ROALD DAHL, TELLER OF THE UNEXPECTED: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison
Many young readers who love the prodigious oeuvre of Roald Dahl can nonetheless cite at least one thing within it that gives them the ick. For me it was Mr. Twit’s beard in “The Twits” (1980), so ungroomed it might contain “a piece of maggoty green cheese or a mouldy old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine.” When millennial men in Brooklyn started growing big, bushy beards, my inner child dived under the table in horror.
The ickiest thing about the life of Dahl, who died in 1990, was his well-documented antisemitism, capped by a 1983 comment about Jews to The New Statesman, in which he declared that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” (That it’s custom for observant Jewish men to wear beards makes me even more uneasy about the demonized Mr. Twit.) The Dahl estate has posted an apology for his behavior on its website — linked discreetly under a Quentin Blake illustration of the author in a pink cardigan, looking beneficent and cuddly.
Looking back, there were plenty of other oh-no-he-didn’t moments in the literature. The Oompa-Loompas of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were originally African pygmies — Dahl called the actors who played them wearing orange makeup and green wigs in the 1971 movie “dirty old dwarfs.” And a rapey 1965 story for Playboy, “Bitch,” transformed its adult male protagonist into a “gigantic perpendicular penis, seven feet tall and as handsome as they come,” as if James and his famous peach had grown up and gone horribly wrong.
But none of this is lingered on in Matthew Dennison’s elegant but somewhat glancing new biography of Dahl, subtitled “Teller of the Unexpected.” His subject has sold more books around the world than is possible to count. Netflix bought The Roald Dahl Story Co. in 2021 for a reported $1 billion; “Matilda” alone is movie, musical and multiple memes. Roald Dahl — not mere author but high-yielding content farm — may simply be too big to cancel.
His own story has already inspired two major biographies, from which Dennison draws: one authorized, by Donald Sturrock, who also edited Dahl’s letters to his beloved mother, Sofie Magdalene; one not, by Jeremy Treglown. All of these accounts stand as necessary supplements to Dahl’s lyrical but selectively truthful autobiographical writing; Dennison notes his tendency toward “mythomania.” He figured unfavorably in “As I Am,” the memoir by his first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, whom he nursed aggressively (some would say sadistically) back to health after a stroke and then left for their friend, Felicity “Liccy” Crosland; and in a roman à clef by their daughter, Tessa. The first Mr. and Mrs. Dahl were rendered in softer focus mourning the death from measles encephalitis of Tessa’s older sister, at only 7, in the recent movie “To Olivia.”
As Dennison reminds us, Roald — born in Wales, of Norwegian parentage — also lost a sister when she was 7, to appendicitis, and his father soon after. Backing into writing after a stint at the Asiatic Petroleum Company, his macabre voice and flights into fantasy were clearly engendered by brushes with death and violence.
He had been caned at boarding school and, enlisting in the Royal Air Force, was burned and maimed when his Gloster Gladiator plane crashed in the Egyptian desert. After his baby son Theo’s skull was crushed after a taxi hit his pram, Dahl developed a cerebral shunt with a pediatric neurosurgeon and toymaker, like the Wonka figure he was simultaneously creating on the page. Then came Neal’s medical crisis, while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy, and her rehabilitation, reenacted in a memorable 1981 TV movie, in which she was played by Glenda Jackson, and Roald by Dirk Bogarde. (Exploring Dahl’s personal and professional entanglements, you’ll tumble down an IMDB hole deeper than the giants’ in “The BFG.”)
The author of previous books on Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, Dennison recaps most of these extraordinary events without fuss, riffling carefully through letters, diaries and other volumes, from the looks of his endnotes, but conducting no fresh interviews; there are no new revelations that I can discern, but instead refined interpretation. From the Dahl legacy, chocolate and bile and personality sloshing messily in all directions, he molds a digestive biscuit.
“Teller of the Unexpected” is maybe best capturing its 6-foot-5-plus subject as a swashbuckler: zooming around school grounds on a motorcycle or parachuting metaphorically into power centers like Washington, D.C., or Hollywood, where Dahl was courted by Walt Disney himself to develop a movie about gremlins — devilish creatures with horns and long tails blamed for R.A.F. mishaps. (Gremlins would go on to appear in plenty of movies, including a 1983 “Twilight Zone” sequence starring the Dahl look-alike John Lithgow, but this would not turn out to be one of the writer’s many lucrative franchises.) Encouraged early in his career by C.S. Forester and Hemingway, he was notoriously abrasive to his editors and had affairs with older and married women, complaining to a friend of Clare Boothe Luce’s voracious sexual appetite.
In Dennison’s telling, Dahl’s contradictions are beautifully illustrated but not particularly interrogated: He is here charitable but cruel; arrogant and desperate for acclaim; a self-declared man of action whose livelihood was language. He was an aesthete who cared deeply about his surroundings, early on collecting birds’ eggs in drawers lined with pink cotton wool and growing up to appreciate the finer things: painting, wine, the great composers. Long before it was fashionable, he made himself a man cave, a “writing hut” steps from his family cottage, whose name, Gipsy House, also offends 2023 ears.
And I think he would have liked Dennison’s writing style, lush but clipped, with such phrases as “the ubiquity of caprice” and “buoyant with slang,” full of a reader’s zest. This is not a potted biography, but it is a politely pruned one, idealism washing over the ick.
ROALD DAHL, TELLER OF THE UNEXPECTED: A Biography | By Matthew Dennison | 272 pp. | Illustrated | Pegasus Books | $27.95