The Magazine

Valley of the Dahls

The misanthropic stories of Roald the Rotten

Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Both stories, deftly paced and neatly closed, show once again Dahl's interest in exposing casual evil lurking beneath a facade of innocence -- as well the perversion and greed he found so persistently at work in human nature.

During the 1960s, Dahl's success, and Neal's, allowed them to fill a rambling old house in Buckinghamshire -- "Gipsy House" as it was famously called -- with antiques, paintings, and an impressive collection of fine wine. But the decade also brought trauma and hardship. In 1960, the Dahls' four-month-old son, Theo, was struck in his pram by a speeding cab. Suffering severe head injuries, the infant developed hydrocephalus and required a valve implantation to drain fluid from his brain. The child endured several operations, as well as discomfort caused by the valve itself.

With the help of an airplane modeler, Stanley Wade, and a neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, Dahl developed a better shunt for relieving symptoms produced by "water on the brain." The Wade-Dahl-Till valve remains in wide use, and in later years Dahl often called it his most satisfying accomplishment.

In 1962 the Dahls' eldest child, seven-year-old Olivia, died from measles. Two years later, Patricia Neal suffered several strokes that left her severely impaired, without her memory, and unable to speak or write. Dahl devoted great energy to his wife's recovery, as Barry Farrell's bestselling Pat and Roald (1969) revealed. Dahl developed a series of highly demanding therapeutic programs that gradually allowed Neal to resume her acting career.

At this stage Dahl showed his own growing interest in television and film. He contributed to the screenplay of the James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice (1967). He tried unsuccessfully to adapt Aldous Huxley's Brave New World for the screen. He also contributed largely unused material to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a hit based on the children's book by Bond's creator Ian Fleming, one of the few writers Dahl openly admired. Dahl's attempts at scriptwriting stemmed directly from the fact that he now found fiction to be both difficult and unprofitable.

A certain creative flagging is already evident in his stories from the late 1950s. Dahl's characters are less sharply drawn; some of his narratives lack snap. In "Royal Jelly," for example, an obsessed beekeeper feeds his infant daughter great gobs of a gooey, super-nutritious substance he culls from backyard hives, and -- rather too predictably -- transforms her into a weird creature as insect-like as himself. In "Pig," a young man reared as a vegetarian takes a tour of a meat packing plant where he ends up shackled and skinned along with other unsuspecting beasts. The story's point isn't clear. Is Dahl ridiculing the naivete of vegetarianism or aiming to make steak-eaters queasy? In any event, the story is marked by an unsettling sadistic glee.

In Dahl's world, only children merit much sympathy. The adult can be clever, but he's also envious, self-deluding, and dangerous -- especially when his ego is bruised. This is particularly clear in "The Last Act," one of four stories about sex that first appeared in Playboy. It centers on Anna, a lonely widow who, while on a business trip in Dallas, arranges to meet Conrad, an old flame. Anna wants to reminisce; Conrad wants revenge. He's still outraged that Anna dropped him some thirty years before, so he gets her drunk and lures her to bed -- not for romance but ruthless humiliation. He tortures her with taunts meant to shake her already unsteady psychological state. "The Last Act" is far from amusing, for one gets the sense that Dahl is, at least to some degree, cheering Conrad on.

Dahl and Patricia Neal divorced in 1983, prompting wide attention in the British press. Dahl remarried, but his later years were severely strained by illnesses, including the leukemia that killed him at the age of seventy-four. Dahl's personal difficulties did little to temper his already rough and volatile personality. During the early 1980s, for example, he expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in a review attacking Israeli military policy in Lebanon. The article -- followed by Dahl's vague apologies -- sparked a brief controversy in Britain, where, thanks to his children's books and years of positive publicity, Dahl was widely regarded with affection. Many readers knew him only as an eccentric but disciplined craftsman. But Dahl had long liked to shock, and many of his enemies -- and friends -- knew well the nasty side of a man they sometimes called "Roald the Rotten."

In a perceptive review, the British writer Claire Tomalin noted that Dahl's children's books are "funny and ingenious," and young readers are bound to respond to "the sheer brio" of their narratives. But these works also show a "binary view of the universe," where "things and people are either wholly good or bad" or "delicious or disgusting." And this view is even more apparent in his writings for adults -- which means that the recent trend of marketing Dahl's "adult" works to younger readers in such collections as Skin and The Umbrella Man makes sense, for he remained, even in his seventies, something of an adolescent himself.

Still, the idea does give one pause, and prompts the consideration of other possibilities -- Ambrose Bierce for Boys and Girls, perhaps. But then, we do live in coarse and cynical times, as every kid already knows, and next to South Park, say, or the rap star Eminem's latest CD, Roald the Rotten looks positively tame.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland.