BOOKS / The Gremlin Man: Roald Dahl adored children, and they loved the grotesque world of his books - but that story-telling talent sprang from tragedy and bile. His biography reveals a tale of the unexpected
Sunday 20 March 1994
Generations of children have grown up with Dahl's books and have been able to enjoy reading them to their own children. These books have been translated into innumerable languages, filmed and televised. Their saturnine author enjoyed replying in rhyme to schoolchildren's fan letters: 'Oh wondrous children miles away / Your letters brightened up my day'. A supportive teacher might be disconcerted to find herself hailed as 'lovely, gorgeous Sheila'. Benevolent, quirkily paternal, the 'Sparky' father he ordained as an ideal, Dahl made himself mythic, fantastic as Mr Fox, subversive champion of the lonely misfit. The malign fantasy which informs his writing permeated his life, a life which in return flung up a series of allegorical challenges. Milton's 'two-handed engine at the door' smote him not once but over and over. His head was bloody, but unbowed. Some people, he wrote, 'have an indomitable spirit and nothing . . . will cause them to give up'.
Dahl was born in Cardiff in 1917, to prosperous Norwegian parents. His father, a shipping broker, had settled in Wales some years earlier, with his wife and two small children. Suddenly widowed, he remarried; Sofie, his new bride, cheerfully took on the existing family and soon had four infants of her own. Roald, her only son, was the third baby, the special one, later nicknamed the Apple. When he was three, his eldest sister died of appendicitis. Two months later his father died. That autumn another daughter was born. Sofie, devoted and matriarchal, brought up her children, did what she believed best. In the summers they went to Norway to her family. There her father, a naturalist, fostered Roald's interest in birds and insects. Aunts and cousins told stories of trolls, witches and haunted forests, and Treglown informs us that they 'ate fresh fish and burnt toffee'. This sounds so odd that for a moment one sees the whole family as trolls, as Maurice Sendak creatures.
At school at Repton Dahl was good at games but otherwise undistinguished. Those few of his contemporaries who remember him remark only on his unkind humour and competitive spirit. His finest achievement, it seems, was the invention of a sadistic mousetrap which plunged its victim into a bowl of water; its slogan 'Catch as Cats Can't' rings true to Dahl. He was bullied and he bullied in return, more verbally than physically. At home he was surrounded by adoring womenfolk.
The outbreak of war found him working for Shell in Tanganyika. He enjoyed the opportunities for local exploration and the colonial comforts, but he was often bored; the excitement of joining the RAF and learning to fly over the Kenyan highlands remained with him all his life, providing images both magical and nightmarish for his writing. Flying an unfamiliar plane over unfamiliar territory to join his squadron in Egypt, he crash-landed in the desert and spent seven months in hospital recovering from serious injuries whose aftermath never left him. He later converted the acute pain and frustration of this episode into fictive heroic exploits. He declined convalescent leave in Britain and fought with gallantry in the hopeless air defences over Athens and then the Peloponnese. Five weeks later he was sent home, suffering blackouts and excruciating headaches which ended his active service. He had, however, become a war hero.
In due course he joined the British Embassy in Washington as assistant air attache, liaising in what now seems a strangely casual manner with British Intelligence. But here, unlike at Repton, Dahl was valued for his wit, his service record (factual and otherwise), his looks and charm. Washington was wildly social, rich women swarmed about him and he discovered that he could dominate a room full of people with his fantastic stories. C S Forester asked him for RAF anecdotes to be used as propaganda, received the romanticised account of Dahl's plane crash, and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post, where it appeared in 1942 as Shot Down Over Libya: An RAF Pilot's Factual Account and marked the inception of Dahl's unintentional career as a writer.
His stories began to appear regularly in magazines and Disney attempted to make a film of his Gremlins. Although this project collapsed, the malevolent elves were perpetuated in a Disney book published in a fair storm of argument over their provenance. Despite the fact that gremlin stories were rife in the Air Force, and several other books about them had appeared, Dahl was happy to take credit for their invention. Isaiah Berlin took a sardonic view of this: 'He initiated gremlins, that is to say they were already there, in the air force, but he put them on the map. He was extremely conceited, saw himself as a creative artist of a high order, and therefore entitled to respect and special treatment.' Half a century later, Dahl's exasperated publishers could have made the same comment.
Back with his mother in Buckinghamshire, he found post-war Britain flat and depressing. He was trying to make a living by writing, but he was outside the literary scene and there he remained. He was often in pain from his accident, racked with anxieties and doubts over his own writing abilities. He managed to sell a few stories to the BBC, and to American magazines, which paid him astonishing sums. His Washington friend and patron, the newspaper magnate Charles Marsh, involved him in various philanthropic trusts, administering funds to poor families in the East End. Dahl performed his duties with zeal but was unable to resist mocking both benefactors and recipients whenever an easy target presented. He also collected furniture, paintings and china for Marsh to ship back to the States. Eventually, in 1951, he followed him there.
In New York he plunged back into an intensified version of the social life he had enjoyed in Washington, drinking and boasting, gossip and malice, manipulation and name-dropping, reflected in his stories with a satirical edge which he did not bring to his own behaviour. Through his friend Lillian Hellman he met Patricia Neal, young, beautiful and already famous as an actress. Despite the misgivings of certain friends, they married in 1953. Dashiell Hammett remarked that 'the ring isn't bad-looking, and I told her I was glad she was getting that out of it because she didn't look as if she was getting much else'. Neal and Dahl moved into a house in Buckinghamshire (paid for by Neal and her mother-in-law) but continued to spend much of the year in the States. Knopf now brought out Dahl's flying stories, Someone Like You, to wild success. Dahl was in his element, claiming that he was renewing the short story as a form, that he was a literary Picasso breaking away from Corot and Monet. In England the book was received coolly. Critics noted its cruelty.
Seven busy years succeeded. Neal's acting career continued to bloom; Dahl's writing was erratically received, until in 1960 he had a new triumph with Kiss Kiss. But it was in this year that the first of a series of personal catastrophes occurred. Baby Theo, aged four months, was struck by a cab as his nanny pushed his pram across a New York street. His skull was smashed and he was not expected to live. Ultimately and incredibly he did recover, after years of desperate illness and suffering. It is clear that it was Dahl's resource, energy and refusal to lose hope which finally saved him. Working with his son's consultant and a friend who was an aircraft designer, Dahl pioneered the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve, which has since been used to treat thousands of children with brain injuries. But before these terrible anxieties had subsided, Olivia, their eldest daughter, died of measles. She was seven, as Dahl's dead sister had been. Gradually Neal was able to return to acting; as a writer Dahl was utterly disabled by his grief. And two years later, shortly after receiving her Oscar for Hud, Patricia Neal suffered three violent strokes, which left her insensible and crippled.
Again Dahl refused to accept the grim prognosis. He set about bringing her back into the world with an astounding determination, which often shocked onlookers by its brutality and ruthlessness. Nonetheless, it worked. Eventually she was to return to acting and to a full and normal life. Eventually their marriage collapsed under so long a strain.
Dahl not only re-created his wife. He ran his household, adored his children, planned the garden, wrote screenplays (unsuccessfully) and continued to produce stories. At last even in England his books were selling well, and he had a substantial income from translations, TV adaptations and the eager US market. But his health was poor and he was constantly exhausted. In 1983 he married Felicity Crosland and enjoyed seven years of renewed happiness, contentiousness and productivity before his death from leukemia in 1990.
Dahl's profound attachment to his family is the one consistency in a life of veering contradictions. Patricia Neal remarked cynically that he had 'an enormous appreciation for anything he generated'. In his life and in his work there is an undoubted element of misogyny, but it is balanced and outweighed by his sympathy with children. He enjoyed striking attitudes, provocative whenever possible. He badly damaged his reputation by an ugly anti-Semitic book review written in the Eighties. There was a certain truth in his self-mythologising; he was in many ways a hero who performed astonishing feats. He was also cruel and irascible, attention-seeking and selfish.
Jeremy Treglown treats his complex subject with admirable objectivity, shading at times into coldness. In outlining Dahl's life and character he is economical, lucid and convincing. This is not an authorised biography, and there are certain blank areas. We are given only a most superficial impression of Patricia Neal, and little feeling of the warmth which existed between Dahl and his children. His daughter, Ophelia, is the designated biographer and she will perhaps redress the balance here.
Treglown dwells at unnecessary length on sales figures and publishing politics, and some of his accounts of editors' minute revisions of Dahl's manuscripts will be of interest only to specialists. Treglown's tone is dry and unemotional, almost to a fault. He is at his best when discussing the stories and their relationship to Dahl's own life, at his worst when describing a schoolboyish incident at the Washington embassy in a style of breathtaking vulgarity.
As a final quibble, I disliked his habit of referring to Dahl from the age of 60 as an old man. There is just a whisper of the unjustifiably patronising here. But overall this is an honourable intellectual account of an extraordinary man, a fitting complement to any more emotional and subjective treatment to come.
'Roald Dahl' by Jeremy Treglown is published tomorrow by Faber at pounds 17.50
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