Stinker

Jenny Diski

  • Roald Dahl: A Biography by Jeremy Treglown
    Faber, 307 pp, £17.50, March 1994, ISBN 0 571 16573 7

It goes against all the currents of current wisdom that a public man should be just what he seems to be. Is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t believe at some level or other in the disjunction between appearance and reality? I suppose somewhere deep in the forests where no white man has trod; in the highest, most inaccessible plateaux of some far-flung mountainous region, there might be a few primitive folk left who still think that what they see is what there is. But the rest of us are not completely astonished to discover that nice, ordinary MPs who take decent girls to Tory fund-raising dances prefer stockings and electric flex in the privacy of their own kitchens, or that our favourite English poet of quiet suburban gloom had a nasty sense of humour and some unfortunate habits. We know that beneath all exteriors lie subterranean streams and caverns where the private, unknowable self contradicts the stated desires and achievements of the visible life.

A biography, these days, must be a tale of the unexpected. Wouldn’t modern readers feel cheated to find that Antonia White and A.A. Milne were wise and devoted parents, or that Larkin only released his bicycle clips in order to sip cocoa in striped pyjamas and have gently sad, humane thoughts before bed? But an authorised biography has little to offer a post-Freudian readership. Isn’t it autobiography in disguise: a ventriloquist act where the subject, or their family, pulls the strings and keeps the subterranean firmly underground? The approved biographer is not likely to be the surgeon we require, slicing through the superficial layers with his scalpel.

The prefaced justifications of unauthorised biographers are no more than pious mouthings; who, really, wants to read an authorised biography? So take Jeremy Treglown’s apologia at the beginning of his Dahl biography with a pinch of salt. Ophelia Dahl plans to write the authorised version of her father’s life, with the approval of his second wife, Felicity, who asked friends and relatives not to co-operate with any other project. Should we worry then that Treglown lacks sources? Hardly. Apart from Felicity and Ophelia, everyone talked, as people will.

Roald Dahl is, however, a different case from the public achiever who turns out to have feet of clay. Nobody who had read his books or heard his opinions could ever have supposed him to be a comfortably wonderful human being. On the whole, it seemed that Roald Dahl was not a very nice man who wrote not very nice, though hugely popular, books and short stories for children and adults. If this biography is disappointing, it is because, in reverse, it offends our assumptions about appearance and reality. Roald Dahl, it emerges, was exactly what he seemed to be, and Jeremy Treglown is hard put to come up with anything surprisingly endearing about the man.

The last time I read Roald Dahl was to my seven-year-old in 1984. I’d got to page 46 of George’s Marvellous Medicine, beyond the first description of Grandma: ‘She was a selfish grumpy old woman. She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom.’ I’d managed George’s later depictions of Grandma as ‘a grumpy old cow’, ‘a miserable old pig’ and his remorse at not being able to cover her with sheep-dip: ‘how I’d love to ... slosh it all over old Grandma and watch the ticks and fleas go jumping off her. But I can’t. I mustn’t. So she’ll have to drink it instead.’ By page 46 George’s medicine is ready and I was about to read: ‘The old hag opened her small wrinkled mouth, showing disgusting pale brown teeth.’ But I’d had enough.

I explained that since she could now read herself, this bedtime story thing ought to be a pleasure for both of us. I turned down the corner of the page, offered to read her anything else and promised to continue buying her books by Roald Dahl. Only she’d have to read them herself. Separate development in the Dahl department worked out well enough. And I now have a handy 16-year-old, close enough to back then to recall what it was like being a child and reading Dahl’s books. With a surprised blink of childhood pleasure recollected, she explained: ‘They were exactly what I wanted to be reading. Every one of them. They filled me with ... glee.’

Multiply that pleasure by 11 million paperbacks sold in Britain alone, between 1980 and 1990 (not to mention a print run of two million of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in China) and you get a notion of what Dahl meant when he spoke of his ‘child power’. He claimed, probably rightly, that he could walk into any house with children in Europe or the US, and find himself recognised and welcomed. Compared with that, having his books banned by librarians on the grounds of racism (the original Oompa Loompas were black with fuzzy hair and thick lips), misogyny (‘A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly of women ... On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male. So indeed is a barghest. Both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a real witch’) or ageism (see above), was pretty small potatoes.

Children love his stories. They speak to the last overt remains of the disreputable, unsocialised, inelegant parts of themselves the grown-ups are trying so hard to push firmly underground. If they are coarsely written, structurally feeble, morally dubious, so much the better. If the adults can’t bear to read them, then childhood nirvana is attained. Adults are to be poisoned and shrunk into nothingness, dragged unwillingly on their deathbed to live in a chocolate factory, and outwitted like the murderous farmers who wait outside Mr Fox’s lair only to be trounced by his cunning. Quite right. Dahl has a proper relationship with childish desires and best we keep out of it. Except, perhaps, for the recognition that there are other more gracious childish desires which can also be catered for.

Given that special relationship between Dahl and his readers, and the fact that he wrote two volumes of self-dramatising autobiography for children, what is the function of an adult biography of the man? Jeremy Treglown quotes the American children’s writer Eleanor Cameron’s attack on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s necessary to sort good books from bad she says, but goodness in fiction is also a moral matter depending on ‘the goodness of the writer himself, his worth as a human being’. This would seem to be an extraordinary basis for deciding the value of adult fiction; people, like books, are a matter of taste, and if I would find it tiresome to have Dostoevsky round to tea, that doesn’t mean Crime and Punishment should be swilled down the waste disposal along with the old tea leaves. But perhaps intention is important. There is something in us that wants good writers to be good people. There’s also something in us that knows pigs can’t fly.

Treglown paints a portrait of a young man delirious with his own promise. As a wounded RAF war hero (who actually crashed his plane through inexperience on a routine flight) he was sent to Washington and New York to gossip and gather intelligence about American intentions towards the Allies. He was better at the gossip and excellent at self-promotion. ‘He was extremely conceited, saw himself as a creative artist of a high order, and therefore entitled to respect and very special treatment,’ says Isaiah Berlin. Brendan Gill remembers him: ‘The most conceited man who ever lived in our time in New York City. Vain to the point where it was a kind of natural wonder.’

His attraction to conspicuous wealth and for women resulted in his flashing gifts of gold cigarette cases and lighters at his friends, as well as a gold key to the house of Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers. No one, except possibly the heiresses, seems to have had a very high opinion of the young man, apart from Charles Marsh, an older oil tycoon who became a sort of mystical father to Dahl, though not to either man’s benefit according to a dining companion: ‘Roald and Charles both did a job on each other ... The bullshit that washed across the table.’ They vied with each other to keep up what Treglown calls ‘the high gibberish quotient’ of their relationship.

Dashiell Hammett was appalled to hear of Patricia Neal’s planned marriage to Dahl, while Leonard Bernstein told her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. Treglown met and interviewed Neal, divorced from Dahl after 30 years of a marriage during which she survived a series of strokes and a Dahl-enforced recovery, and bore five children, of whom one died and the only son suffered irreversible brain damage in a street accident. Wisely, he did not ask her if Bernstein’s prognostication had turned out to be true.

But it is in the domestic life that those contradictory elements we look for are generally found, and Dahl’s family life was not short of the kind of challenge that shows up public people for what they really are. Treglown offers a suggestion that the death of his father when Dahl was just four, leaving him to be brought up surrounded by sisters and an adoring if physically remote mother, might have resulted in his perpetually yearning to get back to the power and desires of his childhood. If millions of children all over the world love the subversive, prurient and emotionally capricious stories he told, could that be because he never left his infantile self behind? Those of us old enough to have found out that no one ever really grows up can be grateful to Treglown for the comforting thought that some of us are more grown up than others. Dahl’s gambling, boasting, sexual flightiness and public tantrums all point in the direction of arrested emotional development. And look how the anti-semitism (‘even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’) comes with a childlike vocabulary. He displays a reaction to personal disaster in which desire to gain control over the situation often appears like a flight mechanism. When his son’s life is endangered after his accident because the valve to drain the water from his brain keeps getting clogged, Dahl more or less absents himself in a search for a new model. When Neal is crippled and rendered speechless, he organises a six-hour daily rota to force her to learn to speak again, though he is not on the rota himself. When she is sunk in despair at her depletions, he insists she goes back to work as an actress, although she has terrible trouble remembering lines and walks with a limp. Somehow, the children become his, and she becomes a depressed and depressing presence to them. Friends felt uneasy at the controlling zeal he displayed, and remarked on his lack of simple kindness to his wife.

But Dahl was a good and attentive father, claims Treglown, with relief you feel at having found some quality to admire in his subject. Even so, this potentially benign quirk is tempered by the adult lives of his daughters, which according to their own stories have been blighted with addiction to drugs, drink and self-destructive neurosis. They speak of him still as god-like and powerful and cast around, apparently, for men who can live up to their fantasies of him. But there is a moment when he becomes human, and Treglown wrenches something moving from his subject. He quotes Tessa Dahl explaining: ‘Daddy got so caught up in making things better. He used to say: “You’ve got to get on with it” ... He used to shout, “I want my children to be brave.”’ There’s a note of despair and a touch of courage about this which gives Dahl a shade more substance.

The writing career was curiously sporadic and sparse for one of the world’s bestselling authors. There were no adult novels, except for a very early effort he later disowned, and even after the first volume of short stories, Someone Like You, he was struggling to come up with ideas to fill the next book, telling Alfred Knopf he feared running out altogether. The New Yorker and the BBC turned down more short stories than they printed or broadcast, and for a long time British publishers resisted the charms of his children’s writing, which he turned to in the early Sixties after the adult fiction seemed to have dried up. Those stories for adults are clever, cruel and sometimes satisfying in the same way, I imagine, that George poisoning his grandmother is to children. But they are, as Treglown points out, stories that can be extracted from their writing and told, all of them, like bar-room jokes. More than anything they are like those urban myths that go around, which have ghostly hitchhikers stopping a friend of a friend on a dark country road. They are indeed tales, which lose their capacity to shock in their desire to do little more than just that.

The publishing history is hilarious, and happy young Dahl readers should not be told that their favourite books (Charlie, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG) were almost entirely replotted and sometimes rewritten by his various editors, who sweated over his first drafts until such time as his imperious vanity was no longer tolerable. Robert Gottlieb of Knopf finally had to invoke his ‘Fuck-You Principle’, which held that he’d put up with difficult authors only until he could take no more, and then, business or no business, fuck them. The final straw for Gottlieb was an offensive stream of letters from Dahl in England, announcing he was running out of pencils. They were to get him six dozen Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 – 2–5/10 (Medium) and send them airmail. Unable to find the essential pencils, they sent the best they could find, but received a diatribe. Gottlieb cracked. ‘In brief, and as unemotionally as I can state it ... you have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility ... unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you.’ Apparently, everyone at Knopf stood on their desks and cheered as the letter went off.