By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 23, 2010; C03
The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
By Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster. 655 pp. $30
When 74-year-old Roald Dahl died from leukemia in 1990, I wrote a longish essay about the enormously popular, and often controversial, author of "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Waspishly opinionated, frequently offensive, a hard bargainer with publishers and a prima donna with editors, reclusive, family-focused and outrageously funny, Dahl struck me then as the Evelyn Waugh of children's literature. One could almost imagine the savage author of "Black Mischief" and "A Handful of Dust" writing "The Twits" or "Matilda."
Having read and admired Jeremy Treglown's "Roald Dahl" (1994), I didn't think there would be much new in this authorized biography. I was wrong. Donald Sturrock's "Storyteller" enriches the now-familiar outline of an eventful life with much new information, peels away the layers of myth that Dahl promulgated about himself, and makes clear the man's immense charm as well as his cold self-possession and emotional callousness. This is a major literary biography, immensely satisfying to read and worthy of its complex subject.
Dahl was only 3 when his Norwegian-born father died, leaving a sizable fortune (from shipping and coal). As a boy he attended prestigious Repton School, whose headmaster Geoffrey Fisher, a.k.a. "The Boss," eventually became archbishop of Canterbury. But instead of continuing on to university, young Dahl joined the Asiatic Petroleum Co., ultimately being posted to what was then Tanganyika, where he lived something of a pukka sahib life.
With the outbreak of World War II, Dahl trained as a pilot but crashed his plane, disastrously, en route to his first post in North Africa. His nose was pushed into his face and his body mangled: He suffered from spinal problems and headaches for the rest of his life and periodically underwent palliative operations to relieve the pain. While Dahl ultimately recovered well enough to fly again -- he participated in active aerial combat over Greece -- he was ultimately deployed to Washington to work in promoting the British war interests here. He was, after all, a tall, attractive English ace with five confirmed kills -- and, he now implied, he'd been shot down in the desert.
During his time in Washington, Dahl displayed astonishing social skills, becoming a confidant of Vice President Henry Wallace, winning the lasting friendship of newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, and bedding a series of pretty girls and older society matrons. Sturrock names names, including those of Clare Booth Luce, oil heiress Millicent Rogers and cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden. Dahl also became a spy for British intelligence's William "Intrepid" Stephenson, the landlord of philosopher Isaiah Berlin and, because of the influence of C.S. Forester, a writer. The creator of Capt. Horatio Hornblower had been asked to use Dahl's wartime crash as the basis for a propaganda article, but over dinner with the novelist, Dahl suggested that he himself scribble an initial draft. It was so accomplished that Forester's agent sold it to the Saturday Evening Post, where it appeared in 1942 as "Shot Down Over Libya."
With this encouragement, Dahl began to write in earnest. His first major project was a series of stories about gremlins, leprechaun-like creatures who vex pilots with all sorts of mischief. For a long time, Walt Disney hoped to make a movie based on a script Dahl wrote about gremlins, and this led to the writer spending time in Hollywood, where he hung out at Hoagy Carmichael's pool and slept with a former girlfriend of Cary Grant and Howard Hughes. But the Disney movie deal fell through, the war ended and Dahl moved back to England.
After a couple of misjudged projects -- the novel "Some Time Never" is an example of apocalyptic science fiction -- Dahl began to publish a series of macabre and often nasty short stories. These "tales of the unexpected," as he later called them, often involved insidious wagers: In "Taste," for instance, an acquisitive father "stakes his eighteen-year-old daughter's hand in marriage in a bet against a lecherous middle-aged wine connoisseur" who must precisely identify an obscure Bordeaux's vintage and vineyard. Oddly enough, Sturrock fails to mention Dahl's most famous short story, "Lamb to the Slaughter," in which a wife who has killed her husband ingeniously disposes of the highly original murder weapon.
The publisher Alfred Knopf liked these macabre tales and so brought out Dahl's first important book, "Someone Like You," and later followed up with its companion volume, "Kiss Kiss."
Then, on a business trip back to New York, Dahl met the actress Patricia Neal, who was brokenhearted over the end of her affair with Gary Cooper. In short order he persuaded her to marry him and live in what was sometimes known as the "Valley of the Dahls." Their life together was rocky from the start. But the pair made a go of it for a long while, and several terrible disasters -- including the death of a child -- drew them close. When Neal suffered a debilitating stroke at just 39, Dahl oversaw a relentless program for her recovery.
While Roald Dahl was deeply devoted to his mother, sisters and children, relishing the role of family man, he regularly cheated on Neal. The affairs were casual up until his mid-50s, when the writer fell in love with the 20-years-younger Felicity Crosland who, after much angst all around, became his second wife. The marriage proved a serenely happy one and allowed for the great final flourishing of the 1980s children's books: "The BFG," "The Witches," "Matilda" and the highly embroidered memoirs "Boy" and "Going Solo." I reviewed all these, and there's no denying his gripping power as a storyteller. J.K. Rowling, for one, clearly learned a lot from Dahl.
Such is an overview of Roald Dahl's life, but only that. Sturrock's "Storyteller" is so packed with intimate details, sharply intelligent commentary and surprising revelations -- in an early draft of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" the boy hero was black -- that it should be read immediately by anyone interested in Dahl, the ins and outs of modern publishing or the art of biography. I can't sing its praises enough.
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