How Roald Dahl Got To Be Himself

Roald_DahlLike any sensible child, I read Roald Dahl. I was captivated by his inventiveness, what with Everlasting Gobstoppers, giant peaches and the like. But alongside it, there was this cutting misanthropy, which I felt more acutely when I read some of his short stories for grown-ups, having somehow become one myself.

The author of those stories seemed perhaps a bit embittered. What sort of a fellow was Roald Dahl, really? Well, he was good enough to leave us some autobiographical notes, and the answer turns out to be, quite a fine one, really. Every bit as deft when telling his own story as those of his fictional characters; wry, matter-of-fact, self-effacing, acutely observant.

Dahl was a member of those generations of early- to mid-20th-century people who blithely sailed through hardships that would make the following generations wince. Well, “blithe” might be a matter of opinion, but they did somehow endure things that we later moderns are rightly happy not to.

Dahl gives us two volumes, Boy and Going Solo. The first sketches his prep-school boyhood, while the second gives us highlights from his adult life, first as a Shell representative in British East Africa, then as an RAF fighter pilot in World War II, a career he was lucky to survive, as were most of those who flew and lived.

Dahl’s parents were Norwegian, his father immigrating to England to found a very successful ship-supply business. His father’s first wife died in childbirth; his second wife bore him four children, Roald Dahl among them.

In 1920, when I was still only three, my mother’s eldest child, my own sister Astri, died from appendicitis. She was seven years old when she died, which was also the age of my own eldest daughter, Olivia, when she died from measles forty-two years later.

His father died shortly thereafter from pneumonia, leaving his mother to raise the other five alone. She seems to have been more than up to it.

As might be hoped, Dahl lets drop some anecdotes that point to some of the sources of his stories: a favorite sweet shop, where he readily recalls the names of candies from forty years or more ago, as well as a stint being a sort of “test-market” taster for the Cadbury chocolate firm. We also meet the fearsome Matron, who seems likely to contain at least some of the DNA found in the Trunchbull in Matilda.

Certainly some of his school experiences might have been embittering. He and his peers encountered no shortage of cruelty and humiliation from staff and teachers. To the extent he dwells on this, he nearly apologizes for it.

By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis on school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.

The descriptions of school punishments are in some places quite graphic. While selected chapters of his recollections are excellent reading for younger readers, not all of them are.

His first volume is called Boy because this is how he styled himself for a while, in writing home from school.

Dec. 8th

Dear Mama:

Just to make it a bit planer, I will be coming home on Dec. 17th not the 18th, I will arrive a Cardiff a four O’clock please meet me, if that is not quite planer maybe let me know what you want to know about it.

Love from Boy.

Somehow Dahl survived this boyhood, but somehow all the rest of England did as well. Little as we might have might wished it on them, it may have prepared them somehow for what came next.

Dahl got employment with Shell and headed for British East Africa, the same place and roughly the same time that produced aviator and horse-trainer Beryl Markham and her memoir West with the Night (whether or not she wrote it). Dahl’s sketches of life with snakes, lions, mad Britons and natives would seem almost stereotypical, were they not so well and matter-of-factly told: again that image of the Briton somehow muddling through things that might have stopped the rest of us cold. A range of memoir comes to mind: Beryl Markham, as mentioned, but also Gerald Durrell and Sir David Attenborough, to name a small handful.

dahl-sm-rafFinally, the war. Even in these relatively brief anecdotes, the Second World War loses none of its ability to take our breath away, to astound us that such things happened in the lifetimes of our parents, and that the world was not somehow destroyed. The lives of fighter pilots were particularly imperiled. Dahl survived (of course, or there would be no memoir). Many who flew with him didn’t. His adventures ranged from a ferocious crash-landing (thanks to bad directions) to being one of a dozen or so planes who allegedly had single-handedly to hold the Luftwaffe off in Greece, to falling into dispute with a Jewish settler in Palestine about the future of the Holy Land.

Like any memoirist, Dahl is selective. He alludes to the circumstances of his mother’s death, and that of his own daughter, but says no more of them. (His daughter’s death from measles encephalitis and his subsequent comments now figure into the contemporary debate over vaccines). He chooses his stories for fitness, amusement, and effect.

In the end, we seem to see a man who swallowed what was in fact a heavy dose of pain, perhaps not unusual for those times, but still such as to weigh upon a person and shape their thinking — certainly not someone merely defined by such experiences, but naturally quite unable to forget them.

A quick, bracing, page-turning read — many of the stories suitable for younger readers, though certainly not all.

See Also

Some notes from the Guardian on what else Dahl did, or may have done, during the War.

The Roald Dahl website, with a spotty collection of the letters.