The Cleverest Man in the World

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Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl bridges the gap between the literary impresario and the troubled man.

Roald Dahl was a writer whose characters often stole his thunder, and maybe that is why he was so widely considered an arrogant prick. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Fox, Matilda, the BFG, and Willy Wonka may overshadow their creator forever. So Dahl would probably be pleased with Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. Dahl’s creations enchanted us, but more enchanting still was the mystery behind their common source. How did he do it? The explanation, Sturrock painstakingly shows, lies in Dahl’s history, which was anything but child-appropriate.

Sturrock takes his time—over half the book—getting to Dahl’s heyday. He investigates Dahl’s childhood in Cardiff, the son of stalwart Harald and indomitable Sofie, who was a storyteller at heart and an enormous influence on her son. (She was later the model for the spunky grandmother in The Witches.) The precariousness of Roald’s early years, the “acute sense of the ecstasy and agony of childhood,” lasted through his stint at a tyrannical English boarding school (a “private lunatic asylum”) and into his years working for Shell Oil. As a fighter pilot for the RAF, he narrowly escaped death, his imagination eventually turning to the fantasies that would populate his stories. Sturrock brilliantly compares Dahl’s descriptions in letters home—“Think if you learned to be indifferent to death, or if you learn to pretend to be indifferent to it . . .”—and the later images of a giant peach buoyed aloft by flocks of seagulls. The stories come together organically, never forced or overly stylized.

Sturrock’s fascinating dissection of Dahl’s tumultuous family life is the heart of the book: the high drama of his marriage to actress Patricia Neal, and his weathering of major tragedies—his son Theo’s near-fatal accident; his daughter Olivia’s death from encephalitis; and Neal’s suffering of a massive stroke—are told in concert with his rise to fame. Neal once said “she felt as if the family was living through the Book of Job,” and Dahl’s stories all touch on questions of retribution and who deserves it most. Yet he remained prolific through these tragedies; he could write a play-by-play of Olivia’s death—“How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her”—and then a scene of unparalleled hilarity in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even in the middle of playing the taskmaster, “Roald the Rotten,” while nursing Neal back to health, he was writing scripts for a future collaboration with Robert Altman.

The undeniable suggestion of Sturrock’s crosscutting is that Dahl bore a striking resemblance to his most famous creation, the whimsical chocolatier Willy Wonka. Dahl could be alternately brilliant and generous, or viciously cruel and vindictive, as best shown in the chapter on Dahl’s crumbling relationship with his editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb. In public Dahl may have been Wonka, but in his private life, he was Mr. Fox. For every moment of triumph, there was a sacrifice made (a tail, a child), many instances of threatened safety, and times when he almost threw in the towel (his strained relationship with his daughter Tessa).

There are many literary nuggets worth digging for here: the discarded names of the ten original children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Violet Strabismus and Herpes Trout, among them), or the revelation that the original version of Matilda had a wicked heroine who used her telekinetic powers to manipulate horse races. But the best moments come direct from Dahl: He was full of secrets. As he said in Danny, The Champion of the World, written as an apologia to his children:

Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one’s own parents, have two or three private habits hidden in their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them.

As a child, I closed each Dahl book marveling, “Yes, that was exactly what I wanted to read.” How did he know children’s tastes so well? Who was this magical BFG? His use of language was irresistible, his stories contained just the right amount of darkness. It was impossible for him to write otherwise; his life was too tragic to contemplate anything brighter. Yet when you look at the stories he produced—Matilda, The Twits, The Witches, The Minpins, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Esio Trot, and many more, not to mention the short stories and novellas he wrote for adults—one guesses that his imagination saved his life, or that his life demanded the use of his imagination. Notes found after his death show how Dahl continued to explore and imagine; here, notes for a book about “the cleverest man in the world . . . Billy Bubbler”:

He can invent just about anything you want. He has a marvelous workshop full of wheels and wires and buckets of glue and balls of string and huge pots full of thick foaming stuff that gives off smoke in many colors… of carrots and electric machines and sewing machines and fizzy-drink machines and bath tubs and cow’s teeth and rice puddings and old shoes and everything else Mr. Bubbler needs to make his wonderful inventions.

Would he ever have run out of material? After reading Sturrock’s thrilling reexamination, I highly doubt it.

Jessica Freeman-Slade is a writer who reviews and blogs on book culture at The [TK] Review, and has written reviews for The Millions, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She works as an editor at Random House and lives in Morningside Heights. More from this author →