Thursday, October 28, 2010

my angst re: roald dahl

Ever since I saw Storyteller, the new biography of Roald Dahl, on our bookshelves here, I've desperately wanted to read it. I snatched a copy off the shelf, checked it out (ain't working in a bookstore grand?), and rushed home with it, intending to curl up with my cat, Pepper, who is my best reading companion, and dig in. Instead I took off the book jacket and put the book up on my shelf, and I haven't touched it since. But I will! I will. (There's just so much to get through first -- Obama's Wars, At Home, and Tommy's Tale are all in progress.)

Storyteller, by Donald Sturrock, is the authorized biography of Roald Dahl published in September of this year. I wrote my undergraduate English thesis on Roald Dahl (more specifically, I wrote on "Monstrous Women: Gender and Power in Roald Dahl's Children's Literature", and I will lend you a copy if you are ever interested in reading it). So I am almost absurdly fascinated with the guy, who was actually a pretty big jerk -- he once asked his wife, the beautiful and embattled Patricia Neal, if he could stay married to her but have an affair on the side. Predictably, the answer was no, but he did it anyway. He was also grossly anti-Semitic and a terrible womanizer. Not the guy you would have expected to write darling classics like The BFG and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, is it?

Do I love his children's work? Well, if it were still possible for me to read it without seeing misogynistic undertones everywhere, I would (and I did before I wrote my thesis). His adult work is morbid and horrifying and an absolutely wonderful read for anyone entranced by his children's stuff. Go read Kiss Kiss or Skin and see if you can ever see Matilda or James and the Giant Peach in the same light. (I can't.)

And before you get all thinking that I'm a horrible person for not liking The Witches or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I don't not like them! I think that Dahl's children's work is absolutely great for children who aren't old enough to sophisticatedly interpret literature. But if you count yourself among those who can read between the lines of your favorite books, here is my suggestion to you --
  1. Read Roald Dahl by Jeremy Treglown (the major resource I used for my thesis).
  2. Read Storyteller by Donald Sturrock (which may be good and may not be -- as I haven't read it yet, I can't say).
  3. Read some of Dahl's collections of stories for adults: Kiss Kiss is especially revealing, as is Skin, but you can take a look at Switch Bitch or My Uncle Oswald if you like.
  4. Now go back to some of your favorite Dahl stories for children (Matilda and The Witches especially) and see if you can look at them without a jaded, cynical eye.

I dare you.

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