New biography offers an unvarnished account of an author’s troubled life
“When writing stories, I cannot seem to rid myself of the unfortunate habit of having one person do nasty things to another person,” Roald Dahl once said during his introduction to an episode of the program Tales of the Unexpected based on his short story “Neck.”
Devotees of Dahl’s work, and those of us who may not identify as fans but read his yarns with a kind of wary interest, might wonder now and then about the sources of the bitterness, cruelty, and viciousness so pervasive in that part of his oeuvre meant for adults. A reader of Matthew Dennison’s finely written Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected may come away with a sense that the notable personal and professional successes in the writer’s life were punctuated by so much frustration, failure, horror, and trauma that Dahl could not have kept these things out of his writing if he had wanted to do so.
Crash-landing his plane and suffering injuries as an RAF pilot in the deserts of Libya during the war may have been one of the lesser calamities to befall Dahl, when you consider how many young British men suffered permanently debilitating or disfiguring wounds and just shy of 400,000 of his countrymen did not come home at all.
As Dennison details, the real trials in Dahl’s life began when he embarked on a literary career and wedded Patricia Neal, whose success on the screen and ability, at times in their marriage, to earn vastly more from her acting than Dahl did from his writing put him to shame. Dahl probably did not much like the fact that Neal had been smitten with the more photogenic Gary Cooper, who reportedly pressured her into getting an abortion. Neal would later come close to death from a stroke, but Dennison’s account of this malady is far from the ghastliest thing in his short book. The passages about Roald and Patricia’s daughter Olivia falling ill with measles and dying at the age of just seven are harrowing.
Also hard to take is the incident where a car on a busy street in Upper Manhattan hits the pram carrying their male child, Theo, and then speeds up rather than stopping, causing the tiny boy to go flying through the air. Theo lived but contracted a form of hydrocephalus so severe that it called for the development of a special valve, which still bears Dahl’s name along with those of its other inventors. Blessedly, Theo got better, and the valve played a role in the recovery of thousands of other kids.
Dennison describes a father who responded to the accident with resolution and courage, sticking by the boy in the hospital, following every development, generally defying circumstances that might have driven other parents to despair. This contrasts with other passages in the book where Dahl responds to his own body’s problems and his personal and professional frustrations by overindulging in drink.
Dahl sells his fiction to magazines and makes a nice bit of cash, but tries his hand at writing a novel only to find that this step up does not come as easily and organically as he hoped. Some Time Never is a train wreck of a book no one wants to touch. Dahl pals around with Ernest Hemingway and uses his RAF ties to get Papa a correspondent gig, but then Hemingway’s wife Martha Gellhorn, who did not get to go with her husband on the press dispatch, finds a stay with Dahl to be excruciatingly dull.
Dahl’s story “The Way Up to Heaven” appears in the New Yorker in January 1954, and then years go by before he can place more work there. A meeting with a young Robert Altman leads to a deal where the two will jointly pitch a film to the studios, with Dahl as writer and Altman as director, but what seems like a promising venture goes sideways and Dahl gets screwed out of the $75,000 promised to him when United Artists says no to having Altman direct. Dahl’s fortunes fluctuate and tensions with the more consistently successful Patricia fester until he begins to cheat on her with the woman who will become his second wife. His health is treacherous and he drinks with abandon.
In the midst of all this, Dennison stresses how charming, funny, and kind the writer could be, personally answering letters from readers of his children’s books and treating his zanier correspondents with respect and fondness. But even in a century not known for the saintly deportment of its writers and public figures, the dog-eat-dog struggles and the luridness and tragedy of his inner life cannot fail to make an impression. Dennison has helped readers grasp how the life of Dahl the man must have informed the work of Dahl the writer. The nastiness comes out over and over in his work, sometimes in inspired forms and at other times in ways it would be hard to call intelligent.
For an example of the latter, consider the fifth film in the James Bond franchise, 1967’s You Only Live Twice, which came about after producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Bruccoli approached Dahl looking to hire a screenwriter. For some of us, this movie epitomizes everything that made us hate the Bond franchise right up until its Daniel Craig reconfiguration: gadgets, cute violence, cheesy humor, cartoonish villains, and faceless, one-note ciphers introduced and killed off so perfunctorily that their lives and deaths lack all resonance and they are so much fodder for the titillation of juveniles.
It’s a shame that this film is so idiotic, because the premise is kind of interesting. Ten years after the launch of Sputnik 1, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were still both insanely jealous of their respective space programs, and a madman’s plot to provoke a war between the great powers by stealing their rockets could have made for a riveting drama if done right. If you didn’t see Dahl’s name in the credits, you would never guess that the screenwriter was a world-famous author.
Dahl’s preoccupations emerged in infinitely more engaging form in the ironic, witty, dark stories that will continue to be read and celebrated. Of these, you could find few more interesting examples than “Skin,” which ran in the New Yorker in May 1952 and lent its title to one of his edgiest collections. This tale of what happens to an aging man who has, on his back, the work of an artist who was unknown when they hung out together in Paris in 1913, but whose paintings are now the crown jewels of any gallery that can get ahold of them, lends itself to reading on so many levels.
The story is about the commodification of art, or the mercenary nature of dealers not unlike some of the editors and producers Dahl dealt with over the course of his career, or the lengths to which people will go to get what they want—literally selling their own skin—or simply about the callousness and brutality of the world. This is brilliant stuff—the right sort of darkness, the best kind of Dahl.