Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Storyteller by Donald Sturrock

Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
This is the authorized biography of Roald Dahl, famed author of many popular children's books, such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and Matilda. You know, I was a big fan of these when I was a kid, and I had no idea that he'd penned any stories for adults, which he had done for the first half of his career, aside from noting his credits on the screenplay for the Bond flick, You Only Live Twice.

Speaking of Bond, Dahl hung around a bit with Ian Fleming, as he spent some time as a spy working for Intrepid during and after World War II. He served in the RAF, and crash landed a plane in Iraq at one point, sustaining injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. He was eventually invalided out of piloting, but continued to serve his country until after the war was over and he began to write.

Dahl's family was from Norway, and never really lost their roots after moving to England, and as a child he spent many summers visiting relatives back in the old country. The entire family seemed a little strange to their uptight British neighbors. Dahl spent quite a few years in the U.S., serving as an attache at the Embassy, which didn't make him any more "normal" as far as the English were concerned.

During his time there, he ran around with the cream of society, and was often romantically involved with wealthy heiresses. Dahl's father had done well in business, and when he died he left each of his children and his wife pretty sizeable trust funds, which made it easy for Roald to play the playboy. He was close to Roosevelt's vice president, Wallace, for a number of years, and the connections he made in Washington definitely helped him avoid being a true struggling young artist for any great length of time.

It was interesting to me when I was reading about the writing of the screenplay from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that there was a huge outcry from the NAACP about the Oompa Loompas being pygmies brought by Willy Wonka out of deepest darkest Africa. When the movie finally came out, the Oompa Loompas were no longer black, and later versions of the book removed the offensive material. I must have read a copy when it first came out, as I recall them being black pygmies - who had subsisted in the jungle on nasty caterpillars, I believe.

The mandatory book quote, from a list Dahl wrote called Things I Hate:
"Bookshelves with an unread look."
At one point, while Dahl and his family were away for a long period of time, a friend had offered to remodel and redecorate their home, and when they returned he was furious to find "faux" books on shelves.

Dahl's family seemed overly struck by tragedy at times. Of course, his father died young, then his son was hit by a bus while being taken for a walk by the nanny in his stroller, suffering massive head injuries that affected him for life. His oldest daughter died of a rare form of encephalitis caused by measles. His first wife, Patricia Neal (the actress) had a brain aneurysm and spent three weeks in a coma and many years recovering. One of his stepdaughters died of a brain tumor. It all made him a little schizophrenic, I think. By all accounts his mood swings were rapid and often verbally violent, coming out of the clear blue sky of a pleasant family evening with friends.

Whatever his personal failings, he was an immensely gifted writer, and I think I'm going to have to hunt down some of his adult fiction one of these days just for giggles.

This book is a TOME, over 500 pages, plus notes and references. The author did a very thorough job, but I really could have done without about 25% of the book, which consisted of him telling us how Dahl's relationship with his mother was obviously responsible for this part of a story, or the death of his daughter being influential on another, or how he must have used his RAF experience to populate some of the wilder adventures in his books, etc. Just give us the facts and we're capable of drawing our own conclusions as we read Dahl's work thank you very much!

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