Roald Dahl: A Biography, by Jeremy Treglown

Eight stars

The joy of undertaking this two month stint of biographies is that I am able to learn a great deal about many people across the vast expanse of history. One other advantage is that I am able to peel back the onion of knowledge as it relates to anyone and discover just how little I knew beforehand. Roald Dahl is one such person, though I went into this book feeling I had a handle on his early life, having read both short pieces the man wrote about himself. Jonathan Treglown chose to delve deeper into the life of a man best known for his scores of children’s stories, many of whom played a significant role in my early years. Treglown is first to acknowledged that there was a significant gap in Dahl’s life story after the publication of both BOY and GOING SOLO in the early 1980s. However, Dahl’s death and some argument with publishers left the majority of the man’s life without a substantial biography all his own. Treglown solves that problem with his wonderful attention to detail and thorough analysis. The curious reader will find themselves surrounded with new information not gleaned from reading any of Dahl’s work for children or the aforementioned mini-autobiographies. I am left with a significantly different image of the man and his life now, a mixed bag of emotions indeed.

In early chapters of the biography, Treglown recounts Dahl’s young years in Wales and how he grew up without a father figure for a significant portion of his life. While Boy laid the groundwork for much of what the reader knows about Dahl (including his adventurous childhood and experiences at boarding school), Treglown explains that Dahl chose to add some selective memory to his hyperbole in recounting those years. Dahl admits that he was fully aware of this and had little desire to rectify the discrepancies after publication, which might add to his fanciful nature and ability to spin tales to entertain readers. A brief stint with the RAF during the Second World War left Dahl with many memories and some early ideas for writing projects. However, injuries kept him out of the cockpit and he was sent to Washington, where he served in the British Embassy. Many have wondered about Dahl’s time in Washington, though Treglown offers little. There was one vignette about how Dahl discovered documentation of the American plan to takeover all civilian airlines after the war, monopolising the industry for their own benefit. Treglown also mentions that Dahl used his time in America to hone his skills with females, bragging of his conquests while dodging those who asserted any amorous intentions. Without a formal education after boarding school, Dahl needed a means of making money, especially after the end of wartime aggression and thought that he might be able to tap into his creative storytelling abilities.

Armed with a number of ideas and few people interested in his war-flavoured work (nuclear weapons, communism, Hitler), Dahl was put in touch with Walt Disney, who tried to create some films related to one of his few popular war stories that had been published. This project turned out to be less effective than either had hoped, the beginning of a string of failures with which Dahl would face over the next number of years. Dahl continued to work with the Knopf Publishing House, who remained curious about his work, though found it hard to find a market for his work. Treglown admits that Dahl was not committed to any publisher and would turn to whomever might have an interest in his work. Dahl enjoyed writing the more macabre story and did not tone down either language or content, as Treglown offers numerous examples of stories related to murder, rape, and extreme gore, all of which left many publishers less than eager to sign the author. In a twist of fate, Dahl was introduced to Hollywood actress Patricia Neal and the two soon gravitated to one another. Many felt that Dahl’s name-dropping was annoying and out of sync with Neal’s personality, but she began mirroring his ways and soured her relationship with many others. The two quickly married and became one of the oddest couples amongst their friends; Dahl would openly berate her and mock her southern roots while Neal passively allowed him to do so. It was only after Neal bore Dahl his first child that things became at least somewhat tolerable. While Dahl remained aloof and sought to publish his work, the family lived off Neal’s roles and accompanying paycheques. After their brood grew even more, Dahl began to exemplify a strong paternal instinct, something that Neal admitted openly to anyone who would listen. 

It was at this time that Dahl began concocting some stories to entertain his children. First, one about a young boy named James and his adventures riding on a giant peach, and eventually another about a young Charlie Bucket who won the chance to tour inside the town’s chocolate factory. Dahl quickly found publishers for these two stories in America, though Britain was slow to publish. Of interest to the reader, the publication of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory faced a great deal of pushback, specifically due to Dahl’s depiction of the Oompa-Loompas. Their ‘pygmy from the depths of Africa’ backstory proved highly problematic in a civil rights era America, though some massaging of the text eventually made it more palatable. Dahl still had little interest in gearing stories for children, though did agree to pen a few when approached by publishers for a series of books they had in mind. Playboy remained his most reliable source of income, publishing a number of his stories and paying decently. However, Dahl faced two significant personal tragedies that impeding his writing abilities and pulled his coping abilities to their limits. His marriage to Neal remained strained and she continued to be the primary provider, which surely irked the author. Their travel to shoot her films kept Dahl and his children on the move, though he tried to lay down some roots in both New York and rural England. And yet, he had still yet to find his niche for which he would eventually become so well known. Dahl did find himself expanding his horizons and ended up tackling screenplay writing, one of his own Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (title changed to remove vernacular mention of ‘Charlies’ and the racial implications) and then some of the James Bond saga, none of which were excitedly received. This earned him some decent financial payout, but nothing that could have let him retire.

The Dahl-Neal relationship continued to fray, as Dahl found companionship with a much younger woman, Felicity Crosland. He wrote to Neal and promised that there was no sexual component to it, though Neal speculates that this might not have totally been the case. Dahl’s children were getting older and could see the cracks in their parents union, some of whom chose to act out and found their antics splashed across the tabloids. Dahl was, by now, beginning to find him momentum and had published Danny the Champion of the World, with moderate success. Treglown uses some of the latter chapters in the book to explore Dahl’s eventual connection to Quentin Blake, illustrator extraordinaire whose work is likely best known to many readers who have read Dahl’s work since the early 1980s. Additionally, the reader will find discussion of early manuscripts and story ideas of his most popular works (The BFG, The Witches, and Matilda) highly amusing, especially since Dahl’s original plots took a backseat when strong editors got their hands on the work. Except for a few instances, Dahl’s work was heavily rewritten, showing that while he was a master, his preeminence did not give him a pass when the red pen emerged. There was also a strong concern that Dahl was an admitted anti-Semite, something he never denied, though he did try to spin it as having issue with the Israelis during their battles in the early 1980s. He did go so far as to publicly draw parallels between Israeli PM Menachem Begin and HItler, which left many ill at ease. However, his agent and publishers continued to push back against booksellers who brought this up by citing that the stories themselves were not racially or culturally abhorrent, even if the author espoused his own set of beliefs. By his waning years, Dahl tired of criticism and interactions with the lowly reading public, which Treglown exemplifies in narrative full of off-colour comments made by the author. However, Dahl was sure to have much of his estate go towards helping the sickest of children and those who would be able to enjoy his work, in hopes that his stories could offer a dose of marvellous literary medicine. In death, Dahl was remembered for his stories and the wonder that they brought as new readers discovered them. However, his life was anything but a walk through the park or along the English seaside.

Treglown has surely taken on a significant and controversial task in trying to paint a complete picture of Roald Dahl. The man whose image is inedibly etched into the minds of millions (children and parents alike) is surely not the one that reality has to offer. By presenting Dahl in such a frank manner, the reader is able to see another side of the man. Offering detail where it is needed and skimming over other areas, Treglown weaves together a powerful piece that does dispel Dahl’s “magical Willy Wonka” nature and offers, perhaps, the crueller side seen by many of the villains that end up slain in his books. Treglown offers another interesting aspect in the narrative that is worth mention; he contrasts many of Dahl’s life experiences with children’s stories he would eventually create. For example, Dahl’s lack of a father figure (many of his stories only deal with a child and one parent or an orphan), boarding school cruelty (many stories have evil characters, both children and adults), and his Scandinavian lineage (there is a significant amount of witch, goblin, and other fairy mention in his stories). The reader is given this insight throughout the narrative and left to find other crumbs for themselves. Paced with decent sized chapters that provide enough for the reader to digest, Treglown has succeeded in offering the ‘other side’ to this author who sought greatness himself, rather than bask solely in the reactions of his fans. A should read by Dahl fans to balance out their previous sentiments.

Kudos, Mr. Treglown for keeping the story flowing and not candy-coating the narrative (pun intended). I have a much better view of the man and his development as an author, as well as some of the lesser known aspects.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

For this end of the month buddy read, I agreed to another Roald Dahl classic, though not one I have ever attempted before. This is a story within a story, which adds additional layers in its telling and the review. Henry Sugar is a wealthy and extremely egocentric man who gambles every chance he gets. While perusing the private library of an acquaintance, Sugar comes across a school tablet containing the summary of an interview with Imhrat Khan, an Indian man with a special talent. As Sugar reads, he discovers that Khan could see the world around him without using his eyes after extensive consultation and training with a yogi. Through Khan’s tale, Sugar learns the art of intense concentration, which he feels might be highly useful for his own gambling needs. After years of training, Sugar has honed these skills, now ready to put them to use. After winning a decent amount at his favourite gambling establishment, he has a form of epiphany, seeking to turn his winnings into something better. Dahl crafts the rest of this story around Sugar and how he will use these skills around the world to benefit others, a Robin Hood of sorts. By the end, all is revealed to the reader, or at least enough to keep everyone in some degree of suspense. An interesting story that might move outside the realm of past children’s stories flowing from Dahl’s pen, but is just as delightful for readers of all ages.

Anything Roald Dahl is sure to be a highly entertaining read, which is supported with this piece. Dahl offers up another winner in this brief tale that offers two stories for the price of one. Layering both the Khan tale and the progression of Sugar’s own epiphany allows Dahl to offer two insights for his reader, if you will pardon the pun. While the cast of characters is minimal, the reader makes do with what is put before them and can discover a wonderfully engaging piece that speaks to each person differently. Working both in the heart of India (Khan) and England (Sugar), Dahl can show his reader the relatively large difference between the cultures and mindsets, though the end result remains the same; there are those who are greedy all over and those who seek to render their individual abilities for their own profit. One might say this story is geared more for the mid-level reader to better grasp the ideas presented, though the narrative and dialogue are nothing too ghastly.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for another exciting story that I can now say that I have added to my already burgeoning collection.

Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

Nine stars 

Dahl continues with his wonderful children’s stories, telling one that has a realistic flavour to it, sure to appeal to the masses. After the death of his mother as an infant, Danny is left to live with his father. Together, they forge a bond so close that no one can come between them. Living in a small caravan out back of the service station he owns, William raises Danny the best he can. One night, Danny wakes to find his father is not in the upper bunk bed and panics, but soon locates him strolling up the pathway. After intense questioning, Danny learns that his father has been out poaching pheasants, something that many of the poorer men have been known to do on the large estate of a pompous owner. Danny is enamoured at the possibility that they can do this together, but is cautioned against it, as it is a highly dangerous and illegal affair. When Danny cannot find his father a second time, he goes out looking, only to discover that things are tied up in proverbial knots. Sharing an idea for the pheasant catching, Danny finds a way to get in on the act. What follows is a treacherous scheme that could fail at any moment, or reap rewards for many. Perhaps my favourite story to date in this re-reading adventure, Dahl dazzles and impresses at the same time.

I vaguely remember my father reading me this story when I was young, which helped fuel my desire to try it again for myself. The ease with which the story flows is surely one of its greatest assets, alongside some great characters and a plot that is as believable as it is relatable to at least some children. Able to convey a wonderful story in short order, Dahl continues to show how he earned the title of masterful children’s author of the 20th century. With a peppering mention of some other stories in his quiver (BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Dahl bridges a connection for his young readers, with just a touch of self-promotion. Short chapters foster a great adult-child joint experience and one can only hope that readers for decades to come will continue to be dazzled by the work Dahl made popular in my own youth. Rest assured, I will soon bring these stories out for my own son.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for continuing to impress with your fluid prose. I love that warm feeling your books always impart. 

The Witches, by Roald Dahl

Nine stars

What is a witch? After my last book, all about the Salem Witch Trials, I have a pretty good idea about what the Puritans thought. However, it would serve me well to allow Roald Dahl to present an answer to that for his childhood readers. According to Dahl, a witch has claw-like fingers (always gloved), remains bald (but wears a wig), and has squared feet (no toes and a horror when shopping for shoes!). But, the most important piece of knowledge about witches is that they DESPISE children more than anything. From there, in a sort of faux memoir about his youth, Dahl recounts losing his parents in an automobile crash and living with a Norwegian grandmother. She, of course, knows much more about witches and counsels him about them, since Norway has had witches for centuries. While on holiday, young Dahl and his grandmother are in a hotel and stumble across a gathering of all English witches, who are meeting under the guise of a fairly popular and heart-warming organisation. What happens next will test young Dahl’s ability to remember all the traits and actions witches undertake, as well as a conspiracy that the Grand High Witch of the World has for all the children. A delightful book to pique the curiosity of the young reader without any trials, tortures, or tribulations. Salem or the quaint English seaside, witches are all over and Dahl finally helps us identify them. Do YOU know a witch in your daily life?

Dahl’s magical way of presenting things to children is highly entertaining and allows me, a full-fledged adult reader, to tackle an enjoyable and short piece. Intentionally bordering on the silly, Dahl offers his readers some background before setting sail on a reading voyage that will both educate and entertain. His personalising the story pulls the reader in a little more and, even faced with adversity, Dahl does not push things to the edge of despair. I have always liked Dahl stories in my youth and see now just how uplifting I feel. I hope that in a few years, when my son is ready for something a little more dense, we might explore the world of witches and all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for another winner. Children have a goldmine of reading when they discover all that you had in your mind and put to paper.

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

I have always been taught to start at the beginning, which seemed like sage advice when I wanted to explore some of the children’s stories that Roald Dahl crafted over his long and illustrious career. Choosing this work, apparently his first stab at children’s literature, proved highly entertaining and a wonderful way to spend a few hours. After an accident claims the life of his parents, young James Henry Trotter is sent to live with his wicked aunts, facing a period of miserable adjustment. While out one day, he encounters a man who offers him a sack of magical beans that will, so the tale goes, react marvellously with the first living thing they encounter. James brings them home and while outside, the beans escape at the base of an old peach tree that has not shown any signs of life for many years. James witnesses a peach growing larger than anything he has ever seen in all his years and soon approaches it. He discovers a number of other creatures that have reacted with the beans, including a grasshopper, an earthworm, and a ladybug. Crawling inside a hole within this peach, James escapes the confines of his yard and sets about on an adventure with his new-found friends. Rolling through town, they eventually make their way to the open waters and find themselves marooned in the middle of the Atlantic. James and his ‘pesty’ friends use their wherewithal and conquer numerous enemies as they tackle a number adventures before them. James, in turn, learns the importance of new and exciting friendships, leaving some of the sorrow of his past behind him. Dahl at his best, proves how he became a household name amongst children’s authors.

As part of my 2017 reading goals, I thought I would pave the way and return to reading some of the classic books from my youth, in hopes of introducing them to my son in the coming years. Dahl has a way of telling a great story that will appease the young reader while also instilling great values and ideals into their little minds, sure to please parents and other adults. The stories have a degree of silliness, but also adventure and excitement, allowing the reader’s interest to be piqued to forge onwards a little more. While some books out there seek to create a spark amongst children by addressing modern characters and technologies, Dahl’s ideas and presentation are timeless, which I would venture to say might spurn children whose attention span has been whittled down by games and electronics to turn to these stories and take a moment to absorb all that is going on from chapter to chapter. Timeless classics are hard to discover in this fast-paced world, but Dahl has left these stories as breadcrumbs to discovering the wonders of early reading.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for introducing me to reading and the love of books. I hope to bring another generation of readers up to see the wonders of your storytelling abilities.

Going Solo (Roald Dahl Autobiography #2), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

“A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” So opens the second and ‘adult-based’ portion of Roald Dahl’s autobiography. He makes perfectly clear that this is not such a book, for autobiographies are full of useless and boring information. Dahl seeks to offer the reader some of the key memories he had during his early adult life, particularly serving in the Second World War. Accepting a job with the Shell Company, Dahl is soon shipped to the African continent, working particularly in Dar es Salaam, part of what is currently Tanzania. During his travel aboard a ship to reach the far shores, Dahl learns why the upper class held use of hands when eating in such low regard and the ‘daytime entertainment’ they found acceptable on deck. Arriving in Africa, Dahl uses all his patience and understanding as he undertook a complete culture shock, a world where wildlife ran the show and humans knew their place. While the scenery was spectacular and the people highly entertaining, the rumblings of war could be heard on the horizon. Dahl finds himself evacuated from the region, only to join the RAF to help Britain in the forthcoming Second World War. Lanky, yet determined, Dahl is an unlikely pilot-in-training before he became a key member of the effort in North Africa. While serving, Dahl is involved in a significant aerial accident, captured in a story he penned, eventually bastardised and published in the Saturday Evening Post. Dahl seeks to correct the narrative for the reader in this piece of writing, as if one might worry he was seeking to make himself seem overly heroic. The crash leaves Dahl with significant injury, his nose caved into his fractured skull (interesting for those who remember his childhood injury to the same nose), and he is required to remain in hospital for upwards of two months. While he convalesces, Dahl continues penning his weekly letters to his mother, though remains careful to censor his news, so as not to have the letters destroyed. Once healthy enough to fly again, Dahl heads out to serve in Greece, where he comes face to face with the Nazis, trying to hold the onslaught back and keep the Allies in control of the area. As the fighting intensified, Dahl dodges many a proverbial bullet and heads to the Middle East, where he sobers up to much of what was going on in the region and the European Theatre, learning of the extreme anti-Semitism or ignored undertone of the Nazi atrocities. As the reader is pulled deeper into the life of this wonderful author, Dahl uses his wonderful prose to breathe life into his life story. A must read for anyone who loves a story of humour and utter despair, all in short order.

Having recently completed the first volume in this first-person narrative, I wanted to take some time to explore the adult life of this man whose stories tantalised me throughout my childhood. As Dahl continues the story, boarding schools are replaced with African-style boardrooms (open air villages) and a collection of characters that only Dahl could dream up. Those Dahl mentions turned from being men recollected into individuals with complex backstories or who shaped Dahl in his intense battles in Africa and the war zones he discovered. Using a collection of his letters penned to his mother, Dahl is able to recall some of the minutiae, which helps substantiate his many adventures. Dahl outwardly admits the need to use this letters, both because of his age when writing the tale and the number of events that can mesh together in wartime. Crisp and humorous, Dahl is able to tell his story while keeping the reader spellbound, injecting passion for his situations on every page while not getting too wordy in his descriptions. A contrast to stories about chocolate-makers, giants, and fresh produce, this story (and its first volume) is not one to be passed over. It is yet another gem in the Roald Dahl collection.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for this two-volume collection about your life prior to becoming the popular writer for which you are best remembered. I cannot wait to tackle some of your other works, adult- and child-centric alike.

Boy: Tales from Childhood (Autobiography #1), by Roald Dahl

Eight stars

One of the great authors of children’s stories, Roald Dahl entertains readers with this piece that encompasses his life to age twenty. While Dahl clearly states that this piece is not an autobiography (for those sorts of books are filled with stale and dusty tales), this is a fabulous compendium of memories from his early years. The eldest son of two Norwegians, Dahl’s early years were a mixture of pain (he lost his sister and father within a single week) and childhood frivolity (he loved to play with his school chums whenever time permitted). In one vivid memory, Dahl recounts his love of sweets and a shopkeeper who had a hate-on for him, which led young Roald to concoct a plan to exact revenge, which backfired horribly. A child from his father’s second marriage, Dahl remembers riding with his elder half-sister, who got into a serious motor vehicle accident that almost cost him part of his face, Dahl recounts this with as much humour as the event permits. Dahl works hard to recollect those annual summer vacations outside Oslo, where grandparents doted on him and he could not wait for school to let out each summer. However, those glorious thoughts are countered with memories of the strap and horrid matrons patrolling the dorms when he left for boarding school. By the end, Dahl bridges his memories of entering the workforce and the hope that he might pen another short volume to entice readers to continue on with this journey. Like many of his books, the reader is lured into a blissful experience with Dahl’s easy writing and fascinating ideas.

One cannot read Roald Dahl and not feel some connection to the characters that fill the narrative. Although this is a move away from fiction and forces the author to recollect his own life, Dahl is happy to admit he does not remember large portions of life before eight, though his memories flood forward thereafter. While some would think that a man of seventy would have so much to tell, Dahl does not wish to fill pages with dreary recollections, choosing to succinctly tell his early life. I could see some interesting themes in the vignettes Dahl chose to present, which ended up being major children’s stories that I read in my younger years. Dahl’s use of these memories to craft timeless classics, such as The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only adds to the greatness of this short book. Told in a highly animated fashion, the reader cannot help but picture the young Roald heading to see that horrid matron or visiting with his beloved Norwegian grandparents while dreaming of sweets on his way home from school in second form. A piece that was so interesting, I am scrambling to get my hands on the second volume, to hear of his wartime memories. A must-read for anyone who has a little while to relax and loves the style Dahl has made famous.

Kudos, Mr. Dahl for all you did in your life. You will always hold a special place in my heart, which is only strengthened after reading this piece.