Archive for October 9th, 2011

October 9, 2011

On Dahl

By now most people have probably read this brilliant Maurice Sendak interview in the Guardian. In between talking about his own work and life, Sendak also opines on other writers: Blake (he likes him), Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and Roald Dahl (he does not). Of Dahl, he says that “The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular but what’s nice about this guy? He’s dead, that’s what’s nice about him.”

It’s a fair point – Dahl’s work can be very cruel. But coincidentally I had a Dahl tribute piece out (in the Sunday Guardian, no relation) on the same day. Here it is:




The most heroic moment in Roald Dahl’s Matilda is not the one where Matilda finally takes her revenge on the evil Miss Trunchbull. It’s one that happens quite early in the book, when the greedy Bruce Bogtrotter is accused of stealing a piece of the headmistress’ chocolate cake. To punish him for his crime he is given a whole cake (“fully eighteen inches in diameter”!) for his own – but he must eat all of it, now, with the entire school as audience. It is a physically impossible task.

But Bogtrotter does it. With the whole school cheering him on (silently at first, openly as the Trunchbull’s defeat becomes inevitable) the cake is consumed, the headmistress beaten. It’s a victory that the entire student body is complicit in, and this is what makes it a revolution.

Growing up reading Dahl did involve feeling like a revolutionary. In part it was the books themselves, always a little more dangerous than people realised. Matilda was absolutely the sort of book many adults like to see children reading – the heroine is a little girl who loves to read and is brilliant at schoolwork. Focus on that (the cover with the adorable Quentin Blake heroine surrounded by books) and it’s easy not to pay attention to the overthrowing of the principal, or the idea that you can be cleverer and better than the adults around you. James and the Giant Peach has a boy escape his oppressive aunts.The title characters of The Fantastic Mr Fox (not a child, admittedly) and Danny the Champion of the World get away with poaching and theft. George (of George’s Marvellous Medicine) puts an end to his unpleasant grandmother. There are no children in The Twits (though the oppressed Muggle-wumps could stand in) but the adults are bratty, awful and without dignity. The Revolting Rhymes, by reinterpreting stories we already knew, let us feel like we were in on the joke. Were we really reading a book filled with fart jokes (The BFG) with the approval of our parents and teachers? We were, and I’m still not sure how.

Then there was the fact that Dahl also wrote for adults. Not every parent or librarian knew this, or was quite clear on which books were which, so that sometimes one found oneself reading morbid tales of sex and death while the world looked benevolently on.

Roald Dahl day is celebrated every September on the author’s birthday (the 13th), and it’s worth remembering that he is the author who introduced many of us to the macabre and the darkly funny. This year is also the 50th anniversary of James and the Giant Peach, which despite being populated with giant insects seems never to have traumatised anyone.

The blog “Better Book Titles”  recently suggested that James and the Giant Peach be retitled “It’s OK if giant fruit kills your aunts as long as they were bitches”.  For all their subversiveness, Dahl’s books never seem particularly subtle; good and bad characters are immediately obvious, and the bad ones are usually ugly. They die or are punished in horrible ways, and the general implication is that they deserve it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most famous of Dahl’s works. There’s didacticism here (the children deemed unworthy are punished out of all proportion for their faults) but the punishments were bizarre enough to make this enjoyable. Most people are unaware that a chapter of this book was removed for possibly being too awful –it contains implications of cannibalism. There’s an undercurrent of nastiness to much of Dahl’s work, and reading as an adult I’m a little alarmed at how acceptable I found this.

Not all of the nasty aspects of Dahl’s work are made acceptable by his brilliance. In my head, thanks to the Gene Wilder film, the Oompa-Loompahs of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are orange, green-haired people. In the version originally published they were dark-skinned, wore skins and grass-skirts, and were paid in cacao beans. In her essay “Fabling to the Near Night” children’s author Jane Yolen describes working as a junior editor at Knopf in the 60s, when Dahl refused to acknowledge this troubling aspect of the book because “Racism [was] an American problem”. Though the book was later changed, as Yolen notes, it “only slightly mitigated the p[roblem of a different-skinned people being held in semi-benign captivity for the reward of food and a place to live”*.

Dahl’s interactions with his editors must have been fierce – a number of the books were extensively rewritten and argued over before they could be published. Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown** quotes a letter sent to Dahl by Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, warning him that unless he could be more civil they would no longer publish him. The author moved to another publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) instead.

Nothing that I read about Dahl makes him sound like anyone I’d like to meet – the most charitable descriptions have him come off as abrasive at the very least. And yet. To completely separate artist from art is as glib as to completely conflate the two. Dahl is all over these works – all rudeness and deep nastiness and genius. And he has had a hand in shaping our childhoods, and that is somehow okay.


* Yolen, Jane. “Fabling to the Near Night.” In Touch Magic. New York: Philomel, 1981.

** Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994.