Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison review – big stories from a big kid | Biography books
“I“I’m afraid I like strong contrasts,” Roald Dahl said, shortly before his death in 1990. “I like bad guys to be terrible and good people to be very good.” Dahl himself lied to this formulation. It’s very easy to portray him as a villain: even friends have described him as intimidating, bossy, arrogant and impossible; he was a compulsive gambler, an aloof and capricious husband, an unforgivable anti-Semite. But then, with the help of Quentin Blake, there are also the books. Tens of millions of children – myself included – fell under the spell of his happy, mean, silly and inventive imagination in stories that suggested he was not grown-up at all, but still the boss. of a childhood gang. Books that introduced you, as he hoped and believed, to a life of reading. Books which – despite their creator’s declining reputation – Netflix paid more than £500million for the adaptation rights last year.
Several biographers have attempted to fill the void between these polarities. Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 book Roald Dahl: A Biography set parameters. Unauthorized by Dahl’s second wife and children, but with access to many of his letters and to his first wife, actress Patricia Neal, Treglown offered a seductive analysis of the writer’s psychology. He argued that Dahl’s tragic life – the writer’s father and sister had died aged four, he lost his own eldest daughter to measles aged seven and nursed Neal and their son Theo from severe brain damage – gave him deep emotional darkness and a desperate need to find ways to transcend it. Dahl had asked his daughter Ophelia to write an authorized book, but when that proved too difficult, the family asked Donald Sturrock in 2010 to step in. Sturrock carefully circumvented some of Dahl’s more uncomfortable behaviors and found a compelling courage and belated generosity of spirit to balance it out.
The New Life of Matthew Dennison is a compact, well-researched book drawn from the existing record. There are no new reveals or notable interviews, but it does turn the jerky complications of Dahl’s life into something lively and manageable. Dennison is aware of the details but fires a few punches. The infamous 1983 interview Dahl gave to the new statesmanfor example, in which he told Michael Coren: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that causes animosity, perhaps it is a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews” and: ” Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just go after them for no reason” is only mentioned in passing. Dennison tends to conclude that the charges against Dahl of lazy or deliberately provocative anti-Semitism are mostly proof that “contemporary liberal shibboleths have little weight in the face of old fame”.
He’s good on the weirdness of early life. Dahl’s father, Harald, had left Norway for Paris to become an artist. Somehow he ended up in South Wales, with an extremely successful business selling Norwegian timber as mine props to the coal mines. After his death, Dahl, still unnaturally tall – he was 6ft 5in at the age of 15 – was forced to become the man of the house. He dreamed of a life of adventure and discovered one, first as a Shell representative in Dar es Salaam, then as a fighter pilot during the war (he crashed in Libya) and then in as a socialite (and spy for Winston Churchill) at Roosevelt. Washington.
Dennison seems rightly told, although he stops short of the warning, that Dahl recast the story of his near-death experience during the war in both print and anecdote form for emphasize his own heroism. After pulling himself from the burning wreckage, he was partly saved by another pilot who landed alongside him in the desert and held him overnight to keep him warm. At the time of Dahl’s autobiography go solo (1986) that part of the story has been lost from his accounts. He has become the singular author of his own survival. This budding megalomania seems to inform a sense of himself throughout his life.
Competitiveness was expressed sexually before Dahl’s writing took off. In the United States after the war, the young fighter pilot was a magnet for wealthy married women of a certain age. A contemporary recalled that at that time, “I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts who had over $50,000 a year.” Six months after his marriage to Neal, Dahl was convinced he had to leave her: “I make coffee in the morning,” he wrote to a friend. “She stays in bed. I work until noon. Then I have my own lunch in a can of soup. He embarks on an attempt to seduce Gloria Vanderbilt, which is quickly abandoned. He and Neal had five children, but it was never a happy union.
The life-changing books closely followed the tragedy. Charlie and the chocolate factory (Dahl previously viewed children’s books as “an uneconomic diversion” from adult fiction and screenwriting) was completed the year after seven-year-old Olivia died. Dahl had retired in silence and was drinking; his daughter Tessa recalled how the family then “tipped unintentionally over the edge of a jagged cliff into a canyon of darkness filled with sadness, a devastation so utter we will never recover”.
This desperation was compounded by Neal’s brain haemorrhage during pregnancy in 1965 which left her in a coma and required intensive speech therapy and physical therapy for months and years afterwards. Dahl refused to accept the change in her, insisting on a fierce daily rotation of rehabilitation, noting down the nonsense phrases she sometimes uttered for use in her books. As you read this tale, you begin to recognize the appeal of its fictional heroes – Charlie and James and Matilda and Fantastic Mr Fox and all – they are universal survivors through thick and thin, often orphaned, always alone against the world, before finding a way out.
In his own life, Dahl escaped in an affair with a family friend, Felicity “Liccy” Crosland, more than 20 years his junior. The affair lasted 10 years before ending her marriage to Neal. He married Crosland at the age of 67 and somehow entered the most productive phase of his life, certainly the most serene. Until the end, however, he never lost this will to prevail against all comers. Shortly before his death, Dennison notes, Dahl recalled having lingering dreams of “world champion” in which he had won Wimbledon or Open golf championships. He often woke up thinking, “I beat them all and everyone is surprised.