“Roald the Rotten”

This review was written by Ann Hulbert and printed in the April 26, 1994 edition of The New York Times.

“Roald the Rotten”

ROALD DAHL: A BIOGRAPHY. By Jeremy Treglown. Illustrated. 322 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

ONCE upon a time, when he was a boy, Roald Dahl was known as “the Apple,” because he was his mother’s favorite child. He grew quickly, and when he set out to seek his fortune he was called “Lofty,” because he was so tall, and so gallant as a young R.A.F. fighter pilot in Africa during World War II.

Eventually he became a real grown-up and got married. His first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, was moved, more than once, to use a moniker that plenty of his acquaintances – and at least some readers of his misanthropic adult fiction – would have endorsed: “Roald the Rotten,” because he could be so appallingly intolerant and cruel.

“The packaging of Roald Dahl,” in Jeremy Treglown’s phrase, has been a tricky business for all concerned. When he became a world-famous figure, thanks to the phenomenally popular children’s fiction that he wrote in his last three decades, Dahl himself savvily began molding a public myth out of the private contradictions of his life. His shadow also loomed over a couple of dazzled biographies produced in the wake of his success with James and the Giant Peach and the dozen or so books that followed.

Now Mr. Treglown has undertaken the delicate task from a greater distance, and with great deftness. Roald Dahl: A Biography, appearing four years after its subject’s death at the age of 74 in 1990, does not at all suffer from being unauthorized. In fact, it is the perfect antidote to Dahl’s own triumph at image making, his vivid – and far from entirely truthful – memoirs of his childhood and adventurous early manhood, Boy and Going Solo. Mr. Treglown has produced a scrupulously fair-minded and revealing, if hardly affectionately intimate, account that dwells, as it must, on Roald Dahl’s less entrancing maturity.

In his sketch of the early life, Mr. Treglown helpfully focuses on Dahl’s complicated dependence on his mother, Sofie, who was abruptly left a widow and bereft mother in 1920 when her only son was 4; Harald Dahl, a very successful Norwegian immigrant to Wales, died months after the death from appendicitis of their oldest daughter, Astri. Sofie Dahl, also Norwegian, bravely carried on, and was clearly a figure who loomed very large for her son: doting, demanding and undemonstrative all at once.

The separating was not easy. She cast her dear Apple out at the tender age of 9, shipping him off to a bleak English boarding school as his father had wished. (Boy, the first volume of Dahl’s memoirs, is fixated on floggings – and somewhat loose with the galling facts, Mr. Treglown has discovered: the headmaster who bloodied his best friend’s backside was not, as Dahl claimed, the future Archbishop of Canterbury.) In turn, a decade later Sofie Dahl stoically endured his departure to the wilds, when he disappeared into East Africa, serving first as an employee of Shell Oil and then as a wartime recruit in the Royal Air Force. As Going Solo reveals, one tie tugged at Dahl during what otherwise felt like a fantastic sojourn into an unreal landscape and an inhuman moment in history: his mother was never far from his mind.

NO wonder Dahl ended up being so hard on the other women in his life, so eager to play the indulged son – now wittily ingratiating, now rudely belligerent – with his friends and acquaintances, rather than act like a responsible, respectable adult. The immature and rebellious profile seems pretty plain. And what could be more predictable than that such a man would conclude, as Dahl proclaimed he did, that the key to success as a writer was in conspiring with children to remain childlike in defiance of adults?

But Mr. Treglown rightly doesn’t endorse such a facile, therapeutic connection between the life and the work. As he proceeds with his account, it becomes evident that the relationship was considerably less straightforward. Mr. Treglown makes it hard to view the man simply as a case of arrested development, or the work as an instance of purely realized revolt. Dahl’s subsequent family life entailed plenty of grim maturing on his part. And his literary career as a children’s author, his biographer reveals, was hardly a spontaneous, rebellious development. Dahl was not quite the defiant character or the subversive Great Writer that he liked to claim.

Mr. Treglown sticks to a studiously unsensational narrative of the domestic tragedies suffered by Dahl and Patricia Neal. That is no small feat, since there’s grist enough here for a much more Gothic treatment. The auguries for the marriage were ominous from the start. As Ms. Neal reveals in her autobiography, As I Am (1988), she knew she didn’t love him from the moment they married in 1953. Still, she wanted to have “beautiful children” with him, and indeed they came, but so did a succession of disasters. Their infant son was left brain damaged in 1960 when a Manhattan taxi hit the baby carriage; two years later, their 7-year-old daughter died of measles in Great Missenden, the family’s English refuge; three years after that, amid the bustle of Hollywood, Ms. Neal was incapacitated by cerebral aneurysms in mid-career.

Without compromising his own professional cool, Mr. Treglown might, in fact, have usefully incorporated some of the confessional heat of Ms. Neal’s account and of Working for Love (1989), the fictionalized memoir written by Dahl’s second daughter, Tessa. They were, arguably, his two main victims – a wife whom he tyrannically goaded to recovery (his solicitude not always distinguishable from sadism) and ultimately rejected; and a traumatized, neglected child. Their outpourings confirm, with real vividness, the ambivalent portrait the biographer aims to present.

In painful detail they both dramatize what Mr. Treglown summarizes: how harshly manipulative Dahl could be as a husband and father, but also how zealously protective. The man who emerges undeniably had prodigious energy, but “sparky” – Dahl’s term for the ideal uninhibited, anarchic zest that all too few grown-ups possess – he isn’t. On the contrary, Dahl appears to have been desperate in his emotional life for that distinctively adult experience, control.

What comes as a greater surprise is that in his literary life, Dahl was remarkably reactive, even collaborative. Most of the domestic turmoil behind him, Mr. Treglown turns to Dahl’s fate in the publishing marketplace during his last decade, when his lucrative second act as a children’s writer peaked. His dealings with his editors were by now a major preoccupation for him, and they provide his biographer with a notable revelation.

Mr. Treglown, a former editor himself (of The Times Literary Supplement), is adept at culling drama from one of the few caches of letters evidently available to him: the correspondence files of Dahl’s editors (mainly Robert Gottlieb, then at Knopf, and later Stephen Roxburgh, who was at Farrar, Straus & Giroux). And Dahl is the kind of demand-side writer well suited to such treatment (all too rare in literary biographies, which habitually pronounce on the mysterious transformation of life into art but not on the more mundane transformation of rough draft into art). For all his respect for pure genius, Dahl was himself less inner-driven than guided by audience response, a Grub Street phenomenon with very distinctive gifts.

Among them turned out to be a voice on the page especially tuned to children’s ears. But he didn’t by any means have perfect pitch: Dahl counted increasingly on his editors’ help not simply with stylistic fine points but also with larger matters of structure and character. Stephen Roxburgh offered the most extensive help, tinkering with The BFG, reworking The Witches, proposing that Dahl try a memoir and then helping with research for both Boy and Going Solo. Though some earlier changes had arguably had a domesticating effect (removing a graphic passage about nose-blowing from The Twits, making the hero of Fantastic Mr. Fox a noble avenger rather than a shoplifter, and so on), the later revisions were not done to satisfy the “pseudo-liberal librarian mentality,” as Mr. Roxburgh put it. They were to improve plots, rearrange and reconceive characters, tighten up the writing. Dahl was never coerced: this valuable writer was only expertly cajoled, and for the most part that was all it took. He responded to suggestions with mature flexibility, gratefully acknowledging problems and rewriting with flair.

But that is only half the story. Once the work was over, Dahl’s mood would swing and the ensuing confrontation with his publishers, as Mr. Treglown describes the pattern, had a very adolescent flavor. It usually began with financial complaints, then turned frivolous. The scene at Knopf was memorable. One day, after putting up with Dahl’s ever more abusive demands from England for a particular American brand of pencil, Mr. Gottlieb finally took away the keys to the car. “I’ve come to believe that you’re just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us,” the editor wrote in an outraged letter. “Unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to continue to publish you.”

WHAT’S most striking is the triviality of the tantrum –about pencils, not principles. This was not some taboo-breaking writer letting loose his pent-up fury at bowdlerization. In fact, the to–do, like his subsequent rupture with Mr. Roxburgh, can’t help looking like almost the opposite: an obligatory show of contrariness, as if to convince himself, and his editors, that he was a demanding and independent troublemaker, despite his market–pleasing talents, desires and needs.

And he could be truly repellent, not merely a bully but a bigot, as a public literary controversy in 1983 made plain. Dahl’s anti-Semitic review of a book about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which appeared in The Literary Review, was roundly attacked; this row was a matter of principle, his critics rightly saw, and the principle for Dahl was rank prejudice against Jews. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason,” he offered in his own defense.

As Mr. Treglown observes, Dahl belatedly worried that these views had gotten in the way of the knighthood he yearned for. To be subversive, he generally seemed to feel, was one way to be taken seriously, or at least to make a stir. On fictional terrain at least, it was a promising formula for a writer defensive, as Dahl was, about his status as a children’s author. Moreover, he had the perfect bad-boy literary reputation to build on, given his macabre adult fiction. At their best, as in “The Way Up to Heaven” and “William and Mary,” which Mr. Treglown rightly singles out, his stories offered up haunting fables of revenge. What more natural candidate could there be to claim a place in the gruesome, Grimm-style children’s tradition being sanctioned by Bruno Bettelheim, and not by benighted librarians?

But the truth is that Dahl was a tamer phenomenon in children’s literature than he ever wanted to acknowledge. To be sure, he was eager to offend taste, and did it with a zest that kids appreciate. He knew how to be frightening, and often gave his readers the pleasure of being truly, if briefly, petrified. He took satisfaction in being unceremoniously honest about adults’ vicious hypocrisies and about children’s tyrannical appetites. Along with a gift for embroidering on basic infantile fantasies (from chocolate to witches), he had a sharp satiric eye and ear: it was a one-of-a-kind blend.

Yet it needn’t detract from his power to suggest that perhaps his deepest appeal isn’t terribly iconoclastic. Dahl’s abiding theme is nostalgic and idealistic. For all the horrid children he put on parade (Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leads the way) and the oppressive adults he exposed (the bald crones in The Witches, masquerading as demure members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, are perhaps the scariest specimens), Dahl had another aim in mind than conjuring up a generational war or abyss. The heart of almost every book is a paean to the possibility of perfect love and true sympathy between a very small person and a very big person of a special, “sparky” kind.

This is a conventional pastoral vision, and what gives Dahl’s version of it special force is that he doesn’t take the most sentimental route and simply project his dreams onto the small, helpless people. The favored children in Dahl’s books are not all that remarkable: from gentle James of James and the Giant Peach and docile Charlie Bucket of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory onward, most of them turn out to be surprisingly mild characters, unusually mature and long suffering. Their expectations of paradise are low; they’re the pragmatists.

It’s usually the appointed grown-ups who are the memorable figures, the ones with the high romantic hopes and fears. There is none more disconcerting than the overbearing Willy Wonka, and there is none more disarming than the Big Friendly Giant, a lonely eccentric who speaks in aphasic poetry. “Oh, save our solos!” he cries when he catches a nightmare instead of a golden dream in his special jar. “Deliver us from weasels! The devil is dancing on my dibbler!” It can’t help sounding like the prayer-cum-confession of Roald Dahl himself, for whom, as this discerning biography reveals, neither solitude nor sympathy brought peace.

Like many adults, Jeremy Treglown became interested in Roald Dahl after reading the author’s stories to his children. In writing Roald Dahl: A Biography, he wanted to see how the work reflected the life of a “complicated, controversial, tempestuous man.”

Although Mr. Treglown, who is 47, never met Dahl, he does know these aspects of him, he explained in a telephone interview from his London flat. In 1989, when he was editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he responded to a letter Dahl had written to The Times in which he called the imperiled author Salman Rushdie a “dangerous opportunist.” “I pointed out that Dahl’s charges had also been leveled against Dahl – that he wrote offensively and should censor himself,” Mr. Treglown recalled. Dahl never replied, but when the writer Martin Amis visited Dahl later, he mischievously asked if he had a message for Mr. Rushdie, whom he would soon be seeing (at Mr. Treglown’s Oxfordshire home). Mr. Treglown’s book contains a censored version of Dahl’s vulgar reply.

Dahl’s prickly nature was no secret, but that hasn’t prevented his widow and her family from attacking this biography. They remember him as “this nice old boy,” Mr. Treglown said. According to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, his widow, Felicity, has asked the publisher to return whatever copyrights it owns to her husband’s work because she feels that it has been disloyal in issuing this book. Roger W. Straus, the company’s president and chief executive officer, has replied that he has no intention of doing so. Mr. Treglown’s only worry is that the controversy may obscure the biography’s major revelation: “Some of Dahl’s best known, most successful books were effectively co-authored with his publisher.”

After all his research, did Mr. Treglown, well, like Dahl? He sighed. “I came to see he was both more likable – and dislikable – than I’d ever thought.”