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The Art of Vengeance

The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.

Hurry, driver, hurry!”

Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.

Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”

In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.”

In the frequently anthologized tales “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “William and Mary,” kindred long-suffering wives of annoying husbands exact lethal if improbable revenge: in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a revenge tale of comic-book simplicity, a woman named Mary is told by her “senior policeman” husband that he intends to leave her; with a single swing of a frozen leg of lamb, she kills him; when his policeman-colleagues come to investigate, Mary roasts the lamb and serves it to the idiots who, eating, speculate on where the murder weapon might be:

Personally, I think it’s right here on the premises.”

Probably right under our very noses….”

And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

In the belabored fantasy “William and Mary,” another exasperated wife named Mary exacts a yet more ingenious revenge upon her husband, or upon his brain, which has been removed from his body following his “death” and kept alive by artificial means in a basin, at enormous expense. In a plot purloined from the popular science-fiction novel Donovan’s Brain (1943) by Curt Siodmak, the egotistical William Pearl, reduced to what resembles a “great gray pulpy walnut,” will be free to luxuriate in a purely intellectual realm, “able to reflect upon the ways of the world with a detachment and a serenity that no man had ever attained before”; linked to the outside world by a single, ghastly eye, the brain will even be able to peruse the London newspapers. But we know that William, or his brain, will not be treated with the wifely devotion he might have wished for, since Mary is perceived in broadly villainous strokes by a scientist-friend of her husband:

What a queer little woman this was, he thought, with her large eyes and her sullen, resentful air. Her features, which must have been quite pleasant once, had now gone completely. The mouth was slack, the cheeks loose and flabby, and the whole face gave the impression of having slowly but surely sagged to pieces through years and years of joyless married life.

Mary’s revenge too is one of comic-book simplicity: she will take her husband’s brain away with her, and blow smoke rings into the permanently opened eye: “I just can’t wait to get him home.”

This is the art, if “art” is the appropriate term, of caricature that prefers to jab, stab, slash its subjects instead of attempting to present them with any degree of complexity or sympathy. Grotesque descriptions of flat, cartoon characters are Dahl’s stock in trade, intended perhaps to be amusing but often merely peculiar, as in this thumbnail sketch of a mildly deranged gentleman named Mr. Botibol:

He resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus. His long narrow stalk did not appear to have any shoulders at all; it merely tapered upwards, growing gradually narrower and narrower until it came to a kind of point at the top of the small bald head. He was tightly encased in a shiny blue double-breasted suit, and this… accentuated the illusion of a vegetable to a preposterous degree.

Dahl’s females are particularly grotesque specimens, like Mrs. Ponsonby of “Nunc Dimittis” who is “so incredibly short and squat and stiff, [she looked as if] she had no legs at all above the knees,” has a “salmon mouth” and fingers “like a bunch of small white snakes wriggling in her lap.” The narrator of this sour little anecdote is an elderly bachelor—a “vicious, vengeful old man”—who takes revenge upon a woman friend for having gossiped about him by displaying a portrait of her part-naked, unattractive body to their mutual friends; that the poor woman wears a hefty brassiere (“an arrangement of black straps as skillfully and scientifically rigged as the supporting cables of a suspension bridge”) and is “bow-legged, like a jockey” is presented as particularly shocking. (The portrait painter of “Nunc Dimittis” would seem to have been modeled upon Gustav Klimt, known to have painted his female subjects nude before clothing them in their elaborate fin-de-siècle finery.) Most notably, there is the formidable president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, yet another, presumably unrelated Mrs. Ponsonby:

The door was opened by the most enormous female I had ever seen in my life. I have seen giant women in circuses. I have seen lady wrestlers and weight-lifters…. But never had I seen a female so tall and broad and thick as this one. Nor so thoroughly repugnant…. I was able to take most of it in—the metallic silver-blue hair with every strand glued into place, the brown pig-eyes, the long sharp nose sniffing for trouble, the curled lips, the prognathous jaw, the powder, the mascara, the scarlet lipstick and, most shattering of all, the massive shored-up bosom that projected like a balcony in front of her…. And there she stood, the pneumatic giant, swathed from neck to ankles in the stars and stripes of the American flag.

It must be that such misogynist female portraits are self-portraits of the misogynist’s malformed soul, since they draw forth such quivering, barely containable loathing.3

As Jonathan Swift is the most obsessively scatological of English satirists, so Roald Dahl is the most obsessively sexual, in stories as casually lewd as “The Great Switcheroo” (two men, wholly ordinary husbands and fathers, plot to “switch” wives in the night, without the silly wives’ knowing) or as doggedly protracted as “Bitch” (the womanizer Oswald Cornelius finances the development of a perfume with irresistible aphrodisiac powers, brand-name “Bitch”) in which the very man who is revolted by massive Mrs. Ponsonby ends up having sex with her in what, one assumes, Dahl means to be a comic scene:

…I was standing naked in a rosy room and there was a funny feeling in my groin. I looked down and saw that my beloved sexual organ was three feet long and thick to match. It was still growing. It was lengthening and swelling at a tremendous rate…. Bigger and bigger grew my astonishing organ, and it went on growing, by God, until it had enveloped my entire body and absorbed it within itself. I was now a gigantic perpendicular penis, seven feet tall and handsome as they come.

In the breezy “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” the unnamed narrator, presumably speaking for the author, informs us:

America is the land of opportunities for women. Already they own about eighty-five percent of the wealth of the nation. Soon they will have it all. Divorce has become a lucrative process…. Young men marry like mice, almost before they have reached the age of puberty, and a large proportion of them have at least two ex-wives on the payroll by the time they are thirty-six years old. To support these ladies in the manner to which they are accustomed, the men must work like slaves, which is of course precisely what they are.

Yet from time to time, a clever man can exact a merciless punishment upon a woman, even when, as in “The Last Act,” a woman who has been a devoted wife to her late husband at last dares to revive an old boyfriend’s interest in her, with cataclysmic results:

Then all of a sudden, Conrad put his tongue into one of her ears. The effect of this upon [Anna] was electric. It was as though a live two-hundred-volt plug had been pushed into an empty socket, and all the lights came on and the bones began to melt and the hot molten sap went running down into her limbs and she exploded into a frenzy…. She flung her arms around Conrad’s neck and started kissing him back with far more gusto than he had ever kissed her and although he looked at first as though he thought she was going to swallow him alive, he soon recovered his balance.

In this crude misogynist fable, which Jeremy Treglown in his introduction concedes that Dahl “would have done better to have scrapped,” the vengeful Conrad so humiliates Anna sexually that the poor woman is driven to commit suicide.

In the yet cruder misogynist fantasy “Georgy Porgy,” a priggish, sexually repressed minister is both repelled by and attracted to women:

Providing they remained at a safe distance, I could watch them for hours on end with the same peculiar fascination that you yourself might experience in watching a creature you couldn’t bear to touch—an octopus, for example, or a long poisonous snake.

Recoiling from his childhood experience with a cartoon monster-mother, George conducts improbable experiments with white rats, determining that the female of the rat species is more sexually rapacious than the male, even when death by electrocution is involved; it’s no surprise that he falls prey to a female parishioner with the ominous name Roach whose face is covered with a “pale carpet of fuzz” and whose enormous mouth, threatening a kiss, is “huge and wet and cavernous.” Soon, in a parody-paroxysm of female sexual desire, Miss Roach begins to “grunt and snort like a hog”; crying, “Don’t! Don’t, Mummy!,” George finds himself sucked into the woman’s mouth where, after a ludicrous struggle reminiscent of certain of the mock-heroic adventures of Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver among the giant Brobdingnagians, the virginal bachelor is swallowed: “I could feel the slow powerful pulsing of peristalsis dragging away at my ankles, pulling me down and down and down….”

Dahl’s punished figures are not exclusively sexual victims: in “Taste,” a nouveau riche wine connoisseur is insulted at his own dinner table by a “famous gourmet.” In “Pig,” as in a cautionary Grimm’s fairy tale for greedy children, a young man who cares too much for food is led off to be butchered with other pigs strung up by their ankles: “…taking Lexington gently by one ear with his left hand, [the slaughterer] raised his right hand and deftly slit open the boy’s jugular vein with a knife.”

Not all of Dahl’s stories end so grimly, and not all of Dahl’s satire is sadistic. The funniest story in the collection, and one in which no one gets killed or even humiliated, is “The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” an eerily prescient fable of 1952 in which an aspiring young writer invents a computer–printing press to churn out ingeniously formulaic books:

First, by depressing one of a series of master buttons, the writer made his primary decision: historical, satirical, philosophical, political, romantic, erotic, humorous, or straight. Then, from the second row (the basic buttons), he chose his theme: army life, pioneer days, civil war, world war, racial problem, wild west, country life, childhood memories…. The third row of buttons gave a choice of literary style: classical, whimsical, racy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, feminine, etc. The fourth row was for character, the fifth for wordage…ten long rows of pre-selector buttons.

Within a year, the machine has produced “at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language.”

Except for writers of major stature, in whose lesser work there may be some archival, extraliterary, or morbid interest, the indiscriminate all-inclusiveness of a “collected stories” is not a good idea. What a dispiriting sight, a table of contents listing forty-eight short stories with no divisions into books and dates, as the author himself had intended! (No short-story writer, like no poet, would simply toss a chronological arrangement of his work into a form so lacking in interior structure: individual collections of short stories and poems have beginnings, middles, and ends that have been judiciously pondered.)

Though the advantage of a purely chronological arrangement of work is that the reader may perceive the development of a writer’s style, his growth, and the prevailing themes that make his work distinctive, the disadvantage is that the reader may perceive the deterioration of the writer’s style, his decline, and his reliance upon predictable themes. Of these forty-eight stories, scarcely more than one third seem truly notable, and these come relatively early in Dahl’s lengthy, forty-five-year career. The volume trails away in affable narrated anecdotal sketches as if Dahl had lost interest in the craft of storytelling, as he seems to have lost the sting of vengefulness. The last four or five stories might have been printed out by the Great Automatic Grammatizator or by “Georgy Porgy,” who, after his nervous breakdown, seems to have become a writer-satirist whose final object of satire is writing itself:

…I find that writing is a most salutary occupation at a time like this, and I spend many hours each day playing with sentences. I regard each sentence as a little wheel, and my ambition lately has been to gather several hundred of them together at once and to fit them all end to end, with the cogs interlocking, like gears, but each wheel a different size, each turning at a different speed. Now and again I try to put a really big one right next to a very small one in such a way that the big one, turning slowly, will make the small one spin so fast that it hums. Very tricky, that.

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    Roald Dahl’s tales for children are affably narrated and are given a benign, not-very-distinctive comic-strip aura by the inoffensive illustrations by Quentin Blake, but demonic females figure prominently in such popular books as Matilda and The Witches, infusing the fantasy adventures with an air of sexual dread and revulsion. In Matilda, the young genius-heroine is persecuted by the demonic, deranged, and very ugly headmistress of her school, The Trunchbull:

    [Miss Trunchbull] was above all a most formidable female. She had once been a famous athlete, and even now the muscles were still clearly in evidence. You could see them in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, in the sinewy wrists and in the powerful legs…. Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy for ever. She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes…. She looked, in short, more like a rather eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-hounds than the head-mistress of a nice school for children.

    When she marched—Miss Trunchbull never walked, she always marched like a storm-trooper with long strides and arms aswinging—when she marched along a corridor you could actually hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her to left and right.

    (Canny Matilda defeats this monster through her superior mental powers, utterly.)

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