Sense and nonsense

In the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, a celebration of his expansive, and occasionally eew-inducing, oeuvre that has appealed endlessly to generations of readers.

Published - September 17, 2016 04:15 pm IST

An undated photo of Roald Dahl with his grandson Luke Kelly, who is now the managing director of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate.

An undated photo of Roald Dahl with his grandson Luke Kelly, who is now the managing director of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate.

If the geospatial coordinates of the anatomical markers of carnal desire in women have been x-marked in the cartographic consciousness of a generation of readers, it owes in large measure to the hormone-gushing opening passage in The Great Switcheroo , Roald Dahl’s short story published in Playboy in 1974.

In it, the protagonist Vic Hammond identifies the lower lip — “that little carapace of scarlet skin” — as “the great revealer” of everything from arrogance to gluttony to nervousness to hypersexuality. It is from that lippy launchpad of lasciviousness that Dahl propels an erotic, male-fantasist narrative about partner-swapping, which — were it not for his masterly manipulation of dark comedic situations — would be no more than a tawdry tale of rape by deception.

In Dahl’s skilled hands, however, it becomes a testosterone-driven yarn with a devastating denouement, which shows up the pitiable plight of the human condition, with the full range of traits on naked parade: from covetousness to deceit to arrogance to, in the end, the humiliation of crushed vanity.

For sure, Dahl, whose 100th birth anniversary was celebrated last week, skirted pretty close to the edge of squeamishness, both in this short story and elsewhere, and his gaze on human activity was perceived by some critics as borderline misanthropic, focussed as it was on man’s easy willingness to be cruel. But it is his utterly irreverent, occasionally ghoulish, sense of humour, accentuated by a chronicler’s sense of observation and a child-like fascination with fantasy, that has endeared his expansive oeuvre of works to generations of readers across the spectrum of age.

“Life isn’t beautiful and sentimental and clear. It’s full of foul things and horrid people,” Dahl is known to have said, when his “bitter and anarchic” work of poetry in a school competition drew peer-group censure for its sourness. And, later in life, even Gus Lobrano, the fiction editor at The New Yorker , would turn down Dahl’s short stories from the 1950s, noting that they were “a little too unpleasant for our general readers.”

And, yet, Dahl channelled all that negativity and all those “foul things” and “horrid people” into memorable works of fiction over a lifetime; it is easy to picture him chuckling as he hunched over his desk in his Writing Hut in Buckinghamshire village, spinning out yarn after outlandish yarn.

And for all the sense of disquiet that the ‘Master of the Macabre’ induced in a few of his genteel editors, Dahl had the literary capacity to keep young readers squealing with delight with his quirky retellings of established children’s stories in “revolting rhymes” that reverberate with “noisy flatulence” and other scatological oddities.

Thus, in his imagination, Little Red Riding Hood isn’t quite the demure girl who gets lamely eaten up by the big, bad wolf. Instead, she coolly confronts the beast, whips out a pistol “from her knickers” and shoots him dead. Weeks later, we are told in a poetic postscript, she no longer has a red cloak or a hood over her head: she is instead wearing a furry wolfskin coat!

In another of Dahl’s “revolting rhymes”, the last of the Three Little Pigs summons Miss Red Riding Hood when he’s at risk of being devoured by a wolf. Suffice it to say that by the end of the poem, she has two wolfskin coats — and, additionally, a pigskin travelling case!

The same absence of maudlin sentimentality characterises much of Dahl’s other legendary works, be it Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , James and the Giant Peach or The BFG . As biographer Donald Sturrock observes in Storyteller: The Life of Road Dahl , his children’s fiction frequently reflected a “subversive” view of families, with orphandom as a running theme (pop-psychological point of interest: Dahl lost a sister and his father at age three). “His books,” writes Sturrock, “were a kind of imaginative survival manual for children about how to deal with the adult world around them.”

So acute was Dahl’s fascination with fantasy that it extended even to retellings of his own life, which he frequently embellished. For instance, he claimed for long that he had been “shot down” as an RAF pilot during World War II, when in fact he had crash-landed his plane on his maiden flight — and he wasn’t even on combat duty.

And, yet, it is easy to forgive the blurring of the real and the imagined — and even the wilful resort to the over-the-top outlandishness — in one so gifted. For Dahl is, like the eponymous BFG, nothing if not a “dreamcatcher”. His daughter Ophelia, in her preface to The Roald Dahl Treasury , recalls how one night, after putting her to sleep with a spontaneously rustled-up story about “marvellous dream powders” blown into the bedroom through a blowpipe, Dahl tip-toed out and re-enacted that scene for real.

The fictional products of Dahl’s fantasies were, in a sense, the “dream powders” that he propelled in through our bedroom windows through the blowpipes of his imagination. These are, as the BFG says, “Nice dreams. Lovely golden dreams. Dreams that is giving the dreamers a happy time.” Some of them, of course, made for naughty nocturnal reading, but it’s fair to say that all of them gave undiluted joy.

Venky Vembu is an editor with Business Line , and a whimsical writer and blogger.

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