BOOK REVIEW: Wild fantasist, cool observer

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STORYTELLER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF ROALD DAHL
By Donald Sturrock
Simon & Schuster, $30, 655 pages, illustrated

Roald Dahl (1916-1990), born in Wales of Norwegian parents and named for explorer Roald Amundson, is fortunate in his biographer. Donald Sturrock met Dahl in the course of making his first television documentary for the BBC in 1985. Mr. Sturrock claims not to have read any of the famous author’s books for children other than “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at the time he took on the project, but he did remember, as a teenager, having read some of Dahl’s short stories for adults.

Mr. Sturrock quickly boned up on the prolific author’s other works, and soon became a family friend. As a result, it was to him the family turned when Dahl’s designated biographer, his daughter Ophelia, opted out.

Family friend or not, Mr. Sturrock is no hagiographer. His book is thoroughly researched (Dahl’s mother, described by Dahl as “the primary influence on my own life,” kept all 906 letters he wrote her), and Mr. Sturrock seems to have left virtually no claim by Dahl unexamined. Dahl was, as the title says, primarily a storyteller. “As a storyteller, the fantastic would always triumph over the literal, lest he succumb to his ‘constant unholy terror of boring the reader.’ Objectivity or truth was never his aim,” writes Mr. Sturrock.

Dahl’s personal contradictions immediately impressed the author: “The wild fantasist vied with the cool observer, the vainglorious boaster with the reclusive orchid breeder, the brash public school boy with the vulnerable foreigner, who never quite fit into the English establishment although he liked to describe himself as ‘very English, very English indeed.’ “

Roald’s father died of pneumonia when the boy was 3, shortly after the sudden death of Roald’s 7-year-old sister from appendicitis. Roald’s stoic and pregnant mother, Sofie Magdalene, remained in Britain so that the children would be educated there, but she took Roald and his three sisters to Norway every summer, reinforcing their heritage with folktales about elves.

One might think that Dahl’s true life story was sufficiently colorful, fraught and adventurous not to require embellishing, but Mr. Sturrock found that in Dahl’s “evocative and zestful memoir of childhood,” titled “Boy,” almost all of the material is, to some extent, fiction.

Its “untruths, omissions, and evasions are revealing. Not only do they disclose the author’s need to embellish, but they hit as well at the complex hidden roots of his imagination, which lay tangled in a soil composed of lost fathers, uncertain friendships, a need to explore frontiers, an essentially misanthropic view of humanity, and a sense of fantasy that stemmed in large part from the Norwegian blood that ran powerfully through his veins.”

Dahl was very proud of his ability to re-create and understand the child’s point of view. “It’s really quite easy,” he told Mr. Sturrock. “I go down to my little [writing] hut, where it’s tight and dark and warm, and within minutes I can go back to being six or seven or eight again.” In Dahl’s children’s fiction, says Mr. Sturrock, “The child always stands at the center of things. Survival is often his or her main motivation, and enemies are as likely to come from within the family as from outside it.”

He elaborates: “In many instances his books are a kind of imaginative survival manual for children about how to deal with the adult world around them. They offer the vision of an existence freed from parental controls, a world full of imagination and pleasure, where everything is possible.”

Dahl himself had a lot from which to seek escape: Boarding school at Repton was every British boy’s horror story, where the older boys enforced brutish discipline over the younger ones. Dahl did, however, have one advantage over most of his fellow students: By his midteens, he had grown to a height of 6 feet 5 inches and was good at sports, so he was left alone. (When his own children became teenagers, he sent them off to boarding school over their objections.)

After school, Dahl skipped university and joined an oil company that sent him to work in Tanganyika, and he was there when World War II broke out. He promptly joined the Royal Air Force, which, despite his height, trained him as a pilot over the Iraqi desert. He survived intense action in the Greek campaign and got his start as a writer after recovering from injuries inflicted in the crash of his airplane into the Libyan desert.

The author suggests that the accident changed his personality: “His sense of embarrassment - already minimal - was further diminished, his sense of fantasy heightened, while his desire to shock became even more pronounced.”

Invalided to wartime Washington as an assistant air attache, he cut a dashing figure in his RAF uniform while working for the British secret service to promote British interests in the United States. His duties included charming powerful American politicians (he lunched with President Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and regularly played tennis with Vice President Henry Wallace); he also bedded attractive and wealthy women across the country, including Clare Boothe Luce and Elizabeth Arden.

When his semi-fictionalized account of his plane crash (transformed into “Shot Down Over Libya”) was published, he seemed to be on his way. Hollywood called, as did New York, but American magazine editors rejected the dark stories he subsequently wrote for adults as “self-consciously designed to shock” and “fit only for a horror magazine.”

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