Book review: Willy Wonka’s creator
The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
Simon & Schuster: 658 pp., $30
I was sitting on an airplane with a copy of “Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl” when an elegant woman in the seat next to me murmured, almost to herself, “I live just down the lane from his old cottage in Oxfordshire.”
Turning to her with excitement I asked if she’d ever run into him. “Oh, no, no,” she said with obvious amusement, as if the very suggestion was completely absurd. “He was a great writer,” she said, sounding very genuine. Yet she had a puzzled expression on her face. She asked me what I did for a living. I said I wrote books for grown-ups and children, just like Dahl. There was an awkward silence. We parted ways.
For those who do not know Dahl’s grown-up stories, one of his most beloved — if I may use that word — is called “Pig” (1959), about an orphan raised by a tender, vegetarian aunt. The boy’s talents as a young vegetarian chef are depicted in a magical, mystical tone. When the aunt dies, the boy buries her and goes to the city where he encounters, gasp … pork! He loves it, and ends up with his throat slit by a butcher. Pure horror.
“Storyteller” is a dense, satisfying book about a mercurial author. The biographer, Donald Sturrock, frankly addresses Dahl’s darker moods and speculates as to their origins in biographical details. Dahl did face struggles in childhood and as a parent, but so do many, and some even worse. What, then, can explain his dark charisma, the beauty of his threatening prose? It seems that like a character in a folk tale, he was just so inclined. And, then, in a stroke of good luck, he was at an early age introduced to folkloric, literary stories and fell in love especially with Hillaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales for Children” and “The Classic Fairy Tales” by Iona and Peter Opie.
Though the details of Dahl’s life — his affairs and his losses — are told sensitively here, and are riveting, “Storyteller” is most fascinating when it retells and analyzes his body of work for grown-ups and children, revealing them to be cut from the very same cloth as that of fairy tales. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales.” As with all the great fairy-tale authors, Dahl makes them new, revisiting the themes of childhood, violence, power and magic.
The weirdly pretty style and fairy-tale shape of “Pig,” along with its horror, are repeated in Dahl’s body of work, whether for children or for adults. Think of one of his most popular children’s novels, “James and the Giant Peach.” It begins with James’ parents being eaten by a rhinoceros (how great!). Horrible aunts then raise him inside a rotting peach; the boy eventually befriends some awesome insects, and together they all escape. In “Storyteller,” we learn Dahl was an ardent animal lover — so ardent, in fact, that he would not even have mousetraps. Sturrock clearly loves Dahl for his juxtapositions, however brutal; as a biographer he offers an empathetic and lucid lens.
Yet the common stereotype of Dahl is that, like one of his characters, he is “nasty.” And as Sturrock notes, he did seem to be quite at ease with his nastiness. Many marvel that a beloved author of children’s books could indeed be so dark. Some lovers of his children’s novels recoil at his adult books, as if to ask, “How could any writer for children also think that?” Yet his children’s novels are brutal as well. There is no substantive difference between writing for children and for adults, for Dahl or for many other authors who write with a childlike sense of terror and wonder. Dahl’s children’s books end on a happier note (incredibly in “The BFG” and “Matilda,” two personal favorites), but their happy endings are no less complex than the ending of “Pig.” J.R.R. Tolkien lamented the happy ending’s low status in literature, celebrating its consoling importance.
Perhaps the happy endings for children and horrible ones for grown-ups make perfect sense, too. One wants children, most of all, to survive, and stories can help them find courage. Can grown-ups find courage, after what they have seen? Not all. Dahl lived in both worlds; and both worlds lived in his storybooks.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact of Dahl’s illustrious life is that he kept writing after one of his daughters tragically died of the measles, at 7. What “Storyteller” reminds us more than anything is how much we need fairy tales.
Bernheimer is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Horse, Flower, Bird: Stories” (with illustrations by Rikki Ducornet).
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