Teller of the Unexpected: The Life of Roald Dahl, an Unofficial Biography 
by Matthew Dennison.
Head of Zeus, 264 pp., £20, August 2022, 978 1 78854 941 7
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In Roald Dahl’s​ ‘The Great Automatic Grammatisator’ (1952), a couple of jaded men design a computerised writing machine with the aim of cornering the market in magazine short stories. All the ‘author’ has to do is press a button (‘historical, satirical, philosophical, political, romantic, erotic, humorous or straight’) and choose a style (‘classical, whimsical, racy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, feminine etc’), and the machine will do the rest. The story says a lot about Dahl. ‘Feminine, etc’ is a nasty touch: for Dahl it appears there were no distinguishable female authors, and ‘Hemingway’ was by a wide margin his own favourite stylistic button to push. The machine also has a foot pedal which is used to boost the most valuable ingredient in fiction, ‘at any rate financially’: passion. Inexperienced users press too hard on that pedal, with queasy-making results.

‘The Great Automatic Grammatisator’ was written after the New Yorker had turned down one of Dahl’s stories. It is, like a lot of his fiction, simultaneously a vengeful satire and a wish-fulfilment fantasy. If you want to make a fortune as a writer all you have to do is push buttons, master the clichés of each genre and feed your audience what they want – but soft-pedal on the passion.

In his early short stories for adults Dahl developed a distinctive set of button-presses out of the experiences of his life. His Norwegian father made a small fortune by importing pit props to Wales. Dahl’s sister died at the age of seven. His father died soon after, leaving enough money for an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Dahl was then only three. He survived the beatings and misery of an English boarding school and got a job with Shell. When war broke out he volunteered as a fighter pilot. He had a bad crash-landing in Libya while flying to join his squadron. That fractured his skull and left him with permanent back trouble, as well as giving rise to various tall stories. These include a tale called ‘Shot Down over Libya’ (though Dahl was not in fact shot down), in which a pilot survives in the desert on his own (though, as he acknowledged in a later story called ‘A Piece of Cake’, he was not in fact alone, since a fellow pilot who had seen him land watched over him all night).

Dahl later said the crash gave him a bang on the head which turned him into a writer. After months recuperating in Alexandria he joined a tiny squadron of pilots tasked with defending Greece against a far greater number of German planes, and was lucky to survive. His earliest stories were about flying, and fuse together blood and battles with visionary experiences. In ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ (1945), an airman sees row on row of angelic aeroplanes flying into ‘a bright white light, shining bright and without any colour’ in a story that gives a gritty top-dressing of Hemingway to a wartime visionary mode that anticipates Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death by a couple of years.

Dahl’s injuries led to headaches and blackouts which prevented him from flying, so in 1942 he was transferred to Washington as an assistant air attaché. He became a genial, seductive, clubbable but outspoken spy, rumoured to have slept with ‘everybody on the East and West Coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year’. He tried to coax informal revelations out of Roosevelt over lunch. He flirted with Ginger Rogers and Elizabeth Arden. He wrote The Gremlins (1943), about a pilot, for Walt Disney, but the film was never made. He slept with starlets – and then, in 1953, he married one. Patricia Neal, co-star with Ronald Reagan in The Hasty Heart and former lover of Gary Cooper, was infinitely glamorous and their marriage was more or less instantly unhappy, since Neal wanted to be a movie star and Dahl wanted to be more than a movie star’s husband. Moreover, he wanted someone to cook him his lunch.

Over these years he met his literary heroes Hemingway, Ian Fleming and C.S. Forester, and tried, with the encouragement of Forester, to kick-start his own automatic grammatisator and sell stories to periodicals. In the short stories from the mid-1950s he got onto the marketable trick of embedding tropes from genre fiction in grimy domestic settings. The notion that a human being could be a brain kept alive in a vat of nutrient juices had been a staple of speculative fiction at least since the 1920s. In ‘William and Mary’ from 1954 (twice rejected by the New Yorker), Dahl embeds that cliché of genre fiction in a dodgy relationship between a bullying academic husband and a resentful wife. The don agrees to have his brain taken out so it can live on after his death. It has a single eye floating above it like ‘a small oval capsule, about the size of a pigeon’s egg’, attached to the brain by the optic nerve. When Mary sees her husband reduced to this state she wants to take it, or ‘him’ as she prefers, home. This is so that she can torment her husband by doing all the things in front of him that she wasn’t allowed to do while he was alive, like puffing smoke into his single eye and forcing him to watch TV.

Dahl could also do domestic violence to detective fiction: in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, written shortly before his marriage to Neal, a young wife murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and offers to the detectives when they come looking for the murder weapon. Father Brown would have loved it, though like most of Dahl’s stories it has the emotional boniness of a shaggy dog story: it rests on a sharp punchline, but there is no love for or between the people in it. The tales from this period generally conclude with a snappy but mechanical twist in which the cheat is cheated, or the person trying to defraud someone else by betting or gambling or undervaluing antique furniture loses, or is killed, or is infected with leprosy, or gets some other kind of grisly narrative comeuppance. Indeed the ‘comeuppance’ button on Dahl’s personal automatic grammatisator was worked almost as hard as the letter ‘e’ on his typewriter. These stories came to be marketed as Tales of the Unexpected (1979), a title borrowed by Dennison for this new biography, though actually after you’ve read a dozen or so of them their twists cease to be at all unexpected. Dennison’s biography has the virtues of clarity and brevity, but despite declaring itself ‘unofficial’, which might suggest it offers shocking new revelations, it adds little to the very good duo of earlier Dahlographies, the first unofficial one by Jeremy Treglown (who busted many of Dahl’s many self-mythologisations) and the huge ‘official’ one by Donald Sturrock, which, while seeking to bring out the best in Dahl, doesn’t conceal his self-aggrandising side.

Through the mid-1960s Dahl wrote film scripts, variously hacked about and supplemented by other hands, including the screenplay for the Bond movie You Only Live Twice. The marriage to Neal had become more than unhappy, since in the early 1960s it was blasted by a series of catastrophes. In 1960 their baby son Theo was taken out for a walk in New York by his nurse, and the pram was hit by a speeding taxi. Theo suffered serious head injuries. Dahl’s scientism kicked in, as it often did at times of disaster. He spent time and money helping to design a shunt which could relieve the cerebrospinal fluid pressing on Theo’s brain (before it was superseded, the Wade-Dahl-Till valve was used to treat three thousand children). Then in 1962 their daughter Olivia contracted measles and died suddenly of encephalitis at the same age – just seven – at which Dahl’s sister had died. Dahl never talked about his grief for his daughter, though he kept a notebook in his desk drawer headed ‘Olivia’, which wasn’t discovered until after his death. It contained a dispassionately factual account of her illness: ‘Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said. They had tapped her spine.’ Being dispassionately factual was Dahl’s antidote to despair.

In 1965 catastrophe struck again: Neal suffered a massive cerebral aneurism. She was pregnant at the time, and the stroke rendered her unable to speak or walk. Dahl contacted the best medics and bustled around determined to mend her. He devised an intensive programme of therapy to trick her brain back into health, including exercises described by one witness as being like ‘the way one trains a dog’.

Dahl’s fictional people are motivated by primary passions – hunger, greed, revenge, hatred – and it takes a big jolt to redirect their instincts and appetites. In a particularly sick tale from 1960 about a mad vicar who can’t stand women (‘Georgy Porgy’), the narrator turns experimental psychologist and puts an electric fence between male and female rats, watching while the sexually frustrated females (not the males) throw themselves one by one at the fence, only to be electrocuted. Rats generally fare even worse than women in Dahl’s world (though one of them does get to drink a lot of cider in Fantastic Mr Fox). Another is tied down and has its head bitten off as part of a bet in ‘The Ratcatcher’ (1953); its misery and alarm are described with Dahl’s clinical precision, though his squeamish narrator has the grace to look away at the moment of actual decapitation. His fiction thoroughly absorbed mid-20th-century behaviourist beliefs that human beings and animals alike are driven by appetites that can be conditioned by repeated exposure to external stimuli.

The behaviourism of B.F. Skinner was part of the lingua franca of 1950s America that Dahl absorbed. Some version of it underlay his effort to retrain his wife in the art of speech. It also lies beneath his early children’s fiction. Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) is often represented as the great eccentric who cares only for the success of his confectionary inventions. But he is also the master of manipulating appetites. Every child who tours his factory, apart from the saintly Charlie, is subject to a primitive passion which is violently corrected. Mike Teavee is shrunk because of his frenzied love of television, while the fat and greedy Augustus Gloop is squeezed thin when he’s sucked into a pipe meant for melted chocolate.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rooted in Dahl’s experience of moving from the austerity of England in the 1940s to the glittery self-gratifications of America in the 1950s, which seemed by contrast to be a land flowing with chocolate and honey. The overt moral of the book – that the impoverished English boy who can slowly savour a chocolate bar and keep his appetites under control will win the game of life and inherit the earth, aka the chocolate factory, while the fat greedy kids and the spoilt rich kids will be driven by their appetites towards self-destruction – makes it seem benign, a kind of bastard fusion of Alice in Wonderland and the Sermon on the Mount. But it’s primarily an exercise in sugar-painting the infinite gratifications of commercialism. The amiably eccentric Wonka is inventing a TV that can transmit material things. Cool! But he’s doing it so that anyone who watches an advert for his wares can simply reach out and pluck a chocolate bar from the screen. As for his workers, he boasts: ‘I shipped them all over here, every man, woman and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe’ – and his Oompa-Loompa slaves, originally black-skinned but later edited to be white after complaints about racism, want to be ‘shipped’ to his factory and work for him because they so love chocolate, bless ’em. Well, children, what’s going on there, I wonder?

Some time in the mid-1960s Dahl came to recognise that he was never going to write a good adult novel (he tried twice), and concentrated instead on children’s fiction, at which he became extraordinarily successful. Medical bills, support for his disabled wife and child, his taste for artworks and antiques and fine wine and greyhound racing, not to mention the beastly demands of the taxman, all made writing a financial necessity. He sometimes recycled or revised his earlier adult stories into children’s books. ‘The Champion of the World’ (1959) is a story about a rural chancer called Claud (a central figure in Dahl’s abortive second novel for adults, which was to have been called Fifty Thousand Frogskins – frogskins being greenbacks or money), who poaches pheasants by using raisins laced with sleeping pills. The pheasants unfortunately wake up halfway through the heist. The children’s book Danny, the Champion of the World (1975) turns Claud and his innocent partner into a poacher father and his son, onto whom Dahl sprinkles a thick dusting of Dahlery – stories about the Big Friendly Giant who puffs dreams through children’s windows at night; ruffled but obliging doctors; nasty capitalists in Rolls-Royces – and behold: a yarn about rural rip-off artists suddenly becomes an alluring story about a boy and his lovely dad getting their own back on a rich snob.

Itwas a publisher’s masterstroke to use Quentin Blake as Dahl’s main illustrator from 1978 onwards, since Blake’s spiky-scrawly but underlyingly happy pen and wash drawings make you believe that Dahl’s characters are similarly rough around the edges with an anarchic heart of gold. His publishers were also skilled at excising moments when the gambling, greyhound racing chancer in Dahl bubbled up too close to the surface of his children’s books. The Fantastic Mr Fox originally saved his family from starvation by digging his way into local supermarkets. Dahl’s publishers suggested that shoplifting might not be quite the thing to encourage kids to do, and that it might offer more in the way of poetic justice if Mr Fox instead dug his way into the cellars and henhouses of the farmers who are trying to kill him. Dahl – though he could be monstrously aggressive with publishers – obliged. The heroine of the manuscript version of Matilda was a vengeful nightmare of a child who tries to fix a horse race (again harking back to the series of adult stories about Claud, who tries to fix greyhound races), and the teacher who becomes the lovely, oppressed Miss Honey had originally lost all her money through compulsive gambling, not (as in the final version) through the plotting of the vicious headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Dahl’s American publisher Stephen Roxburgh – with whom he fell out after taking his advice – suggested that he rewrite the story, and the revised, charmingly moralised vengefulness of Matilda, who channels her rage into telekinesis and frees darling Miss Honey from her horrible aunt, became something adults might feel happy to read to their kids. It sold half a million copies in its first six months.

It isn’t true that half a million people can’t be wrong, as anyone who’s ever scanned the results of an election will know. But Dahl aimed to sell, and his worst writing derived from his aggressively simple-minded view of what children want: ‘They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. They love chocolate and toys and money.’ Some do, some don’t, surely? Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, published in 1972 to cash in on the film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory released the year before, is based on the assumption that kids like spaceships and space monsters and they loved Willy Wonka, so let’s put Willy Wonka in orbit, throw in some space monsters, and add in the president of the United States, because that’s where Dahl’s biggest market was, and because all of that doesn’t really amount to a story let’s also have Willy Wonka invent a potion that will make Charlie’s aged grandparents get younger by twenty years – oops, too young if they overdose, so let’s throw in a maths lesson or two about how to count in twenties – because kids love magic potions, and adults love kids’ books that also teach them maths. Ker-ching. The crazily concocted potion as a subject of fiction which is itself a crazily concocted potion persisted through to George’s Marvellous Medicine (1981), in which everything is thrown into George’s pot – paint, flea powder, curry powder, engine oil – in order to make a medicine that produces supersized grannies and cows, and also in order to fulfil the terms of a four-book deal that Dahl had made with Knopf in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid paying tax on his enormous royalties. He ended up with a bill of more than £700,000 in 1987 when the taxman got wind of the deal. But even the Great Automatic Grammatisator itself would have blushed to spew out a pile of sugar-coated tripe like Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Dahl at his best had something. He could be extremely funny: the Big Friendly Giant, who gets confused over words, says Nicholas Nickleby is by ‘Dahl’s Chickens’. He could write a mean vivid short sentence. But his key skill was his ability to repress nastiness while keeping it visible. His children’s books are as packed with threat and as top-dressed with sugary allure as the Child Catcher in his screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His style – Hemingway for kids with added wrinkles and twinkles and lashings of chocolate, a splash of Belloc here and a glug of Lewis Carroll there, with the odd word like ‘fizzwangle’ or ‘goonswaggle’ to make the mixture effervesce – often seems to be pushing out of view very nasty things that it doesn’t want fully to acknowledge. The way his tales for adults can underlie the children’s books is one aspect of this ability to keep the nasty stuff just out of sight. But Dahl himself was just as weird a mixture of plain truths and dark secrets. Every account of his life remarks on his impossible blend of emotional bottled-upness and aggressive disinhibition. He never spoke about the death of his daughter, but that wasn’t because he was a quiet soul. In an episode that Dennison chooses not to relate, he was thrown out of the Curzon House Club in 1979 after holding forth about the number of Jews in the club.

The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) of 1982 is by some distance his best book, because it has a different relationship with the unspeakable. It has oodles of charm and always keeps fear in view. In it the children of England and Europe are being eaten at night by horrible giants ‘as big as bumplehammers’, who in their hairy, toothy awfulness were perfect material for the pen of Quentin Blake. There is one, very Dahlish, nice giant, who is smaller than the rest. Like his original in Danny, the Champion of the World he blows dreams through children’s windows at night. He saves Sophie, the heroine, from being eaten and, with the aid of the queen (Dahl very much wanted a knighthood, and also knew that American audiences would love a scene in which a giant farts in front of British royalty), captures all the nasty giants. Many helicopters are involved, because Dahl thought all children love helicopters.

But beneath the crowd-pleasing surface the mythmaking of The BFG comes from areas of Dahl’s experience that he would never have wanted to acknowledge. The BFG himself suffers from a creative dysphasia which biographers including Dennison have connected with Neal’s struggle to recover the ability to speak after her stroke: ‘Please understand that I cannot be helping it if I sometimes is saying things a little squiggly … Words,’ the BFG says, ‘is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life.’ Dahl wrote the book the year before Neal agreed to a divorce so that he could marry his long-term mistress, with whom he remained until his death. But the underlying terror of The BFG – children are getting eaten in large numbers, and the giants’ victims really don’t come back – is a bleakly oblique response to the deaths of both his sister and daughter at the age of seven. The improbable ways in which people die in Dahl’s fiction – eaten by rhinoceroses, squashed by giant peaches, turned into mice by witches, shrunk to invisibility by magic potions – doesn’t disguise the fact that they die, and die, and keep on dying, and then stay dead.

After witnessing her younger brother’s life-threatening head injury, Dahl’s daughter Tessa was taken to see Anna Freud, who suggested family therapy. According to Tessa, Dahl refused (and medicated her instead) on the grounds that he had seen too many writers who could never write ‘after they had had all their nooks and crannies flattened like pancakes’. He may have been right not to pry into the nooks and crannies of his own mind, since his remarkable capacity not to acknowledge what his writing was really about must have been part of what enabled him to produce it. In interviews he would act surprised when asked if he (at 6’6") was the BFG. All these characters – the ingenious Willy Wonka, the delightful poaching dad in Danny, the Champion of the World, the family-loving Fantastic Mr Fox – were idealised self-portraits of Dahl, the unfaithful husband and emotionally distant father who wanted to think of himself as saviour of all and master of the mighty wheeze. He knew himself well enough to keep hidden the things that he needed to keep hidden in order to make fiction.

It’s easy to be hard on him for doing this. But through all the bullshit and bravura attending his stories about his time in the RAF, and despite the many anecdotal distortions of his life in his autobiographies, Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986), he knew what it was to live in the shadow of death, and knew grief that never went away. Talking big and bold around the gut-dissolving fear of crashing out of the air was what pilots did, and wrapping bluff and cheery talk around horror and spinning it into yarns was more or less what Dahl spent his life doing. That might explain, though it can’t excuse, his most indefensible remark, which appeared in the New Statesman after he had been accused of antisemitism when reviewing a book about the Israeli occupation of Beirut. ‘Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on [the Jews] for no reason,’ he said. To describe the gassing of millions of innocent people as though a sixth-form ‘stinker’ were picking on undesirables in the lower fifth – ‘pick on’?! – might at best be described as emotionally infantile, but it was of a piece with Dahl’s life and work. The emotional horror that he doesn’t want to confront is covered over by bluster.

Towards the end of Dahl’s last book, The Minpins, posthumously published in 1991, Little Billy takes one of his final rides on a swan’s back – he’s growing up and getting too big to fly anymore. The swan flies him into a ‘huge gaping hole in the ground’, and below him ‘Little Billy could see a vast lake of water, gloriously blue, and on the surface of the lake thousands of swans were swimming slowly about.’ There’s no explanation of what this vision is or means, because ‘sometimes mysteries are more intriguing than explanations.’ But it is a throwback to the wartime story ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, in which the pilot sees row after row of planes gliding off into the light and ‘saw spread out below me a vast green plain. It was green and smooth and beautiful; it reached to the far edges of the horizon where the blue of the sky came down and merged with the green of the plain.’ A vision of calm and collective death stands in for a pilot’s individual terror. Cheerful visions beneath which you can always see something like horror.

Listen to Colin Burrow discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

Colin Burrow writes that Roald Dahl ‘would act surprised when asked if he (at 6’6”) was the BFG’ (LRB, 15 December). On occasion, however, he leaned in to the comparison. At a boozy publishing bash in the late 1980s, a relative of mine requested his signature for a young fan. On the back of a business card, Dahl scrawled:

How is you?
I is a bit piddled
Love from BFG
and Roald Dahl

Ben Fletcher-Watson

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