Thursday, April 19, 2012


Last night I finished reading Storyteller, a fairly massive (560 pages, plus hundreds of pages of footnotes and references) biography of Roald Dahl.

There was a lot that I learned from it, not least the unreliability of autobiography. When I first read Going Solo and Boy as a youth, I accepted them without the slightest inkling that not every single word of what was written in them was the gospel truth. Sturrock makes it quite clear, with meticulous and detailed research, that so much of what was in those books was part of the myth that Dahl was building around himself, even as early as his own schooldays.

I'm not going to criticise myself for being naive when I was young; that's what being young is for. It felt a little disappointing, although much less so than the disappointment I felt as I read about Dahl's family life, and how he ended up for many years in a marriage with a woman that he didn't love, or loved in some difficult way, nursing her back from her stroke "like an animal trainer". But again, we often hope that our heroes are infallible, and find ourselves confused and upset when they have feet of clay.

Saddest, when reading the biography, was the never ending procession of head injuries and neurological incidents that beset Dahl and those around him; his son had his skull shattered as a baby, Dahl had massive injuries when he crashed his plane in Africa, his wife suffered a stroke, his daughter died of encephalitis, his stepdaughter died from a brain tumour ... it seems to go on in a cavalcade of gloom, punctuated by Dahl alienating people around him, for need of being right, or just for the need to be obstinate.

When I watched You Only Live Twice, I was surprised that Dahl hadn't made a better film. After reading Storyteller, I realise that my view of Dahl had been distorted by perspective; in the 1960s he wasn't the towering giant of children's literature that we think of today; rather, he was trying to grub a living, at times an antique dealer or a greyhound racer rather than the author one would aspire to. His film work was another attempt to make money, and when he wrote "the biggest pile of bullshit I ever put my hand to", was that an example of not really fulfilling his promise, or of being the journeyman writer he felt the Establishment looked down on?

It's a fairly compulsive read; I sat down at 9pm last night with the last 250 pages unread, and didn't stop until midnight.  That didn't lead to a happy night's sleep, when you end with the final chapters, flitting back and forth in the sometimes successful, sometimes hard years at the end of Dahl's life, until the great man died.  A great man, but a hard one to live with; I'd never realised how hard until I read that.


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