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 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.
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.
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."
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.
When 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.
The 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.
After 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:
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.
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.
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."
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!
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."
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.
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