Roald Dahl, creator of a singularly madcap literary universe populated by lonely child waifs and anthropomorphic insectoids, wily foxes and loathsome witches, big friendly giants and history’s weirdest and most celebrated chocolate factory owner, once described his method for designing character in this way: “I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty and very bad and very cruel. And if they’re ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That I think is fun and makes an impact.”
This approach comes impressively to life in Dahl’s crowded pantheon of revolting villains, such as the horrid Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach, who force young orphaned James to sleep in their attic’s bare floorboards, and the shotgun-toting farmers from Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bogis, Bunce, and Bean (“One short, one fat, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean”), and though perhaps not quite on par with child abuse or murderous intent, there’s Veruca Salt, patron saint of phenomenally spoiled brats the world over. One senses a fair amount of sadistic glee in the construction of these figures, and in the inventive, often dramatic means of their disposal. Dahl knew what children loved, and children, even more than rooting for the underdog hero, love to see the villain getting her just deserts, as foul little Veruca does when she is gratefully flung down a garbage chute.
Dahl, who, by all accounts, also applied this principle of exaggeration regularly in real life, most notoriously with editors and publishers (“He dealt in superlatives,” a former editor recalls, “the best, the brightest, the most famous, the richest…if your star fell out of the constellation…you quickly became the lowest, the meanest, stupidest, vilest of things”), proves infinitely more difficult to cast in the unambiguous terms he set out for his fictional characters and the flesh-and-blood humans that crossed his path. His personal qualities, the very good and very nasty and everything in between, are revealed with scrupulous detail in Donald Sturrock’s new authorized biography, Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, a lively portrait of a man who could be alternately charming and hideous, heroic and villainous. In describing Dahl, the word “complicated” comes up with great frequency. He possessed a remarkable gift for generosity, trained a childlike sensibility to great artistic achievement, and possessed a rare inner strength and resiliency that flourished during periods of extreme adversity. But he could also be insensitive and cruel, indulging a lifelong tendency toward loutish behavior, participating in episodes of cool duplicity that damaged, soured, and ultimately ended some of the most significant collaborations and relationships of his creative and personal life.
Casting aside for a moment fascinating contradictions of character, Dahl further proves an ideal candidate for 600 pages of detailed biography. From his birth in Wales to industrious, successful Norwegian immigrant parents, right up to the final hospital stay (there would be many hospital stays), where bedridden and dying at age 74, surrounded by his children and adored second wife Liccy, he would utter his final words (“Ow, fuck!”), there’s no shortage of incident, unpredictable turn of events, strokes of luck, both terrible and fortuitous, indeed rarely a lull in the life of this man who, gazing out from dust jacket portraits, sporting cardigan, pipe, and receding hairline, gives the impression of having always belonged to the realm of placid, avuncular domesticity.
A visual compilation of Dahl’s youthful exploits would prove otherwise, offering fodder for a parade of newsreel-worthy highlights. His run-ins with mid-20th-century figures of note would give Forrest Gump a run for his money. Fresh from Royal Air Force combat duty, the handsome young ace pilot is recruited to work for the British embassy in Washington D.C., where he delivers speeches in support of the war effort, and charms every famous face he meets. In America he demonstrates a knack for striking up friendships with the rich and powerful, playing tennis with Vice President George Wallace, picnicking with FDR and Eleanor, collaborating alongside Walt Disney in Burbank for an ill-fated movie about gremlins (the mythical creatures of RAF lore, blamed for engine troubles and other airborne disasters, which Dahl wrote about at length early in his career), dining with Ginger Rogers, lounging around Hoagy Carmichael’s swimming pool, bedding every glamorous older Manhattanite female in sight, and forging lifelong friendships with newspaper magnate Charles Marsh and publisher Alfred Knopf. Eventually he settles into marriage with movie star Patricia Neal, whom he meets at a dinner party hosted by Lillian Hellman.
Peeling back Dahl’s lifelong attraction to glamour and wealth, Sturrock uncovers an even greater fondness for English rural life, where he raises orchids and children, and thrives artistically under the general quotidian ease of life at the family’s country home, Gipsy House. But Dahl’s married life with Neal, strained from the very beginning—neither party walked down the aisle with anything resembling starry-eyed affection—becomes fraught with transatlantic tensions as the couple zip between New York and England. And then the real troubles begin. A New York taxicab slams into the carriage carrying the couple’s infant son Theo, shattering his skull and initiating years of medical near-disasters. First-born daughter Olivia dies very suddenly of encephalitis at age seven. A series of strokes grip Neal at the height of her film career.
With the exception of Olivia’s death (the only life event that threatened to shut down Dahl entirely), every other disaster is met with a stiff upper lip and a remarkable degree of sangfroid ingenuity. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox’s titular father, Dahl took up the role of family rescuer with aplomb and resourcefulness. His lifelong reaction to misfortune was to roll up his sleeves, countering each blow with self-devised remedies and plans of action. When a series of cerebral shunts placed inside Theo repeatedly fail, causing hydrocephalus that temporarily blind the young child, Dahl enlists a toymaker and doctor and co-invents the much-improved Wade-Dahl-Till valve, which would be successfully used to treat thousands of children with head injuries. When Neal’s stroke threatens permanent debilitation, Dahl develops a stringent and successful—and some argue, cruel—course of stimulation therapy that would help change the way stroke patients are rehabilitated.
Curiously, for a man who was anything but passive in sorting out personal and professional matters, Dahl appears to have chanced upon the very things that set his life course: Enlisting in the RAF and marrying Pat Neal, for instance, are life-altering decisions made with scant detectable deliberation. And by Dahl’s own account, the genesis of his writing career—those thousands of hours shuttered away in his famously dim, womb-like writing hut, plotting twists with sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga #2 in hand—was quite accidental.
Two events in particular, described at length in his essay “Lucky Break,” made him a writer. The first was a spectacular crash in the Libyan desert on his first day as a combat pilot. Running out of daylight, flying solo over unfamiliar desert terrain, he crashes his plane before even reaching the Allied front line in North Africa. The crash nearly killed him. Facial features were reconstructed (the plastic surgeon gave him Rudolph Valentino’s nose, he writes boastfully to his mother), but he’s left with back injuries and pain that will flare up with cruel regularity for the rest of his days. The long recuperation leaves him in the throes of an existential crisis that, in true Dahl fashion, is eventually overcome. But more significantly, Dahl would come to believe that the “monumental bash in the head” he received in the desert caused brain injuries that “altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.”
The second, far less dramatic event, was an invitation from C.S. Forester to have lunch. Forester, living in Washington at the same time Dahl worked at the British Embassy, sought out the young invalided pilot to interview him for an article. Dahl, noticing that Forester had trouble taking notes and holding a fork at the same time, offered to write up a full account of his experiences that Forester could read later at his leisure. The famous writer was so impressed with the report, he sent it straight to the Saturday Evening Post for publication.
The incident would be registered into many of Dahl’s highly embroidered accounts of his wartime experiences. He would refer to being “shot down over Libya,” of barely averting a cruel and lonesome death in the desert. The truth was he crashed, of course, and he wasn’t alone. Another pilot was present, nursing him through frigid night temperatures, and Dahl would privately credit him with driving away death that night. This episode of revised personal history is Dahl the storyteller at work (Sturrock is too polite to ever call him a liar)—a man who fashioned tales from hard truth, who would make his name coaxing extraordinarily colorful narratives from drab reality. Sturrock posits that Dahl’s storytelling stemmed from a psychological intolerance to vulnerability, manifested in his need to dress up the direst of circumstances with humor and counter catastrophe with action. The persistent urge to appear outwardly strong and in control, the acts of personal mythmaking, a matter of psychic self-preservation.
That impulse and talent for storytelling is best preserved in our collective memory in the books Dahl wrote for children. But Sturrock reminds us that Dahl’s elevated status as one of the best-loved children’s writers in history is a fairly recent phenomenon. British publishers wouldn’t touch his books for years, and his popularity with young readers alarmed prominent critics, parents and librarians—including, even, Ursula K. LeGuin, who claimed that her “usually amiable” daughter could become “quite nasty” after repeated readings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And it’s fairly easy to forget also that Dahl spent most of his career writing for adults. The critical and commercial failure of two early adult novels haunted Dahl, but these disappointments were tempered by the success of his story collections, notably Someone Like You and Switch Bitch. Readers familiar with Dahl’s adult fiction prose are not fooled by the dowdy-looking man on the dust jackets, for they know Dahl the dirty fabulist, armed with irresistible plot setups and twists laced with sex and macabre humor. After many years of urging by editor Sheila St. Lawrence, Dahl applied his talents to children’s stories. He recognized immediately his genius for infiltrating the landscape of a child’s imagination, training his biting humor, satiric eye, and desire to transcend ordinary experience toward a richly appreciative audience. To his critics, Dahl pointed to the hundreds of fan letters deposited on his doorstop weekly from young readers around the world. (A diligent and genial letter-writer, Sturrock includes a charming dispatch to Keith Olbermann in Hastings-on-Hudson, who had written the author a fan letter.)
Sturrock, who met Dahl in the 1980s while on assignment with the BBC, was handed the keys to a vast and previously unexamined archive of personal correspondence and papers, and given ready access to colleagues, friends and family members, who encouraged the biographer to make Dahl “come alive” on the page. One senses Sturrock laboring to avoid hagiography, treading carefully in his assessments, offering measured counterpoints at every turn. While Sturrock generates few critical insights into Dahl’s fiction, and only skims the writer’s intriguing constellation of temperamental and psychological impulses, there are plenty of revelations here, presented thoroughly and thoughtfully, allowing readers to construct their own understanding of Dahl and his extensive oeuvre of weird, inventive, and wickedly funny narratives.
Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl was released on September 14 by Simon & Schuster. To purchase it, click here.