- Karthik Narasimhan
The New Yorker has a story this week about Roald Dahl, describing him as “the British author of children's books.” Although Dahl is better known for his children's books, it is a little unfair to call him a “children's writer”. He has written a lot of entertaining adult fiction – mostly short stories that ended with O. Henry like “twists in the tail.”
Dahl came to me through a stranger. I was in the checkout line at a bookstore in India, when this old man accosted me. Pointing to the copy of the Twelve Red Herrings in my hands, he informed me politely: “This is no good. No good, young man.” Sumaar, he added in Tamil for emphasis. And continued, “If you want to read good short stories, read Dahl.” When I told him I'd never heard of Dahl, he derisively clicked his tongue and told me unequivocally that Roald Dahl was the master of the twist in the tale. And then he personally walked me back into the store, took a copy of the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, patted it lovingly and said, “Take it. You will like it.”
Suckered in by his infectious enthusiasm, I bought it. For the next few weeks, Dahl was by my side, looking at me from the cover – eye glasses in his hands, a pensive half smirk on his face. He turned out to be a grumpy, morose companion, narrating the outlandins and the ominous in the same tone: brisk, matter-of-fact, straight faced. Every tale had something that would spook, surprise, or gross you out. And of course, at the end there was the promised (occasionally contrived) twist.
What made the stories fun was the bizarre things that would happen in them: Mothers would swallow kids, fingers would be chopped, and humans would turn into bees like it was the most natural thing in the world. Dahl revelled in the macabre, and loved to shock readers. Add in what the New Yorker calls a “clinical fascination with body parts,” and you are guaranteed entertainment.
If Dahl had written The Gift of the Magi, Della would've been James's secret lover, he would've cut his nose off to buy Della a ring, and Della would've chopped her finger off to buy him a nice bottle of cologne.
This excerpt from the New Yorker article is a good window into Dahl's personality, and why kids love him:
(The)kids … liked the fact that Dahl, unsatisfied with desks, had designed a baize-covered writing board, to balance on his lap just so. And they loved that he kept, on a side table, a jar containing gristly bits of his own spine, which had been removed during an operation on his lower back. Next to the jar was a waxy-looking knob that turned out to be Dahl's hip bone, along with a titanium replacement.
“It makes a good letter opener,” one little boy said of the prosthetic hip.
“Has it got blood on it?” another asked hopefully.
Dahl's work seems to be very personal – many of his stories have autobiographical elements in them. Stung by a series of rejections midway in his career, (the New Yorker alludes to this), Dahl wrote The Great Automatic Grammatizer, a thinly veiled satire about the publishing industry. His fansite has background information for all of his stories – fascinating to see where writers draw inspiration from.
The kind old man at Landmark wasn't too far off the mark. And to pass his kindness on, I tell you all: Read Dahl. You will like it.