This review was written by Joyce Carol Oates and printed in the April 26, 2007 edition of The New York Review of Books.
Born in Llandaff, Wales, of well-to-do Norwegian parents, educated in England, and a pilot with the Royal Air Force for part of the Second World War, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is the author of numerous books for children1 and a relatively small but distinct body of prose fiction for adults: Over to You (1946), Someone Like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960), Selected Stories (1970), Switch Bitch (1974), and Eight Short Stories (1987). The Collected Stories, with an excellent introduction by Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown, is a gathering of forty-eight stories of considerable diversity, ambition, and quality, with settings ranging from Kenya to rural England, London, and New York City and narrative styles ranging from the realistic to the fabulist and surreal.
Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.
Though in his fiction for adults as in his books for children Dahl exhibits the flair of a natural storyteller, for whom no bizarre leap of the imagination is unlikely, he seems to have begun writing, at the urging of C.S. Forester, as a consequence of his wartime experiences in the RAF, which included crash-landing in the African desert and participating in highly dangerous air battles during the German invasion of Greece. Such early stories as “An African Story,” “Only This,” “Someone Like You,” and “Death of an Old Old Man” draw memorably on these experiences and suggest that if Dahl had not concentrated on the short-story form and more or less abandoned realism for the showy detonations of plot made popular in his youth by Saki and O. Henry, he might have developed into a very different sort of writer altogether.
The first story in this volume, “An African Story,” is a tale of primitive revenge recounted in the most laconic of voices, as chilling as any of Paul Bowles’s parable-like tales of North Africa: an adventurous young RAF pilot develops engine trouble while flying solo above the Kenyan Highlands, makes a forced landing, and finds himself on a desert plain where he is given aid by an elderly farmer who tells him an unnerving story, or confession, “so strange that the pilot wrote it down on paper as soon as he got back to Nairobi…not in the old man’s words, but in his own words,” to be discovered by others in his squadron after his death. The anonymous narrator of “An African Story,” speaking of his dead colleague, might be speaking as aptly of the young Roald Dahl himself:
He had never written a story before, and so naturally there were mistakes. He did not know any of the tricks with words which writers use, which they have to use just as painters have to use tricks with paint, but when he had finished writing…he left behind him a rare and powerful tale.
“Death of an Old Old Man” is a mesmerizing account of the final, excruciatingly protracted minutes of a fighter pilot whose plane has been struck by a German Focke-Wulf, forcing him to parachute out, and down, to his death in a muddy pond: “I won’t struggle, he thought. There is no point in struggling, for when there is a black cloud in the sky it is bound to rain.” In “Someone Like You,” a spare, minimalist story in a heavily ironic Hemingway vein, two former RAF bomber pilots are getting companionably drunk together not long after the end of the war, reminiscing about “jinking” on their bombing missions:
“It would just be a gentle pressure with the ball of my foot upon the rudder-bar; a pressure so slight that I would hardly know that I was doing it, and it would throw the bombs on to a different house and onto different people. It is all up to me, the whole thing is up to me, and each time that I go out I have to decide which ones shall be killed….”
“I jinked once,” I said, “ground-strafing. I thought I’d kill the ones on the other side of the road instead.”
“Everybody jinks,” he said. “Shall we have another drink?”
In “The Soldier,” a story of 1948, a former soldier’s growing psychotic paranoia is signaled by a pathological growing numbness in his body: by degrees he is losing his capacity to feel sensation, even pain. Suffering from a kind of delayed shell shock—with which his wife is inexplicably unsympathetic—he becomes susceptible to hallucinations and sudden outbursts of rage:
He moved his hand over to the left—and the moment the fingers touched the knob, something small but violent exploded inside his head and with it a surge of fury and outrage and fear. He opened the door, shut it quickly behind him and shouted: “Edna, are you there?”
Like numerous other calculating females in Dahl’s stories, canny Edna saves her life by dissociating herself from her troubled husband, who seems headed for a mental asylum at the story’s end, like the similarly over-sensitive male protagonist of “The Sound Machine,” an amateur scientist named Klausner who has invented an ingenious machine that will be his undoing:
There is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear: It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made…so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it…. This machine…is designed to pick up sound vibrations that are too high-pitched for reception by the human ear, and to convert them to a scale of audible tones, I tune it in, almost like a radio.
Since Klausner is “a frail, nervous, twitchy little man, a moth of a man, dreamy and distracted,” we are not surprised when the sound machine picks up the “frightful, throatless shrieks” of roses being cut in the garden next door, and the terrible shriek of a tree into which an ax has been driven: “enormous and frightful and…it had made him feel sick with horror.” Klausner too is led away: the inevitable fate for a person who hasn’t inured himself to the horrors of even ordinary life, like “normal” people.
One of Dahl’s most gripping stories is the very brief “The Wish,” in which a highly sensitive, imaginative, and lonely child fantasizes lurid dangers in the design of a carpet in his home—“The red parts…are red-hot lumps of coal…the black parts are snakes, poisonous snakes”—which he has no choice but to walk on, with nightmare results as an initially playful notion blossoms into what appears to be a full-blown psychosis, or worse. Subtly rendered, poignantly convincing, “The Wish” is reminiscent of Conrad Aiken’s classic tale of encroaching childhood madness, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” A kindred tale of growing adult paranoia originating in childhood trauma is “Galloping Foxley,” in which a London commuter in his early sixties begins to imagine that a fellow passenger on his train is an old prefect from his boarding school—“A ‘boazer’ we called it”—now in his sixties; as a boy, this Foxley had been a brutal sadist allowed by school tradition to beat any of the “fags” in his residence:
Anyone who has been properly beaten will tell you that the real pain does not come until about eight or ten seconds after the stroke [with a cane]. The stroke itself is merely a loud crack and a sort of blunt thud against your backside, numbing you completely (I’m told a bullet wound does the same). But later on…it feels as if someone is laying a red hot poker right across your naked buttocks and it is absolutely impossible for you to prevent yourself from reaching back and clutching it with your fingers.
Rare among Dahl’s stories, “Galloping Foxley” ends upon an unexpectedly muted, unmelodramatic note.2
In the aptly titled “Poison,” one of Dahl’s most brilliantly realized stories, an Englishman living in Bengal, India, is held thrall in his bed by what he believes to be a krait (a highly poisonous snake common to the region) coiled and sleeping on his stomach, beneath a sheet. The terrified man, unable to move for fear of waking the snake, is aided by a fellow Englishman, the narrator of the story, and by a local Indian doctor who behaves heroically only to be viciously insulted when the ordeal is over by the racist Englishman he’d helped: “You dirty little Hindu sewer rat!” This story, for most of its length an excruciating tale of suspense, exudes the air of a fable even as it must have made for painful reading at the time of its first publication, in the popular American magazine Collier’s.
After these admirable early stories, in which Roald Dahl would seem to have invested much of his own intimate experience, he moves decisively away from prose fiction of an intensely inward, sympathetic kind: intimacy is rejected for distance, sympathy for an Olympian detachment, as if the writer were determined not to succumb to the dangers of oversensitivity like his victim-characters, but to identify with their punitive and sadistic tormenters, like the prefect bully Foxley who goes unpunished for his cruelty. In Someone Like You, and in successive collections of stories, Dahl casts a very cold eye upon the objects of his satire, who are divided about equally—to paraphrase that most savage of English satirists, Jonathan Swift—between “fools and knaves.” Jeremy Treglown speaks of Dahl’s admiration for Ian Fleming and of Dahl’s increasing focus upon situation to the exclusion of character:
Critics have often commented on how pared-down Dahl’s narrative style at its best can be, and it’s interesting how much else he does without. Setting, climate, architecture, food, dress, voice—all are sketched briefly, and with the most familiar, even clichéd strokes, as if to clear the way for what really matters.
As Dahl’s books for children are often fueled by fantasies of tricks, pranks, and revenge in various guises, so what “really matters” in his mature work is punishment: “Vengeance Is Mine, Inc.,” a slapdash anecdotal tale ostensibly set in New York City, might well be the title for Dahl’s collected stories. Like his younger contemporaries Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith, Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:
The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.
“Hurry, driver, hurry!”
“Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.
“Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”
In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.”
In the frequently anthologized tales “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “William and Mary,” kindred long-suffering wives of annoying husbands exact lethal if improbable revenge: in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a revenge tale of comic-book simplicity, a woman named Mary is told by her “senior policeman” husband that he intends to leave her; with a single swing of a frozen leg of lamb, she kills him; when his policeman-colleagues come to investigate, Mary roasts the lamb and serves it to the idiots who, eating, speculate on where the murder weapon might be:
“Personally, I think it’s right here on the premises.”
“Probably right under our very noses….”
And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.
In the belabored fantasy “William and Mary,” another exasperated wife named Mary exacts a yet more ingenious revenge upon her husband, or upon his brain, which has been removed from his body following his “death” and kept alive by artificial means in a basin, at enormous expense. In a plot purloined from the popular science-fiction novel Donovan’s Brain (1943) by Curt Siodmak, the egotistical William Pearl, reduced to what resembles a “great gray pulpy walnut,” will be free to luxuriate in a purely intellectual realm, “able to reflect upon the ways of the world with a detachment and a serenity that no man had ever attained before”; linked to the outside world by a single, ghastly eye, the brain will even be able to peruse the London newspapers. But we know that William, or his brain, will not be treated with the wifely devotion he might have wished for, since Mary is perceived in broadly villainous strokes by a scientist-friend of her husband:
What a queer little woman this was, he thought, with her large eyes and her sullen, resentful air. Her features, which must have been quite pleasant once, had now gone completely. The mouth was slack, the cheeks loose and flabby, and the whole face gave the impression of having slowly but surely sagged to pieces through years and years of joyless married life.
Mary’s revenge too is one of comic-book simplicity: she will take her husband’s brain away with her, and blow smoke rings into the permanently opened eye: “I just can’t wait to get him home.”
This is the art, if “art” is the appropriate term, of caricature that prefers to jab, stab, slash its subjects instead of attempting to present them with any degree of complexity or sympathy. Grotesque descriptions of flat, cartoon characters are Dahl’s stock in trade, intended perhaps to be amusing but often merely peculiar, as in this thumbnail sketch of a mildly deranged gentleman named Mr. Botibol:
He resembled, to an extraordinary degree, an asparagus. His long narrow stalk did not appear to have any shoulders at all; it merely tapered upwards, growing gradually narrower and narrower until it came to a kind of point at the top of the small bald head. He was tightly encased in a shiny blue double-breasted suit, and this… accentuated the illusion of a vegetable to a preposterous degree.
Dahl’s females are particularly grotesque specimens, like Mrs. Ponsonby of “Nunc Dimittis” who is “so incredibly short and squat and stiff, [she looked as if] she had no legs at all above the knees,” has a “salmon mouth” and fingers “like a bunch of small white snakes wriggling in her lap.” The narrator of this sour little anecdote is an elderly bachelor—a “vicious, vengeful old man”—who takes revenge upon a woman friend for having gossiped about him by displaying a portrait of her part-naked, unattractive body to their mutual friends; that the poor woman wears a hefty brassiere (“an arrangement of black straps as skillfully and scientifically rigged as the supporting cables of a suspension bridge”) and is “bow-legged, like a jockey” is presented as particularly shocking. (The portrait painter of “Nunc Dimittis” would seem to have been modeled upon Gustav Klimt, known to have painted his female subjects nude before clothing them in their elaborate fin-de-siècle finery.) Most notably, there is the formidable president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, yet another, presumably unrelated Mrs. Ponsonby:
The door was opened by the most enormous female I had ever seen in my life. I have seen giant women in circuses. I have seen lady wrestlers and weight-lifters…. But never had I seen a female so tall and broad and thick as this one. Nor so thoroughly repugnant…. I was able to take most of it in—the metallic silver-blue hair with every strand glued into place, the brown pig-eyes, the long sharp nose sniffing for trouble, the curled lips, the prognathous jaw, the powder, the mascara, the scarlet lipstick and, most shattering of all, the massive shored-up bosom that projected like a balcony in front of her…. And there she stood, the pneumatic giant, swathed from neck to ankles in the stars and stripes of the American flag.
It must be that such misogynist female portraits are self-portraits of the misogynist’s malformed soul, since they draw forth such quivering, barely containable loathing.3
As Jonathan Swift is the most obsessively scatological of English satirists, so Roald Dahl is the most obsessively sexual, in stories as casually lewd as “The Great Switcheroo” (two men, wholly ordinary husbands and fathers, plot to “switch” wives in the night, without the silly wives’ knowing) or as doggedly protracted as “Bitch” (the womanizer Oswald Cornelius finances the development of a perfume with irresistible aphrodisiac powers, brand-name “Bitch”) in which the very man who is revolted by massive Mrs. Ponsonby ends up having sex with her in what, one assumes, Dahl means to be a comic scene:
…I was standing naked in a rosy room and there was a funny feeling in my groin. I looked down and saw that my beloved sexual organ was three feet long and thick to match. It was still growing. It was lengthening and swelling at a tremendous rate…. Bigger and bigger grew my astonishing organ, and it went on growing, by God, until it had enveloped my entire body and absorbed it within itself. I was now a gigantic perpendicular penis, seven feet tall and handsome as they come.
In the breezy “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” the unnamed narrator, presumably speaking for the author, informs us:
America is the land of opportunities for women. Already they own about eighty-five percent of the wealth of the nation. Soon they will have it all. Divorce has become a lucrative process…. Young men marry like mice, almost before they have reached the age of puberty, and a large proportion of them have at least two ex-wives on the payroll by the time they are thirty-six years old. To support these ladies in the manner to which they are accustomed, the men must work like slaves, which is of course precisely what they are.
Yet from time to time, a clever man can exact a merciless punishment upon a woman, even when, as in “The Last Act,” a woman who has been a devoted wife to her late husband at last dares to revive an old boyfriend’s interest in her, with cataclysmic results:
Then all of a sudden, Conrad put his tongue into one of her ears. The effect of this upon [Anna] was electric. It was as though a live two-hundred-volt plug had been pushed into an empty socket, and all the lights came on and the bones began to melt and the hot molten sap went running down into her limbs and she exploded into a frenzy…. She flung her arms around Conrad’s neck and started kissing him back with far more gusto than he had ever kissed her and although he looked at first as though he thought she was going to swallow him alive, he soon recovered his balance.
In this crude misogynist fable, which Jeremy Treglown in his introduction concedes that Dahl “would have done better to have scrapped,” the vengeful Conrad so humiliates Anna sexually that the poor woman is driven to commit suicide.
In the yet cruder misogynist fantasy “Georgy Porgy,” a priggish, sexually repressed minister is both repelled by and attracted to women:
Providing they remained at a safe distance, I could watch them for hours on end with the same peculiar fascination that you yourself might experience in watching a creature you couldn’t bear to touch—an octopus, for example, or a long poisonous snake.
Recoiling from his childhood experience with a cartoon monster-mother, George conducts improbable experiments with white rats, determining that the female of the rat species is more sexually rapacious than the male, even when death by electrocution is involved; it’s no surprise that he falls prey to a female parishioner with the ominous name Roach whose face is covered with a “pale carpet of fuzz” and whose enormous mouth, threatening a kiss, is “huge and wet and cavernous.” Soon, in a parody-paroxysm of female sexual desire, Miss Roach begins to “grunt and snort like a hog”; crying, “Don’t! Don’t, Mummy!,” George finds himself sucked into the woman’s mouth where, after a ludicrous struggle reminiscent of certain of the mock-heroic adventures of Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver among the giant Brobdingnagians, the virginal bachelor is swallowed: “I could feel the slow powerful pulsing of peristalsis dragging away at my ankles, pulling me down and down and down….”
Dahl’s punished figures are not exclusively sexual victims: in “Taste,” a nouveau riche wine connoisseur is insulted at his own dinner table by a “famous gourmet.” In “Pig,” as in a cautionary Grimm’s fairy tale for greedy children, a young man who cares too much for food is led off to be butchered with other pigs strung up by their ankles: “…taking Lexington gently by one ear with his left hand, [the slaughterer] raised his right hand and deftly slit open the boy’s jugular vein with a knife.”
Not all of Dahl’s stories end so grimly, and not all of Dahl’s satire is sadistic. The funniest story in the collection, and one in which no one gets killed or even humiliated, is “The Great Automatic Grammatizator,” an eerily prescient fable of 1952 in which an aspiring young writer invents a computer–printing press to churn out ingeniously formulaic books:
First, by depressing one of a series of master buttons, the writer made his primary decision: historical, satirical, philosophical, political, romantic, erotic, humorous, or straight. Then, from the second row (the basic buttons), he chose his theme: army life, pioneer days, civil war, world war, racial problem, wild west, country life, childhood memories…. The third row of buttons gave a choice of literary style: classical, whimsical, racy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, feminine, etc. The fourth row was for character, the fifth for wordage…ten long rows of pre-selector buttons.
Within a year, the machine has produced “at least one half of all the novels and stories published in the English language.”
Except for writers of major stature, in whose lesser work there may be some archival, extraliterary, or morbid interest, the indiscriminate all-inclusiveness of a “collected stories” is not a good idea. What a dispiriting sight, a table of contents listing forty-eight short stories with no divisions into books and dates, as the author himself had intended! (No short-story writer, like no poet, would simply toss a chronological arrangement of his work into a form so lacking in interior structure: individual collections of short stories and poems have beginnings, middles, and ends that have been judiciously pondered.)
Though the advantage of a purely chronological arrangement of work is that the reader may perceive the development of a writer’s style, his growth, and the prevailing themes that make his work distinctive, the disadvantage is that the reader may perceive the deterioration of the writer’s style, his decline, and his reliance upon predictable themes. Of these forty-eight stories, scarcely more than one third seem truly notable, and these come relatively early in Dahl’s lengthy, forty-five-year career. The volume trails away in affable narrated anecdotal sketches as if Dahl had lost interest in the craft of storytelling, as he seems to have lost the sting of vengefulness. The last four or five stories might have been printed out by the Great Automatic Grammatizator or by “Georgy Porgy,” who, after his nervous breakdown, seems to have become a writer-satirist whose final object of satire is writing itself:
…I find that writing is a most salutary occupation at a time like this, and I spend many hours each day playing with sentences. I regard each sentence as a little wheel, and my ambition lately has been to gather several hundred of them together at once and to fit them all end to end, with the cogs interlocking, like gears, but each wheel a different size, each turning at a different speed. Now and again I try to put a really big one right next to a very small one in such a way that the big one, turning slowly, will make the small one spin so fast that it hums. Very tricky, that.
1. Among Roald Dahl’s most popular children’s books are James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), The BFG (“Big Friendly Giant”) (1982), and Matilda (1988); of particular interest to adult readers of Roald Dahl are Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (1977), which contains the autobiographical essay “Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer.” In his memoirist pieces for young readers, Dahl speaks with an engaging directness and honesty which suggests that his most comfortable mode of writing was in fact for young readers whose natural curiosity, lack of cynicism, and inexperience he could assume. Dahl’s success as a writer of children’s books far surpassed his success as a writer of prose fiction for adults and, according to Jeremy Treglown, “part of [Dahl] always resented that he had become best known as the author of what are known in American publishing as ‘juveniles.’”
2. In Boy: Tales of Childhood and in “Lucky Break: How I Became a Writer” Dahl writes in detail of having been the object of sadistic beatings at the Repton School. He writes of having been caned by a boazer, a school athlete whose very strokes in the flesh of a boy’s buttocks were perversely admired. The sado-homoerotic undercurrent of Dahl’s public school boyhood gives to these memories an aura of romantic nostalgia.
3. Roald Dahl’s tales for children are affably narrated and are given a benign, not-very-distinctive comic-strip aura by the inoffensive illustrations by Quentin Blake, but demonic females figure prominently in such popular books as Matilda and The Witches, infusing the fantasy adventures with an air of sexual dread and revulsion. In Matilda, the young genius-heroine is persecuted by the demonic, deranged, and very ugly headmistress of her school, The Trunchbull.