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Jun012011

« In Which We Consider The Macabre Unpleasantness Of Roald Dahl »

Angry Man

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The stories are brilliant and the imagination is fabulous. Unfortunately, there is, in all of them, an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness, and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex.

- Noel Coward

Everyone knows Roald Dahl's last novel Matilda, his seemingly pro-female examination of a talented young girl oppressed by the provincialism of her parents. What they usually do not know is that the original draft of the book painted the protagonist as a devilish little hussy who only later becomes "clever", perhaps because she found herself without very much to do after torturing her parents. Dahl's editor Stephen Roxburgh completely revised Dahl's last novel and, in doing so, turned it into his most popular book.

In everything good there is also something bad, and this was not only the theme Dahl took up in much of his work for both children and adults, but it was also true of him personally.

In 1942 Dahl came to Washington for the first time, after being invalided out of the Royal Air Force. He was six-foot-six, a gargantuan man who still desired to be a boy. The young diplomat presented himself as full of charm, and he put that personality to work on the immensely wealthy publisher Charles Marsh, who had counted Lyndon Johnson as a protege. The idea of being a writer for children had surely entered Dahl's mind. He possessed a photographic memory for stories, recalling ones he had read or heard often in letters. In school he had been a mediocre student.

An unhappy and bullied little boy, in adulthood he longed for the kind of dominance he never achieved as a child. Even from his earliest days, he was a hateful little fuck. He began one prep school essay, "Sometimes there is a great advantage in traveling to hot countries, where niggers dwell. They will give you many valuable things." From a very young age Dahl found himself attracted to older women, cultivating many secret relationships throughout his life, including a variety of affairs with married women.

In 1938, his desire for a diplomatic posting had assigned him to Tanzania, formerly German East Africa. By the time he reached Washington, his capacity for pleasing females reached a fever pitch. Most of his opposite numbers considered Dahl a beautiful young man, and when the heiress and socialite Clare Boothe Luce was placed beside him at a table, she pounced on the opportunity to bring him home. In Jeremy Treglown's biography of Roald Dahl he reports that according to a friend, Dahl said:

I am all fucked out. That goddamn woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights. I went back to the Ambassador this morning, and I said, "You know it's a great assignment, but I just can't go on." And the Ambassador said, "Roald, did you ever see the Charles Laughton movie of Henry VIII?" And I said "Yes." "Well," he said, "do you remember the scene with Henry going into the bedroom with Anne of Cleves, and he turns and says 'The things I've done for England'? Well, that's what you've got to do."

at his writing desk

At just 25, a variety of literary figures were thrust into his oversized sphere. They included Martha Gellhorn (who thought him extremely attractive), Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward. Many of his artistic friends were also covertly working for other governments. His interest in writing, combined with his ludicrous tales of his wartime experience, quickly led him to Hollywood, where he immediately had much in common (appetite for clandestine inappropriate sex, hatred of Jews) with the Disney brothers. Walt Disney gave him the use of a car and put him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel!

Roald's idea was for a Disney movie that would animate the gremlins that the British air force complained screwed up their planes. His book The Gremlins immediately appealed to Disney, although the project never made it to the screen. Still he worked in counter-intelligence, largely using his talents as a gossip to funnel information and disinformation about England's enemies in Washington.

By this time Dahl had placed his penis inside of too many people and word was starting to spread. Martha Gellhorn felt that he hated women and was only nice to her as a means of accessing Ernest Hemingway. He penned an article in Ladies Home Journal where he described the most common heterosexual relationship as 70 percent based on sex and 30 percent based on mutual affection and respect. In his seventies he told an interviewer that, "There's one group of spiders where the female is so fierce that the male has to weave a web around her and wrap her up and as it were handcuff her before he can mate her - which is wonderful, I think. You could apply that to some females of the human species."

His early writing in the short story form was impacted by the political situation on the world stage. He believed in a world government and he was extremely sympathetic to Hitler, Mussolini, and the entire Nazi cause. His stories were filled with caricatures of greedy Jews. One suggests " a little pawnbroker in Housditch called Meatbein who, when the wailing started, would rush downstairs to the large safe in which he kept his money, open it and wriggle inside on to the lowest shelf where he lay like a hibernating hedgehog until the all-clear had gone." In 1951 he visited Germany with Charles Marsh and luxured in Hitler's former retreat at Berchtesgaden. His dislike of Jews and especially of Zionists was egged on by Marsh's Israel hatred, later encapsulated in a revolting letter to Marsh where he mocked the head of East London's B'Nai B'rith Club.

gary cooper and patricia neal in "The Foutainhead"

His friends were mostly communists, and they were under scrutiny from Joseph McCarthy's crusade against enemies of the state. He took pains to distance himself from such ideology, because he wanted more than anything to live in America. It was through his friend Dashiell Hammett that Dahl met the woman who would become his wife, the actress Patricia Neal. Hammett described her in this way to Hellman: "Pat's an awfully pretty girl, if you don't look at her hands and feet and can ignore that incredible carriage. She's very much the earnest future star at the moment and thus not entirely fascinating if you don't think her career the most important thing in the world."

Fresh off a scandalous affair with the married Gary Cooper, Neal was a hot property in Hollywood. (Cooper's wife telegrammed Neal: "I HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU HAD BETTER STOP NOW OR YOU WILL BE SORRY. MRS. GARY COOPER".) Dahl met her at a dinner party when she was starring in one of Hellman's plays. When she refused him right away, he felt he had to have her. She was not entirely blinded by the particulars of her paramour's charms, later recalling, "He had an enormous appreciation for anything he generated." Neal and Dahl were married at Trinity Church in New York on July 2, 1953, a broiling day.

At the same time, Dahl's career prospects, long stalled in the short story form, took a gigantic leap forward when Alfred Knopf read a story of his in The New Yorker and became a fan. His first work for Knopf was a collection of stories, Someone Like You. It was an immediate success and entered its fourth printing. The New Yorker, however, had changed fiction editors, and suddenly Dahl's style and reputation made him persona non grata with the returning editor Katharine S. White. Roald's follow-up was a play that flopped. More vaguely pornographic stories didn't sell to magazines, but a new collection of his earlier efforts sold decently well in America and in England, although the reviews were less than kind.

with his wife and valerie eaton griffith

The health of his children began to take over his life. The death of his young daughter Olivia and the struggles of his son Theo to survive induced a case of writer's block in Dahl. He told Alfred Knopf in 1963, "I feel right now as though I'll never in my life do any more! I simply cannot seem to get started again." It was in this aggravated state, affected by the vulnerability of his progeny, that he began to turn to writing for them instead of his less appreciative peers.

Amazingly, his first effort along these new lines, James and the Giant Peach (initially titled James and the Giant Cherry) was only a moderate success. His least anti-Semitic book, Peach features a young James Trotter bullied by sinister aunts. He leaves them for a fantasy world where he is advised by a grotesque grasshopper and other insects eager to sacrifice themselves for their new leader. Was it wholesome? Not really. Was it hateful? Most certainly not.

It was not until he penned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that he began to achieve the kind of critical and artistic success that would mark his work after 40. Distracted by the possibility of collaborating on a film with Robert Altman to be titled Oh, Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-ling-ling, he could not have anticipated the reaction to his latest novel for children, which he considered a distraction from his real work for adults that had been ignored for the past decade.

He was also increasingly in ill humor, dissatisfied with being confined to writing for children. He wrote a vicious attack on his peers in the field of children's literature requested by the New York Times, and it was so mean the paper moved it from the Sunday Book Review to a burial within the paper. He complained to Alfred Knopf, who wrote him that "in your case the point isn't that they should welsh at putting you on the front page but rather that they were stupid enough to expect a piece from you that they could print there."

illustrations for the first british edition of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'

Amazingly, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, offered in combination with James and the Giant Peach, could not be sold to British publishers. They felt the stories were "too adult." Dahl told his agent, "I refuse to peddle these two books around to all the publishers of London." There has always been something extremely disturbing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from the poverty-stricken house where the Buckets sleep together in one bed like animals, to the gruesome deaths and mutilations suffered by the winners of the contest. The hope that Wonka himself offers is also desolate - like James Trotter, his happiness consists of escape from a hateful and confusing world.

While he occupied himself writing viciously pornographic, misogynistic stories he would try to sell to Playboy, his wife continued starring in films and he both resented and enjoyed her success. Envy turned into concern when Neal suffered two brain aneurysms and was reduced to a shell of her former self, becoming deeply depressed and losing the last of her movie star looks in the process. She was also pregnant.

returning from the hospital after Patricia's stroke in 1965When Lucy Neal was born in perfect health, Dahl went back to the drawing board. He needed money to provide for his family badly, and his screenplay adaptation of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, much revised by other screenwriters, helped the bottom line. His fragile emotional state was directed largely in anger at Patricia Neal. He would threaten to go after other women in front of her, and mocked her vulnerability to friends. He still cared for her, but something of what they had together had been lost. The attention he once reserved for her was redirected towards their children.

Further adventures in Hollywood, including a comically bad first adaptation of Ian Fleming's book for his son, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, met with little critical or financial gain. A movie adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory initially met similar troubles: the studio wanted to change the title because "Charlie" was seen as a racial epithet that targeted African-Americans. Director Mel Stuart was disappointed with Dahl's script and brought in an unknown to rewrite it. David Seltzer added many of the film's most famous lines, and Dahl was a beacon of rage.

politically correct oompa loompas for the 1985 editionThe movie changed everything, though. Dahl's books began to sell through the roof - at one point in 1968 his publishers owed him over a million dollars. Knopf was panicked that after they rejected his book The Magic Finger, he would leave them for rival Harper & Row. It did not help matters when they hated his next effort, a story titled "The Fox", that Wes Anderson would adapt into a stop-motion feature in 2009. The internal memo within Knopf said, "the writing is poor, the fantasy is unbelievable, the plot is badly worked out and...contains a long middle section in which there isn't really much to illustrate." The company was also concerned about what they perceived as the book's pro-shoplifting point-of-view.

The book appeared as The Fantastic Mr. Fox, substantially altered so that the foxes were stealing from their persecutors after suggestions from Fabio Coen, an editor at Random House. Affected by the allegations of racism, Dahl revised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, replacing the Oompa Loompas with tiny hippies. Driven by the criticism, his two best works followed, both novella-length: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Danny the Champion of the World, in which he glamorized himself as a libertarian-esque father. He dedicated the book to his family.

Despite his love for them, he could not stay completely faithful in middle age. He took up with the wealthy heiress and mother of Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, gamely coaxing her into the bed he shared with Neal while she shot another film on location.  He was finding women were still extremely attracted to him even in his advanced age.

Patricia Neal made a friend out of a young woman, Felicity Crosland, who worked for David Ogilvy's advertising agency, but the moment she saw Patricia's husband, it was all over. When his daughter Tessa found out about the affair, she became another way of hiding the relationship from Patricia. Everyone who criticized Dahl for cheating on his wife was excommunicated from his good graces.

The Dahl family even vacationed with Crosland, and in Stephen Michael Shearer's biography of Neal, he describes a moment where Felicity gave Neal a triumphant look in a women's bathroom, gloating over the theft of her husband. While she did eventually put the pieces together - the little love notes, the glances between the two - the marriage continued until 1983, with Roald begging his wife to allow him to continue seeing Crosland.

By the late 1970s, a hip replacement, a growing dependence on alcohol, and his struggles on the page had combined to drive Dahl to despair. Money was not coming in as fast as it was going out, and building a pool for Patricia was only one of the expenses that took a toll on the family's finances. He was thrown out of a country club for screaming about the number of Jews allowed to dine in his presence, and his reputation began to take a hit. Many of his old friends no longer wanted to associate with him, and his daughter Lucy became addicted to cocaine.

with theo and ophelia dahl in 1982After Dahl finally married Felicity Crosland, entering the first happy marriage of his life was a panacea on his troubles. He finished the four-book contract with Random House that had dogged his thoughts, and began to write with a clear head. Some of his best work followed, and his collaboration with the illustrator Quentin Blake bore immediate fruit with the publication of The BFG by FSG, his first book away from his publisher of many years. He left because of Robert Gottlieb.

Dahl's clashes with Gottlieb amounted to a fundamental lack of respect for his editor. He suspected Gottlieb of not knowing as much about modern art as he did, and he was extremely pissed off that the editor wanted to censor his references to the size of Stravinsky's penis in My Uncle Oswald, a book that concerned a conspiracy to market and sell the semen of the world's finest male individuals. The Jewish Gottlieb had other reasons to object to some of Dahl's perceptions, even defending Proust when Dahl referred to him in one essay as an anti-Semite. Roald's departure from Random House was far from amicable. Robert Gottlieb wrote him the following letter:

Dear Roald,

This is not in response to the specifics of your last several letters to me and my colleagues, but a general response to everything we've heard from you in the past year or two.

In brief, and as unemotionally as I can state it: since the time when you decided that Bob Bernstein, I and the rest of us had dealt badly with you over your contract, you have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility. Lately you've began addressing others here - who are less well placed to answer you back - with the same degree of abusiveness. For a while I put your behavior down to the physical pain you were in and so managed to excuse it. Now I've come to believe that you're just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us.

Your threat to leave Knopf after this current contract is fulfilled leaves us far from intimidated. Harrison, Bernstein and I will be sorry to see you depart, for business reasons, but these are not strong enough to make us put up with your manner to us any longer. I've worked hard for you editorially but had already decided to stop doing so; indeed, you've managed to make the entire experience of publishing you unappealing for all of us - counterproductive behavior, I would have thought.

To be perfectly clear, let me reverse your threat: unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you. Nor will I - or any of us - answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we've been receiving.

Regretfully,

BG

After Gottlieb sent it off, the entire office gave him a standing ovation.

His loss was the gain of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A novel about a pedophilic monster who abducts a young girl and forces her to stare at the phalluses of larger giants, The BFG (essentially, The Big Fucking Giant) was just crazy enough to work. FSG editor Stephen Roxburgh saw the best of Dahl's previous successes in the book. In essence, the flatulent, verbally confused giant was Dahl's insensitive reimagining of his stroke-addled wife. Replete with cannibalism, explosive gas, and inspiring nightmares, it is hard to believe that anyone thought The BFG was appropriate for children, other than a sixth sense that it was something anyone might enjoy.

On the whole, Roxburgh's editorial advice was more up Dahl's alley. He knew how to approach Dahl - like a tenured elder - and Dahl incorporated his substantial rewrites of the book's dialogue verbatim. The resulting manuscript, followed in succession by Dahl's autobiographies as well as hits The Witches and finally Matilda, cemented Dahl's reputation as the finest and most popular children's writer in the world. The BFG was the second most popular children's book ever in France (behind Wonka), and Dahl was hugely famous in that country.

an early quentin blake drawing for "The BFG"

During this period, Dahl was open to making changes to the less politically correct elements of his books. He could not help noticing his sensibility was rooted in another generation, and he was smart enough to be conscious of the disconnect. He grudgingly edited out the more racist and disturbing parts of The BFG, and when it came time to edit his manuscript of The Witches, he was also open to more substantial alterations.

Roxburgh's revisions to The Witches were far more extensive than those he had proposed on The BFG. The editor's major suggestion was that the Witches should turn the narrator into a mouse, an idea that it is now impossible to imagine The Witches without. Dahl saw that these were improvements and went ahead, but Roxburgh had to be more subtle about his other objections to the novel. Apologizing in advance, he pointed out that the women in the story "took a lot of abuse."

with daughter Tessa in 1986

Despite changes to tone down that aspect of the final manuscript, feminists saw The Witches as a complete disaster. Catherine Itzin reported that the book is an example of "how boys learn to become men who hate women." In a reference guide to YA literature, Michele Landsberg wrote that, "Almost every one of his numerous books rehashes the same tired plot: a meek small boy finally turns on his adult female tormentors and kills them."

The criticism he received in those quarters and the abiding hatred he felt for Robert Gottlieb intensified his hatred of Jews. He explained to an interviewer in 1983 that "there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean there's always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason." Eventually a class in San Francisco would write him a bunch of letters on this subject. Two children managed this effort:

Dear Mr. Dahl,

We love your books, but we have a problem... we are Jews!! We love your books but you don't like us because we are jews. That offends us. Can you please change your mind about what you said about jews!

Love,

Aliza and Tamar

In 1985, the 71-year old Dahl began to fall seriously ill and his mind had started to go. A plagiarism incident revolving around a story he had stolen tarred his name and his writing became at the same time roundly terrible and excessively sexual. It is no wonder that his first effort at Matilda was so different from the classic we know today. A row with Roxburgh after he had incorporated all of the man's work on the book drove Dahl to another publisher for it, and Matilda was released by Viking instead, immediately selling more than any book Dahl had ever written.

By the end of the 80s, Dahl was cracked. He became obsessed with attaining knighthood for some reason, wanting Felicity to assume the title of Lady Dahl. He began giving money away in earnest to hospitals in order to increase the likelihood of this event - indeed, he always had a selfish reason for doing anything benevolent. His reaction to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie ensured his knighting would never occur, for he wrote to The Times of London that the man was "a dangerous opportunist." (His real jealousy likely oriented around the fact that Rushdie had won a Booker Prize and he hadn't.) People started to distance themselves from the old man in droves. When Martin Amis told Dahl he was about to have dinner with Rushdie, Dahl responded, "Tell him he's a shit."

felicity dahl at gipsy house

He died on November 23, 1990. Felicity Dahl became the principal executor of the tremendous wealthy estate, against the wishes of Dahl's daughters - they termed it a "stepmatriarchy." After Jeremy Treglown published his masterful life of Dahl, she toyed with suing him for slander and immediately designated a replacement biography, tapping Donald Sturrock to compose a more favorable portrait of her late husband. Reading the softer, authorized book, you would hardly notice that Dahl's attitude towards women and Jews resembled Willy Wonka's perspective on union labor.

I still remember squinting against the glare of a flashlight at my copy of Danny the Champion of the World, feeling the first true wonder of a story whose outcome I could not possibly anticipate. Dahl's books teach us that the world is a horrible, bigoted place, full of those who wish us ill. It is precisely because he attempted themes that other children's authors never even touched that his fantasies stand out so much in a crowded room.

The cumulative effect of these horror stories on me was unpleasant. Dahl's oeuvre, which I consumed with great fervor, illuminated a terrible side of my childhood, one I might rather have been indoctrinated in later on. The fact that the world is full of such misery is not a consoling idea at that age. But so what? To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl's problem, not my own. His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the studios of the artists.

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with his wife after her oscar for Hud in 1964 

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    In Which We Consider The Macabre Unpleasantness Of Roald Dahl - Home - This Recording
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    In Which We Consider The Macabre Unpleasantness Of Roald Dahl - Home - This Recording
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Reader Comments (81)

excellent, excellent, excellent.

I couldn't help but think of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, and how impossible it is to imagine Witches without the narrator as a mouse, and the completely unpredictable mind melds/tensions/whatever that produce great literature.

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterask-o

Maybe this is sacrilege, but when I read Mountains Beyond Mountains I couldn't stop thinking about how much Paul Farmer (who dated Ophelia Dahl) looks like Roald Dahl, even though they don't really look alike and I think I just wanted it to be true

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen

If you think he had a streak of cruelty and maleficence, you should read about some of the things God did in the Old Testament.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterophu

I found this article fascinating, but was startled to see my own name appear about halfway down. I am the novelist Ian Rankin - certainly one of them - but I was never a gambling buddy of Roald Dahl.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan Rankin

Guess I know who John Irving based much of father character in A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR on now.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve C.

My apologies to Ian Rankin. I was reading his wonderful novel Resurrection Men and it must have been stuck in my subconscious.

June 2, 2011 | Registered CommenterAlex

A great read, thanks :)

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConzpiracy

hard for me to maintain respect for dahl now; it's not his blatant anti-semitism nor the misogyny he wore like a crown, but because that terry cloth polo is fucking hideous.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterreynard

I loved Dahl as a child and still do. I didn't know what misogyny or anti-semitism was, but I did know that life was hard and I had very little control over it. You, dear author, seem to have been blessed with a childhood where the worst things you could experience were in books. Most children of the world are not as fortunate. That is why Dahl's books speak to us. In essence they are about children abused by the world who find a calm and wonderful inner strength with which to overcome their obstacles. He gives them the agency to find the magic within themselves helping them seize control over these awful situations. Most importantly, in the characters views of themselves, Dahl never writes them as the victim. Children don't see a bad, womanizing, jew hater. Children see characters like them who find hope, strength, and magic in the most bleak situations. Dahl's personal views are a shame, but his stories will always invigorate a child's spirit.

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChiara717

I had no intention to read this entire article.
I had no real opinion of Mr. Dahl, the person, before. What a fricking character! I had no idea. Maybe I'm a bit slow but I never picked up on the anti-semetic themes. Children writing letters?! Ha!! Good stuff, good writing. As a side note why do jewish weddings allow the Wagner's wedding march. Didn't Hitler site Wagner as an anti-jewish inspiration? True story. Google it.
Anyhow, thanks for the read.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKoakoa

Dear indignant person:

Your punctuation, sentence structure, and overall tone need some help. Let us know how we can help you write constructive criticism that might actually be taken seriously.

Sincerely,
Kara

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKara

Sorry, Alex, I'm fairly skeptical. I can believe Dahl had some rough edges, and the remark about Jews and Hitler was distasteful and stupid, but to me you haven't really backed up a great deal of your case. The drawing of Oompa Loompa's is ordinarily anachronistic for the time, and in any case, who cares if they happen to be black (look more like Pacific Islanders to me). I always thought BFG was "Big Friendly Giant". The quote from the Treglown bio seems to be hearsay ("he reports that according to a friend, Dahl said:"). I could go on. Plots in the books are dark, certainly, but solidly in the tradition of children's books, (Cinderella, Hansel and Gretal, etc). I buy Chiara's review. Wikipedia may not be absolutely authoritative, still the picture painted there is quite at odds with yours:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roald_dahl

Wikipedia do report the Hitler-Jew thing, and that his second marriage was the consequence of an affair, etc. So he was a flawed individual and sometimes behaved in an ugly way, as do many of us. But from where do you conclude with such certainty "Even from his earliest days, he was a hateful little fuck"? Do you think that using the pejorative "niggers" in a prep school essay in UK in the 1920's justifies this description? Or inflammatory phrasings like "By this time Dahl had placed his penis inside of too many people and word was starting to spread."

I think it is possible that you're stirring for effect. Any comment?

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

As if fairy tales, the original ones, were not full of woe and pain and despair. Sometimes blood. Sometimes, good gracious!, they were really macabre, even.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

It's hard for me to be objective about your editorial - Dahl is apparently not the only 'hateful little shit' writing stuff out there. I might also point out that, honest reporting aside, there is such a thing as laying it on too thick against someone who cant defend themselves.

More to the point, I find your article rather contemptible. You can hate an author's views, his personal life or his morals, but you can do so in a professional manner. If Dahl hated Jews, that was his business, but I've read his complete works, and I'd have to look pretty darn hard to find any anti-semitism there. Perhaps I am not sensitive enough, but I tend to take children's literature mostly at face value.

Finally, I might add that Dahl's book were the first real books many of my friends read. Whatever the man's personal views or vices, he opened up a world of literature and the joy of reading for pleasure to hundreds of people of my personal acquaintance. If you are going to reject all literature because of the politically incorrect views of the writers, then you will be stuck reading very little indeed - no Vonnegit, no Jack London, no Seinbeck or Poe, no Hemmingway or Twain, no Shakespeare or Marlowe, no Joyce or Wilde; frankly, you would be hard pressed to find many authors you could read.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHaldon

If I ever get famous, after I die I suppose they'll dig up the grade school essay where I stated that I wanted to shoot all the African poachers, then I drew a picture where I was shooting black people. Then Alex Carnevale would call me a hateful fuck.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah TX

I know how to get attention - slag off a favourite children's author.

Well done! Have a biscuit.

Sigh.

It is like watching a little kid jump up and down and shout, 'lookit me mummy! lookit me!'

A bit sad, really.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJC

"James and the Giant Peach [...] was his least anti-Semitic book"
When I read that, the attention-seeking nastiness of the article finally made me laugh. It reminds me of Ben Stein's 'Expelled', where everything about evolution is connected to Nazis.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

This was an excellent read, and reminiscent of similar criticisms made of Dickens (consider Scrooge and, less persuasively, Fagin), but I'm afraid its credibility is tarnished somewhat by its perpetuation of the old smear that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite. Here's a taste of relevant reading on the subject.

Incidentally, ever since I revisited Dahl as an adult I've thought of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as one of his weakest works, not least in part of the transparent didacticism. Regardless of its intentions it has a stink of dated propaganda.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas

I read his short story Pig as a child and it put me off his work completely (for those that haven't read it, it involves a sheltered child experiencing the outside world and tasting pork for the first time, before going on tour of the pork factory just to be killed and bled out, his last moments hung upside down on a hook watching a grandmother and grandchild been lowered into a boiling vat as they bled out and died too). There's putting a child in a cruel situation and having them overcome it through inner-strength, then there's perversely enjoying the cruel and macabre world.

For instance in his actual children books, having Willy Wonka murder a teacher and his daughter just so they can be ground up into powder that children can use to skive school isn't inspiring or educational about cruelty, it's just flat out sadistic. I'm not wanting to mollycoddle the young, but I'd prefer it if my children stories dealt with the harsh aspects of life maturely, not revelling in the torture and execution of fellows.

If you never pick up on those details I suppose I can understand why you might enjoy the books still, but for me I could only ever see the twisted man behind those words.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTed

I would suggest that the 'author' of this piece focus less on the fantasy issues he projects upon Dahl, and instead worries more about his own, clearly severe mental issues. Disgraceful.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I think some of the responses miss the point.
The article is obviously a parody of the extreme tribalist mentality of some Jews, which see anti-semitism everywhere, malevolently ready to pounce under every bed and in every corner. The Dershowitz-style hysteria is well lampooned in the article, where every non-positive mention of Jews is taken as a knock on Anne Frank's door, if not a new Holocaust. As such, it's a very well written article.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLyndon

Jonathan and Haldon: Well said, sirs.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSweetD

I can't say more about how interesting this is, especially since I just began Dahl's novel 'My Uncle Oswald', perhaps his most fiendishly and overtly perverse piece of writing.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Uncle_Oswald

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike

This, as others have roundly praised, is superior writing about a superior writer. I too read Danny.. with a flashlight. I too was introduced to its gentle and realistic cynicism and left to wonder about the world of adults. But this piece also condemns with facts and excerpts. I didnt know about the man. Now i do. What an eye-opener.

Well done.

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoh Nelsener

I've read Dahl, but not extensively. I always put down his books with the feeling there was either something neurologically wrong with him, or he was downright evil. The majority of good writing is projective, and it's clear Dahl's virulent hatred of Jews and disdain for Blacks is not so much reflective of this big scary world we live in, but Dahl's pettiness and inner demons. Outstanding bio though, cheers.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Christiane

Read any Grimm's Fairy Tale and you'll see the roots of Roald Dahl's sensibilities. They are old world European. I don't care for Dahl's antisemitism, antifeminism, or his racism. But take away the view that the world IS a horrid, evil place and you get Disney.

My German grandmother used to tell us the old fairy tales, and we loved them, precisely because they backed up our children's back-of-the-mind understanding that the world is a dangerous place. The fact that the fairy tales confirmed it was somehow comforting. Why do you think teenagers love the vampire and horror movies? Same reason. If you sanitize the truth, you kill a part of yourself in the process.

It sounds as though Dahl benefited from good editors, like all writers. James and the Giant Peach was my personal favorite, and it contains the ancient fairy tale format of going through fire and becoming a better person, being redeemed. Your article reveals Roald Dahl in his ying and yang, to be both good and bad, like all humans.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMimi Stratton

Exceptional article. I had no insight into this guy and only planned to skim this piece but you sucked me in and I read the whole thing. Very interesting.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercjy

"...he was extremely sympathetic to Hitler, Mussolini, and the entire Nazi cause." Given his experience in WWII, where he courageously fought - and lost many comrades to - the Nazi cause, this statement is hard to believe.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Fascinating article, and very colorful indeed. I'd be curious to learn more about your sources.

Your tone throughout the piece sounds as if you'd made up your mind about Dahl long before you wrote this, and the determination with which you attack his popular image makes me question the veracity of this article. I'm sure Dahl had his warts, like anyone, but without any sort of documentation or references this feels a lot more like a hatchet job than a well-reasoned critique.

To present just one counter-argument to the many claims you make, in his autobiographies Dahl repeatedly wrote of his dislike of Germans in general (and Nazis specifically) based on his experiences in the RAF in WWII. It's hard, then, to imagine him as a Nazi sympathizer.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter B.

The BFG is a big paedophile who kidnapped a girl and showed her penises??

This article says a lot more about than the author than it does about Dahl.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

Brilliant article. There is no denying that Dahl was an ingenious and highly successful children's writer. He was accustomed to having his way with women and with those who surrounded him. He saw himself as an accomplished and deserved country gentleman, and always felt that writing children's stories were below his merit. His ego was immense.

As Patricia Neal's biographer (Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life due out in paperback this July), I must concur with Alex Carnevale's acute observations and remarks.

What I left out of my Neal biography, based on comments she confided to me over the years about her husband and their marriage, along with memories and recollections of him by family friends who both loved and hated Dahl, could fill another book.

Carnevale's evaluations of Dahl in this article are modest in light of whom and what the real man really was.

I suppose posting easy access to sources ala Wikipedia could prevent some of the insane comments here but then I wouldn't have been able to laugh at 'If you hate Jews, that's your business.'

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterParker

Thanks for the support from Stephen Michael Shearer. His recent biography of Patricia Neal, which I so enjoyed, helped me paint the picture here.

If you want to learn more about Dahl, I recommend his book, along with Jeremy Treglown's excellent biography.

June 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterAlex

Wow - way to be insulting manure. So if folks have an opinion different to yours they are stupid?

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercjy

This article seems very mean-spirited and takes easy shots. For me it loses credibility because of it. It gives me the impression that the author wasn't concerned with determining whether there is another side of the story or putting some of the quotes into context.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"The fact that the world is full of such misery is not a consoling idea at that age."

I feel just the opposite. Children already know that the world is full of misery, and reading a book where a child overcomes adversity is hopeful and inspiring to a kid. It was for me, in any case. Regardless of how awful a person he was, I do not feel the need to impugn his books as Bad for Children. Dahl's books were a spot of light in my tumultuous childhood

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJill

Oh my!
This means that middle class schoolboys in 1920s england used language now deemed unacceptable by the liberal editors of 21st century culture blogs!

Incisive work Alex.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMjd

My opinion of Jason Kottke has gone down, because he linked to this article on his blog.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAntimo Oliveira

Things were going fine with this article until I came across the completely baseless, tired, and untrue assertion that the Disney Brothers were anti-Semitic. The bizarre assertion about their "appetite for clandestine inappropriate sex" is a new twist for me, but nonetheless equally untrue.

Dropping in such a widely-disproved trope as an uncontested "fact" serves to discredit the rest of the unsourced assertions in the article.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Crawford

I have to agree with Crawford above. There are alot of ugly things on display here, but the oft-repeated yet entirely false accusation that the Disneys were anti-semetic obliterates your credibility. And the bit about "inappropriate sex" just appears to be completely fabricated.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDFT

"There are alot of ugly things on display here, but the oft-repeated yet entirely false accusation that the Disneys were anti-semetic obliterates your credibility. And the bit about "inappropriate sex" just appears to be completely fabricated."

This. I would like to see your sources for this. Family Guy doesn't count.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRandy

Really? We're trotting out the disproven urban legend that the Disney brothers were anti-Semites? In an alternate world where Paul Revere warned the British not to adopt a gun-control policy whilst riding down the road on his horse, musket in one hand and a bell in the other, that might be true. In the real world, not so much. Bad form!

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Landon

Not that this is relevant, but the irony was to delicious to resist: @Koakoa, the wedding march is by Mendelssohn - who far from being a Nazi was in fact Jewish.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteryga

I've pre-ordered Stephen Michael Shearer's "An Unquiet Life". Can't wait.
I've also selected the authorized bio of Dahl at the library.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMimi Stratton

I've never seen any actual proof that either of the Disney brothers was anit-semetic in any way. So not sure I can really take any of the rest of this article as proof of anything. Interesting read, though.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMK

I have to confess I didn't get very far with this article; by the second paragraph I began to wonder whether the author was actually fluent in English, or if perhaps this had been translated from a foreign language. If nothing else, it's a testament to the value of a good editor--too bad one wasn't available.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEenie

Where to start? I have six children's books to my credit BECAUSE I loved Dahl's work as a child and adult. Every kid I know loves Dahl. I have never seen his work as bigoted in any way, except toward spoiled children, which the cowardly author of this article seems to be. Shoddy research piled up beside fabrication, with gossip, innuendo and libel shoveled on for good measure. Seriously, in a world seemingly crawling with abundant targets for character assassination, you take aim at a deceased children's author?! This piece fast became a nut-bag rant and some sort of bizarre confessional for your own personality problems. So, anyway, good luck with your little blog, I'm sure we'll all still be reading it in 50 years as a timeless classic.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrett Woodward

Whew. This article is well-researched and very interesting, but the grammar needs some serious help, and the tone is so far from objective as to be obnoxious. You can make a statement without being so heavy-handed! Journalists have been doing this for decades!

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZara

Well regardless of whether this is an accurate portrayal of the man you have certainly stirred it up - which was likely your intention Alex - so congrats for that.

June 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercjy

To those who have written these over-the-top criticisms of this article, all I can say is, "Get over yourself, people!"

June 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMimi Stratton

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