Many of Roald Dahl’s book covers today come stamped with an official-looking logo proclaiming him “The World’s No. 1 Storyteller.” The declaration is, like Dahl’s fiction itself, simultaneously thrilling and absurd and puzzling and oddly disturbing. How, one has to wonder, was the ranking determined? Was there some kind of single-elimination global storytelling showdown, in which the creator of Willy Wonka, presumably as an eighth-seeded underdog, managed to out-yarn a bracket of, say, Jack London, Salman Rushdie, Isak Dinesen, Victor Hugo, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and—in what must have been a squeaker of a final—the mighty Dickens? And even if we do accept that result, isn’t the title somehow slightly patronizing? After all, we don’t celebrate Faulkner or Conrad or Shakespeare primarily as “storytellers.” It would be like calling a master chef “The World’s No. 1 Pan-Fryer”—a great compliment, but also one that immediately raises questions about his ability to bake, braise, roast, grill, stew, poach, and flambé.
Dahl was, indeed, a great storyteller: Anyone who doubts that can pull aside a random child on the street and start reading her James and the Giant Peach or Fantastic Mr. Fox. If an adult comes up to object, you can start reading him one of the short stories: maybe “Taste” (in which a dinner-party bet among wine connoisseurs spirals out of control) or “The Sound Machine” (in which a man can hear plants screaming). If a policeman intervenes, read him “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which a woman kills her husband with a frozen lamb chop, then cooks and feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate. You could probably go on like that forever.
Dahl’s own favorite of his yarns was The BFG, a children’s book in which the eponymous hero, the Big Friendly Giant, walks around city streets at night blowing dreams through a long tube into kids’ bedroom windows. The giant keeps thousands of dreams stored in neatly labeled glass jars in his cave—with the good ones (what he calls “phizzwizards”) carefully segregated from the bad (“trogglehumpers”). “I IS ONLY AN EIGHT YEAR OLD LITTLE BOY,” runs one of the good dreams, “BUT I IS GROWING A SPLENDID BUSHY BEARD AND ALL THE OTHER BOYS IS JALOUS.” (The BFG is a self-taught writer: He learned to read from a borrowed copy of Nicholas Nickleby, whose author he identifies as “Dahl’s Chickens.”) One of the giant’s best dreams reads like a mission statement for Dahl’s career:
I HAS RITTEN A BOOK AND IT IS SO EXCITING NOBODY CAN PUT IT DOWN. AS SOON AS YOU HAS RED THE FIRST LINE YOU IS SO HOOKED ON IT YOU CANNOT STOP UNTIL THE LAST PAGE. IN ALL THE CITIES PEEPLE IS WALKING IN THE STREETS BUMPING INTO EACH OTHER BECAUSE THEIR FACES IS BURIED IN MY BOOK AND DENTISTS IS READING IT AND TRYING TO FILL TEETHS AT THE SAME TIME BUT NOBODY MINDS BECAUSE THEY IS ALL READING IT TOO IN THE DENTIST’S CHAIR.
The dream goes on like this: Drivers crash, pilots fly off course, and brain surgeons get distracted during surgery. It’s a paean to the primal magic of storytelling, but also an admission that that same magic—when it’s really strong—can start to feel sinister, like semi-benevolent mind control. Dahl inhabited this paradox more insistently than anyone. He wanted to seduce the entire world with narrative, regardless of the cost—to himself, to his family, to his publishers, to his reputation among children’s librarians (they hated him), and even to his own literary art.
It’s been twenty years since Roald Dahl died, and in honor of that morbid anniversary (and maybe, just possibly, in an effort to boost book sales) September has been named “Roald Dahl Month”—a holiday publishers are celebrating by issuing, among other books, the first-ever authorized Dahl biography, Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller. The book is, like Dahl, both lovable and annoying: The writing is often repetitious, the tone occasionally hagiographic, and it leaps around in chronology. But no matter. Dahl’s life story, it turns out, is less a normal human biography than a series of grisly and fabulous yarns that stretch back 30 or so generations. He was a direct descendant of the Scottish hero William Wallace, whose family got hunted out of Britain in 1305, after Wallace was hanged and beheaded. They ended up in Norway, where, centuries later, Dahl’s great-great-grandfather, a Norwegian pastor, escaped a church fire by stacking Bibles against a wall, climbing them, and throwing himself out a stained-glass window. Dahl’s father, as a child, had to have his arm amputated after a mishap with a drunk doctor. His uncle introduced himself to his aunt by rescuing her from a fire that killed 100 people.
Little Roald was born in 1916, in Wales, where his father had started a lucrative shipping business. (He was named “Roald” after a famous Norwegian explorer; the proper pronunciation, apparently, is like “RuPaul” without the P.) Dahl had an idyllic childhood until the age of 3, when his older sister suddenly died and was followed, weeks later, by her heartbroken father. This was the beginning of a toxic tsunami of bad luck that would toss Dahl around for the rest of his life. When he was a boy, his nose was cut off in a car accident. (A doctor sewed it back on.) Then he was shipped off to boarding school in England, where he suffered all the traditional miseries. In World War II, he became one of the RAF’s most promising pilots—only to crash his plane, on his first official day of flying, in the Libyan Desert. As he lay there fighting for consciousness—his skull fractured, his spine wrenched out of place, his eyes swollen shut by burns, his poor reattached nose driven back into his face—his airplane’s machine guns, stoked by the heat, started shooting at him. (Dahl later mythologized this, telling people he’d been shot down.)
After he’d recuperated, Dahl was sent to fight in the notorious Battle of Athens, in which twelve or so RAF fighters took on roughly 150 German planes. He managed to survive, but was plagued by health problems forever after: chronic stomachaches, numb fingers, debilitating back pain, and finally cancer. Strangely, the one thing Dahl never had trouble with was his teeth—because he had all of them removed, preemptively, when he was 21. He thought they were more trouble than they were worth and tried to talk everyone he knew into having theirs pulled, too.
It’s hard to know whether to root for Dahl or for whatever hell-demon seemed so determined to bring him down.
When Dahl became a parent, the bad luck continued. In New York, his 4-month-old son was hit so hard by a taxi that his baby carriage flew 40 feet and slammed into a parked bus, shattering his skull. (He survived, barely.) Two years later, Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter died of a rare brain inflammation after getting measles. Then his 39-year-old wife, the actress Patricia Neal, had an aneurysm and fell into a coma for three weeks.
The man who emerged from this vortex of misfortune was excruciatingly complex—it’s sometimes hard to know, reading Storyteller, whether to root for Dahl or for whatever angry hell-demon seemed so determined to bring him down. He could, at times, be thoughtful and charming. Sturrock reports that Dahl once wrote his daughters’ names on the front lawn, at midnight, with weed killer, then told them in the morning that it was the work of fairies. He gave much of his time and massive literary profits to charity. And he responded to family crises with almost incredible courage and ingenuity—virtues he assigned, not incidentally, to all the heroes of his stories. After his son’s accident, when most parents would have been catatonic with worry, Dahl helped invent a new valve that kept spinal fluid from pressing on his son’s brain—a tool that turned out to be so effective and cheap (Dahl refused to profit from it) that it was eventually used in thousands of other patients. When his wife emerged from her coma, Dahl coached her through a grueling (some said cruel) rehabilitation regimen that went on to revolutionize modern stroke treatment.
But Dahl was also, much of the time, world-historically unpleasant. As a boy he wrapped his sister in pillows and shot BBs at her. As an adult he picked loud fights at dinner parties just to create a spectacle. He bullied editors, sold out friends, and insulted his children. Neal once recounted a charming moment from their first date: “I remember his taking a sip of wine and looking at me for a long moment through the candlelight. ‘I would rather be dead than fat,’ he said.” He was, in many ways, a stereotypical mid-century wealthy imperial Brit—a bullhorn of prejudice and entitlement whose gaffes could be almost touchingly clueless. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason,” he once said about Jews, while attempting to defend himself from accusations of anti-Semitism.
In his stories, however, Dahl’s mean streak got translated, somehow, into a kind of edgy warmth. He was a control freak of delight. Dahl, who’d been a mediocre student, came to believe that his desert plane crash had literally changed his brain in a way that made him start writing stories. Early in his career, he was determined to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald. He published twistedly addictive short stories in Collier’s, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. These caught the eye of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who wanted to publish Dahl’s first novel. But Perkins died, days later, with the manuscript on his desk, and Dahl’s career as an important novelist never took off. Finally, he gave up on it and channeled his big ambition into minor forms: short stories and, later, children’s books.
Thank God for that. Dahl’s adult fiction is fun but often formulaic. It sets up a premise, coldly follows the implied narrative logic, and nearly always ends with a twist. (OMG: The wife is missing her fingers!) There are no accidents or messiness or flights of inspiration.
Dahl’s kids’ stories, on the other hand, are full of characters who transcend narrative logic, e.g., the caterpillar in James and the Giant Peach, a loudmouth who’s always breaking into rude songs and forcing James to help him put on or take off his 42 boots. He does this not because it furthers the story, one senses, but because it’s funny, and because it’s exactly how this particular creature would act if he found himself flying around on a house-size piece of fruit. The keynote of Dahl’s children’s books is delight in wild invention—and delight, too, in the way that invention manages to braid the two opposed strands of his personality, the nasty and the charming, into something unique in the history of storytelling.
The endings of Dahl’s stories are almost always surprising, even when we know the twist is coming. This talent, it turns out, applied equally to the author’s own life. In a hospital, surrounded by family, Dahl reassured everyone, sweetly, that he wasn’t afraid of death. “It’s just that I will miss you all so much,” he said—the perfect final words. Then, as everyone sat quietly around him, a nurse pricked him with a needle, and he said his actual last words: “Ow, fuck!”