‘Of the children who people his novels, none possesses two loving parents and material security, or enjoys unchallenged the freewheeling joys of country life that always delighted Roald,” writes Matthew Dennison in his poised life of Roald Dahl. He knew tragedy young, which is why, as Dennison says, “his fiction... has convinced generations of child readers that, in a world of adult menace, the author is on their side”. It was a gift bitterly bought.
When he was three, his sister Astri, seven, died. His father Harald followed a few weeks later. This father — a wealthy, cultured Norwegian who made his home in south Wales — left a strange legacy: orders that his “dauntless, practical and fearless” wife Sofie Magdalene raise his four surviving children — Roald was the only son — in Britain. It’s a curious edict, laying isolation — Sofie Magdalene’s family were in Norway — upon trauma. “Personal experience,” writes Dennison, “beginning with the unremembered traumas of his father and sister’s deaths, would convince Roald of the ubiquity of caprice in human lives.”
Harald’s wife obeyed him, and sent Dahl to a series of gruesome and violent schools. His schooldays are well-documented: he wrote a memoir about them, Boy. Here he met the monsters that would populate his fiction. He was withdrawn from the first school after a beating; the second was run by a “monster, beastly [and] cane-happy. We were caned for doing everything that it was natural for small boys to do”.
Dahl survived by learning “the link between cruelty and laughter” and by creating a sophisticated persona for himself: the young master of the house, adored by his sisters. In his letters home, according to Dennison, he, “construct[ed] a part-fictionalised version of himself intended to reassure his mother and, in a pose of indomitability to which he would resort lifelong, bolster himself”.
He didn’t go to university: he had had enough of institutions. Instead, he worked for Shell in what is now Tanzania. When World War II started, he went to Nairobi and joined the RAF. In 1940, he crashed in the Egyptian desert but freed himself before the plane blew up. He was temporarily blinded, and a fellow airman saved him. He denied this later, Dennison says, “to exonerate himself, a denial of vulnerability”.
He went to Washington as an air attaché at the British Embassy, spied, moved in gilded circles — he met the Roosevelts — and had affairs with wealthy women he appeared to despise. “Screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights,” he wrote of one. He also met CS Forester, author of The African Queen, who wanted to interview him about his experiences in Africa. Instead, Dahl wrote about it himself — in Shot Down Over Libya (1942). America feted him. Walt Disney wanted to turn his story Gremlin Lore — a tale of gremlins destroying planes — into an animated film. Dahl was so obstructive, Disney gave up.
Instead, he returned to Sofie Magdalene’s house in Buckinghamshire and wrote sullen, misanthropic novels, which failed. He married a famous American actress, Patricia Neal. They almost broke up, but Neal was persuaded to stay, and let Dahl take charge of her money.
He moved slowly towards children’s fiction. He told Kingsley Amis: “Unless you put everything you’ve got into it, unless you write from the heart, the kids’ll have no use for it.” As his success grew, tragedy came again: his baby son Theo was hit by a car; Neal had a stroke; his daughter Olivia died at seven, like Astri, of measles. His daughter Tessa wrote that they were “toppled unwittingly over the edge of a jagged cliff face into a canyon of darkness which was filled with such sadness, such total devastation that we would never recover”. He fought for Neal’s recovery — he bullied her into surviving — but he fell in love with Liccy, her nurse, and Neal returned to America.
A sadness pervades this book: despair. Dahl had pockets of tenderness — he gave the fee from one magazine piece to an airman’s widow, and he tried to answer all the letters he received from children — but I think this book is a portrait of depression, which is buried rage. Dahl said: “When writing stories, I cannot seem to rid myself of the unfortunate habit of having one person do nasty things to another person.”
He could not shake off the need for perfection: for glory. Dennison believes Dahl wanted to be Fantastic Mr Fox, or the father in Danny the Champion of the World. Even at the end of his life, Dahl dreamed of “winning the golf open championships or tennis at Wimbledon or something like that”.
This book is riveting, and immaculately written. What it lacks — probably because Dahl himself did — is a vivid inner life: it is as if he gave it all to the novels. There is something shrouded about Dennison’s account, something unspoken. I suspect Dahl’s family are over-protective. They speak in euphemism. This tact made sense in Donald Sturrock’s authorised Storyteller (2010), written with the family’s consent. It doesn’t here.
The rights to his novels were recently sold to Netflix for €600m, and the family issued an apology for his anti-Semitic remarks. In 1983, he told the New Statesman of “a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke a certain animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews... Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
I see Dahl as a child from his novels, without the adult writer Dahl to charm and save him. Reading Dennison’s account, all I can feel is pity, for a man so raging, and a boy so lost.
Biography: Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison
Head of Zeus, 272 pages, hardcover €25.50; e-book £7.19
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