All writers are liars; we do it openly, shamelessly and with the serious intent of manipulating our reader’s emotions. We make you laugh, we make you cry, and we make you shudder or leave the lights on when you go to bed. The majority of us keep the bullshit on the page, but there are some who apply the same inventiveness and manipulation to our real lives, with varying success but always with consequences.
Roald Dahl unleashed upon the world a somewhat acute horror, I am not talking ‘The Witches’ here or indeed ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ (with the likes of ‘William and Mary’ and ‘Skin’), or indeed ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, which has all kinds of creepy undertones and a rather high mortality rate for the children in the book. The acute horror I am referring to is Roald’s own personal history, which he deftly manipulated over decades, toying with people in positions of power and presenting a fake persona Walter Mitty would have been proud of. This is the same horror tempered with an understanding of what it is like to be a child living with the social awareness that comes with isolation. It is the horror of seeing the true nature of people as an outsider. It is the horror of never growing up and addressing adult responsibility and culpability.
Roald Dahl: A biography, offers a terrific insight into the mind of a man whose career and personal life was a creative tour de force. There are many biographies of Dahl, a vast amount of them focusing more on his prolific production of children’s books than on the life of a writer far more intricate and interesting than much of his output. Treglown’s biography is perhaps the most honest as he pulls apart his subject matter with a forensic eye for detail. Unlike most biographers, Treglown leaves his personal bias to one side as his meticulous research gathered from those closest to Dahl provides the reader with an honest account of the somewhat troubled genius. Beginning with his family’s migration from Norway and his early days in Wales, following him through decades of maniacal machinations, as Dahl pursued and successfully gained power and wealth, this is an exacting and exhaustive account of his life.
There is no ‘safe gain’ in this biography, it’s not an easy read as it isn’t as much meant for entertainment as for instruction, so don’t expect a rip-roaring, fast paced expose, think of it more as a textbook examining the aberrant psychology of a celebrity author. One who did not care whom he trampled on as long as he got what he wanted. The extra knowledge you can acquire through reading this comes at a price as it shatters the illusions of the famous ‘children’s book author’ as a kind old soul ready to eagerly dispense relatively innocent tales and Werther’s Originals in equal doses. It would be much fairer to assume that this grandfatherly figure would be more likely to dole out poisoned candies with the nightmares he offers to the unwary. It is a biography that could quite easily wipe away any previous conceptions or indeed fondness you may have toward Roald Dahl.
I became aware of facets of Roald Dahl at three different times in my life, firstly there was Roald Dahl the name on the cover of James and the Giant Peach (among other books of course). His name was unusual yet nothing of any great note to a young brain when I was reading my way through the library in Kindergarten. I loved the stories but had no real concept of the creator of them. The secondary awareness came a decade later with the 1979 TV series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. Each episode was hosted by a somewhat seedy looking old guy sitting cosily by the fire, who took great delight in telling us some often seemingly unrelated ‘Rowley Birkin-esque’ anecdote before the eagerly awaited creepy story unfolded. It wasn’t until much later in life that I found out who the old guy was and what he wrote. I wasn’t exactly gobsmacked at the inventive duality of writing much loved children’s books and moderately chilling short stories, but it did make me take better notice of him, which leads into the third revelation, which is his biography. This is where all bets are off.
It’s not easy to recommend any book, especially a biography, without giving away spoilers, as let’s face it, you’re making an investment, so you want to know if what you are going to get is worth the time to read it and the money to own it. I’d say in both cases this is very much worth the investment. I read it some time ago, and, albeit in an abstract way, I learned a lot from it. Having revisited it for this article it’s revived a part of me I’d left dormant, I am not sure how I feel about that, it is akin to meeting an old friend after decades apart when you know full well that he was a bad influence. There’ so much more to Roald Dahl, a lot of which is thoroughly unpleasant, enough so that the book can easily leave one with the mental equivalent of a ‘foul taste in the mouth’.
Reading through the revelations from Treglown’s research we are given a crystallization of a youth in which although Roald lived in relative luxury, things were far from perfect as tragedies were harsh and plentiful. His formative years do explain a lot of how Roald became the man he was, as well as many of the backgrounds and characters in his stories with tales such as ‘Galloping Foxley’ which deals with a supposed reunion of school bully and victim crafted with certain knowledge of his subject matter.
Roald Dahl: A Biography is to my mind significantly more than a by the numbers account of a writer, it is a meticulous study of the ‘Will To Power’, perhaps even a blueprint for bullshitting your way to the top. Which is not to say that Dahl did not possess talent, as it is blatantly obvious that he possessed more than one. However, the many accounts detailed in this biography make it clear that often when it came to storytelling on paper he provided diamonds in the rough, with the cutting and polishing being done by other more patient souls. Dahl in this biographical reality is presented as both victim and villain, his skewed perspective on the world and somewhat sadistic streak enabled him to often act with a lack of compassion in his steady rise beyond his peers.
If you ever considered him enigmatic you really should read this book, it solves all of the mysteries with facts. I have read reviews in which the readers have found this book hard going, all I can say to that is, it may be a little dry, yet overall, it is quite fascinating and certainly recommended to anyone with more than a passing interest in biographies of storytellers.