartime experiences in the RAF, which included crash-landing in the African desert and participating in highly dangerous air battles during the German invasion of Greece. Such early stories as “An African Story,” “Only This,” “Someone Like You,” and “Death of an Old Old Man” draw memorably on these experiences and suggest that if Dahl had not concentrated on the short-story form and more or less abandoned realism for the showy detonations of plot made popular in his youth by Saki and O. Henry, he might have developed into a very different sort of writer altogether.

The first story in this volume, “An African Story,” is a tale of primitive revenge recounted in the most laconic of voices, as chilling as any of Paul Bowles’s parable-like tales of North Africa: an adventurous young RAF pilot develops engine trouble while flying solo above the Kenyan Highlands, makes a forced landing, and finds himself on a desert plain where he is given aid by an elderly farmer who tells him an unnerving story, or confession, “so strange that the pilot wrote it down on paper as soon as he got back to Nairobi…not in the old man’s words, but in his own words,” to be discovered by others in his squadron after his death. The anonymous narrator of “An African Story,” speaking of his dead colleague, might be speaking as aptly of the young Roald Dahl himself:

He had never written a story before, and so naturally there were mistakes. He did not know any of the tricks with words which writers use, which they have to use just as painters have to use tricks with paint, but when he had finished writing…he left behind him a rare and powerful tale.

Death of an Old Old Man” is a mesmerizing account of the final, excruciatingly protracted minutes of a fighter pilot whose plane has been struck by a German Focke-Wulf, forcing him to parachute out, and down, to his death in a muddy pond: “I won’t struggle, he thought. There is no point in struggling, for when there is a black cloud in the sky it is bound to rain.” In “Someone Like You,” a spare, minimalist story in a heavily ironic Hemingway vein, two former RAF bomber pilots are getting companionably drunk together not long after the end of the war, reminiscing about “jinking” on their bombing missions:

It would just be a gentle pressure with the ball of my foot upon the rudder-bar; a pressure so slight that I would hardly know that I was doing it, and it would throw the bombs on to a different house and onto different people. It is all up to me, the whole thing is up to me, and each time that I go out I have to decide which ones shall be killed….”

I jinked once,” I said, “ground-strafing. I thought I’d kill the ones on the other side of the road instead.”

Everybody jinks,” he said. “Shall we have another drink?”

In “The Soldier,” a story of 1948, a former soldier’s growing psychotic paranoia is signaled by a pathological growing numbness in his body: by degrees he is losing his capacity to feel sensation, even pain. Suffering from a kind of delayed shell shock—with which his wife is inexplicably unsympathetic—he becomes susceptible to hallucinations and sudden outbursts of rage:

He moved his hand over to the left—and the moment the fingers touched the knob, something small but violent exploded inside his head and with it a surge of fury and outrage and fear. He opened the door, shut it quickly behind him and shouted: “Edna, are you there?”

Like numerous other calculating females in Dahl’s stories, canny Edna saves her life by dissociating herself from her troubled husband, who seems headed for a mental asylum at the story’s end, like the similarly over-sensitive male protagonist of “The Sound Machine,” an amateur scientist named Klausner who has invented an ingenious machine that will be his undoing:

There is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear: It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made…so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it…. This machine…is designed to pick up sound vibrations that are too high-pitched for reception by the human ear, and to convert them to a scale of audible tones, I tune it in, almost like a radio.

Since Klausner is “a frail, nervous, twitchy little man, a moth of a man, dreamy and distracted,” we are not surprised when the sound machine picks up the “frightful, throatless shrieks” of roses being cut in the garden next door, and the terrible shriek of a tree into which an ax has been driven: “enormous and frightful and…it had made him feel sick with horror.” Klausner too is led away: the inevitable fate for a person who hasn’t inured himself to the horrors of even ordinary life, like “normal” people.

One of Dahl’s most gripping stories is the very brief “The Wish,” in which a highly sensitive, imaginative, and lonely child fantasizes lurid dangers in the design of a carpet in his home—“The red parts…are red-hot lumps of coal…the black parts are snakes, poisonous snakes”—which he has no choice but to walk on, with nightmare results as an initially playful notion blossoms into what appears to be a full-blown psychosis, or worse. Subtly rendered, poignantly convincing, “The Wish” is reminiscent of Conrad Aiken’s classic tale of encroaching childhood madness, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” A kindred tale of growing adult paranoia originating in childhood trauma is “Galloping Foxley,” in which a London commuter in his early sixties begins to imagine that a fellow passenger on his train is an old prefect from his boarding school—“A ‘boazer’ we called it”—now in his sixties; as a boy, this Foxley had been a brutal sadist allowed by school tradition to beat any of the “fags” in his residence:

Anyone who has been properly beaten will tell you that the real pain does not come until about eight or ten seconds after the stroke [with a cane]. The stroke itself is merely a loud crack and a sort of blunt thud against your backside, numbing you completely (I’m told a bullet wound does the same). But later on…it feels as if someone is laying a red hot poker right across your naked buttocks and it is absolutely impossible for you to prevent yourself from reaching back and clutching it with your fingers.

Rare among Dahl’s stories, “Galloping Foxley” ends upon an unexpectedly muted, unmelodramatic note.2

In the aptly titled “Poison,” one of Dahl’s most brilliantly realized stories, an Englishman living in Bengal, India, is held thrall in his bed by what he believes to be a krait (a highly poisonous snake common to the region) coiled and sleeping on his stomach, beneath a sheet. The terrified man, unable to move for fear of waking the snake, is aided by a fellow Englishman, the narrator of the story, and by a local Indian doctor who behaves heroically only to be viciously insulted when the ordeal is over by the racist Englishman he’d helped: “You dirty little Hindu sewer rat!” This story, for most of its length an excruciating tale of suspense, exudes the air of a fable even as it must have made for painful reading at the time of its first publication, in the popular American magazine Collier’s.

2.

After these admirable early stories, in which Roald Dahl would seem to have invested much of his own intimate experience, he moves decisively away from prose fiction of an intensely inward, sympathetic kind: intimacy is rejected for distance, sympathy for an Olympian detachment, as if the writer were determined not to succumb to the dangers of oversensitivity like his victim-characters, but to identify with their punitive and sadistic tormenters, like the prefect bully Foxley who goes unpunished for his cruelty. In Someone Like You, and in successive collections of stories, Dahl casts a very cold eye upon the objects of his satire, who are divided about equally—to paraphrase that most savage of English satirists, Jonathan Swift—between “fools and knaves.” Jeremy Treglown speaks of Dahl’s admiration for Ian Fleming and of Dahl’s increasing focus upon situation to the exclusion of character:

Critics have often commented on how pared-down Dahl’s narrative style at its best can be, and it’s interesting how much else he does without. Setting, climate, architecture, food, dress, voice—all are sketched briefly, and with the most familiar, even clichéd strokes, as if to clear the way for what really matters.

As Dahl’s books for children are often fueled by fantasies of tricks, pranks, and revenge in various guises, so what “really matters” in his mature work is punishment: “Vengeance Is Mine, Inc.,” a slapdash anecdotal tale ostensibly set in New York City, might well be the title for Dahl’s collected stories. Like his younger contemporaries Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith, Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:

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    Among Roald Dahl’s most popular children’s books are James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The BFG (“Big Friendly Giant”) (1982), and Matilda (1988); of particular interest to adult readers of Roald Dahl are Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (1977), which contains the autobiographical essay “Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer.” In his memoirist pieces for young readers, Dahl speaks with an engaging directness and honesty which suggests that his most comfortable mode of writing was in fact for young readers whose natural curiosity, lack of cynicism, and inexperience he could assume. Dahl’s success as a writer of children’s books far surpassed his success as a writer of prose fiction for adults and, according to Jeremy Treglown, “part of [Dahl] always resented that he had become best known as the author of what are known in American publishing as ‘juveniles.’”

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    In Boy: Tales of Childhood and in “Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer” Dahl writes in detail of having been the object of sadistic beatings at the Repton School. He writes of having been caned by a boazer, a school athlete whose very strokes in the flesh of a boy’s buttocks were perversely admired. The sado-homoerotic undercurrent of Dahl’s public school boyhood gives to these memories an aura of romantic nostalgia:

    A ritual took place in the dormitory after each beating. The victim was required to stand in the middle of the room and lower his pyjama trousers so that the damage could be inspected. Half a dozen experts would crowd around you and express their opinions in highly professional language.

    What a super job.”

    He’s got every single one in the same place!”

    …Once, I was still standing in the middle of the dormitory with my pyjama trousers around my knees when [the boazer] came through the door…. “Pull those pyjamas up and get into bed immediately!” he ordered, but I noticed that as he turned away to go out of the door, he craned his head ever so slightly to one side to catch a glimpse of my bare bottom and his own handiwork. I was certain I detected a little glimmer of pride around the edge of his mouth before he closed the door behind him.

    There is no male-female love scene in Roald Dahl’s fiction for adults so exquisitely honed and so tender as this.

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