By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Saturday, March 27, 2004
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Roald Dahl was a complicated and in some respects disagreeable man, but a decade and a half after his death his many books for children remain among the world's most popular and -- yes -- beloved. Total sales run into the tens of millions of copies and are sure to become even more impressive with the much-anticipated release next year of a new movie adaptation of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," starring the redoubtable Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.
While best known for his children's books, Dahl, whose writing career began in 1942 and lasted until his death in 1990 at age 74, also wrote many books for adults, all of them every bit as weird, droll and satisfying as his books for children. These include a deliciously ribald novel, "My Uncle Oswald" (1979); two volumes of autobiography, "Boy" (1984) and "Going Solo" (1986), which are equally accessible and appealing to young and adult readers; and numerous collections of short stories, the best of which, "Someone Like You" (1953), is the one among all of Dahl's books that I treasure most.
Precisely how I came upon Dahl's work I do not recall, but it was sometime in the late 1950s, perhaps in the New Yorker or Harper's, in which his short stories occasionally appeared before the publication of "James and the Giant Peach" (1961) and the beginning of his career as a writer of children's books. My well-thumbed, loose-spined copy of "Someone Like You" is Knopf's American first edition, for which I probably paid a dollar or two at a secondhand bookstore and which can still be found at reasonable prices. It must have sold well for a short-story collection, since it went through about a dozen printings, establishing Dahl's reputation in the process.
He was a born writer. As a boy in Wales in the 1920s he despised almost everything about the public (i.e., private) schools to which he was sent, but in "Boy" he remembers being required to write an essay ("The Life Story of a Penny") and being furious when the nib of his pen broke: "I really wanted to finish that essay. I knew exactly what was going to happen to my penny through the next two pages and I couldn't bear to leave it unsaid." But as has been true of other writers and creative sorts, unhappiness at school laid the foundation for what came later. The lesson he was unwittingly taught at St. Peter's and Repton stayed with him for life: "Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all."
At age 18 Dahl went to work in Africa for the Shell Co. When war broke out he joined the Royal Air Force, learned to fly, and fought valiantly. He was wounded and, in 1942, was posted to Washington as an air attache, where he met the British novelist C.S. Forester, who was trying to boost support for Britain as America geared up for war. Forester proposed to interview Dahl about his combat experience, but instead Dahl wrote it out. Without changing a word, Forester sent the piece to the Saturday Evening Post, which ran it under Dahl's byline -- his first -- and paid him a whopping $900.
It would be exaggeration to say all was easy after that, for Dahl's career was slow getting off the ground. He was a meticulous craftsman who ran everything he wrote through several drafts, and it took him a few years to perfect his distinctive style, one that gives the sense of an intimate, wry conversation with the reader. What did become plain early on was that his unhappiness in school -- as well no doubt as the early deaths of his father and an older sister -- had given him a particular sensitivity to the macabre, the outre, the unexpected. He developed a skill at surprise endings to rival O. Henry's, though his prose style was much superior, and he slowly mastered a tone -- ironic, sardonic, succinctly but painstakingly descriptive -- that makes almost anything he wrote immediately identifiable as his own. Consider for example this passage from "Taste," the first story in "Someone Like You":
"The man was about fifty years old and he did not have a pleasant face. Somehow it was all mouth -- mouth and lips -- the full, wet lips of the professional gourmet, the lower lip hanging downward in the center, a pendulous, permanently open taster's lip, shaped open to receive the rim of a glass or a morsel of food. Like a keyhole, I thought, watching it; his mouth is like a large wet keyhole."
Dahl was a close observer of faces, and the more unpleasant they were, the more he delighted in describing them: "The man's lips -- like the lips of all bearded men -- looked wet and naked, a trifle indecent, shining pink in among all that hair," or: "He disliked very much this man with the wide frog mouth, the broken teeth, the shifty eyes."
The first of those quotations is from "Nunc Dimittis," one of the best stories in this collection. Its narrator is Lionel Lampson, who describes himself as "a type; a rare one, mark you, but nevertheless a quite definite type -- the wealthy, leisurely, middle-aged man of culture, adored (I choose the word carefully) by his many friends for his charm, his money, his air of scholarship, his generosity and, I sincerely hope, for himself also." It develops that he is not quite so adored as he imagines, that a woman with whom he frequently dines considers him a "crashing old bore." Seeking revenge -- revenge being a constant in Dahl's writing, for adults and children alike -- and gaining the unsuspecting connivance of a society-ladies' portrait painter, he counterattacks with "outrageous behavior" -- outrageous, yes, but also entirely hilarious.
Which is to say the story is archetypal Dahl. His stories almost always are amusing. Of the 18 stories in "Someone Like You," only "Soldier," in which a veteran is possessed by nightmarish memories of war, is grim. Dahl loved to bring the reader right up to the edge -- "Something extremely unpleasant was about to happen -- I was sure of that. Something sinister and cruel and ratlike, and perhaps it really would make me sick. But I had to see it now" -- and then to twist everything around with a sudden turn to the comical. The turn may be nasty and even bloody at times, but it's funny, too. He knew the hold that dread exerts on us:
"For me, after that, it was like the awful moment when you see a child running out into the road and a car is coming and all you can do is shut your eyes tight and wait until the noise tells you what has happened. The moment of waiting becomes a long lucid period of time with yellow and red spots dancing on a black field, and even if you open your eyes again and find that nobody has been killed or hurt, it still makes no difference because so far as you and your stomach were concerned you saw it all."
Reading Dahl's short stories is like that. You hold your breath, and if you didn't want to see the words on the page you'd close your eyes, too. "Man From the South," which is still perhaps my favorite among his stories -- "perhaps," that is, because my favorite Dahl story tends to be the one I'm reading right now -- sustains over a mere 15 pages a remarkable level of tension, yet even reading it for the first time you sense that however close matters are brought to the edge, you're not going to fall over it.
Precisely why Dahl granted his readers this escape is unclear. Dahl was entirely capable of unredeemed nastiness; he was, quite famously, an outspoken and unapologetic anti-Semite, and earned every ounce of the censure he received on that score. Yet he had a kind streak as well; his second wife said, "He was not an easy man, but to me he was the most stimulating man in the world and the best husband a woman could ever have." His marriage to his first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, ended unhappily in 1983, yet in the mid-1960s his round-the-clock care enabled her to make a full recovery from three massive strokes. Contradiction was his middle name. Danny DeVito, who directed a film version of Dahl's children's book "Matilda," put it nicely: "Dahl will lead a child out onto a windy limb and then suddenly he'll place a ladder underneath and the child will be able to get safely to the ground."
He did the same for adults. Even when something quite terrible does happen -- as in "Lamb to the Slaughter," the most famous of his short stories -- he resolves matters with a twist, almost always ironic and usually witty. He acknowledged, indeed delighted in, the "awful magnetism" that draws us to the unknown, the unexpected, the violent, but he preferred irony to gore and laughter to screams. He pulled back from the abyss at the end of each story because he found it more agreeable to amuse than to horrify. Doubtless he understood that it is harder to be funny than to be merely sensational, which helps explain why he worked so slowly and meticulously.
Interestingly, the one story in which the ending is somewhat ambiguous -- in which you are left to wonder whether this is reality or fantasy -- is "The Wish," the only one in which a child is the central character. A little boy is standing in a long hallway looking at an "enormous red and black and yellow carpet." In one wonderful paragraph, Dahl's great children's books are prefigured:
"You see, he told himself, I know how it is. The red parts of the carpet are red-hot lumps of coal. What I must do is this: I must walk all the way along to it to the front door without touching them. If I touch the red I will be burnt. As a matter of fact, I will be burnt up completely. And the black parts of the carpet . . . yes, the black parts are snakes, poisonous snakes, adders mostly, and cobras, thick like tree-trunks round the middle, and if I touch one of them, I'll be bitten and I'll die before tea time. And if I get across safely, without being burnt and without being bitten, I will be given a puppy for my birthday tomorrow."
Anyone who has ever walked along a sidewalk thinking "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" (as, at age 64, I still sometimes do) will know immediately that in that paragraph Dahl has entered the mind of a child with total knowledge and confidence. One of the many splendid things about him is that though his inner child never deserted him, he never, as an adult, was merely childish. Whatever the age of the readers he had in mind, in his writing he combined childlike fear and wonder with adult maturity and craftsmanship. He was a marvelously gifted entertainer, make no mistake about that, but he was also a serious writer who deserves a literary reputation as large and enthusiastic as his popular acclaim.
"Someone Like You" is out of print. Many of its 18 stories are in Dahl's "Tales of the Unexpected" (Vintage, $15) and all of them are in "Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl" (South Asia Books, $32).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.