Roald Dahl Essay - Dahl, Roald (Vol. 6)

Dahl, Roald (Vol. 6)

Dahl, Roald 1916–

Dahl, an Englishman born in Wales, is a short story and screen writer (Dahl's wife is the actress Patricia Neal and his screenplays are written for her) and the author of a novel, a play, and several controversial and widely read children's books, "cautionary tales for bad children" (of which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known). Dahl's special talent as a short story writer is the integration of the pedestrian and the grotesque in tales that have been likened to Charles Addams' cartoons. Most of his stories appear originally in Playboy, Esquire, the New Yorker, and other prestigious periodicals. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Dahl's characteristic story sets up a quick situation, usually within a family, and ends with the nastiest character taking control or with a victim facing a grim future. A woman discovers that her irritating husband is trapped in the elevator of their home, and goes off to vacation in Paris. Another brains her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then roasts the evidence. A weird husband has himself reduced to a brain and eye floating in a basin, and the story ends with his wife blowing cigarette smoke in the eye and looking forward to a lifetime of tormenting him. A husband feeds his baby and himself on the royal jelly of bees, with apian results….

One of Dahl's subjects is the war between men and women. Another is the threat of the esoteric, the repeated suggestion that special knowledge is dangerous, or that the man with special knowledge is necessarily nutty. This leads him into lectures on reincarnation, Liszt, cerebral biology; the qualities of royal jelly, the butchering of pigs, the characteristics of antique furniture, and—in Switch Bitch—spiders, sexual stimulation and the sense of smell.

The notion of a war between men and women, with many of the fiercest skirmishes fought inside quiet domestic houses, is traditional. The idea that knowledge is dangerous is an ancient one; an age that has developed the hydrogen bomb, gas and germ warfare, and worldwide pollution of earth, air and water can hardly shrug off the notion of the mad scientist. A country so hung up on and about sex as ours can hardly dismiss the struggle between men and women. These are grimly serious contemporary issues.

Why, then, should anyone want to read stories about them? What is the pleasure in a painful subject? There have been many answers, but the most serious ones are irrelevant to Dahl. Our Supreme Master of Wickedness doesn't know enough about the subject. He is not wicked, not even tempting. In three of the four stories of Switch Bitch he's not even titillating, since the villains get their comeuppance. He is no longer willing to leave the reader with a vision of nastiness triumphant. This is reassuring, surely, and perhaps Dahl does what so many authors of thrillers and horror stories do: he substitutes for real and dangerous evil a cartoon version of it, safely incredible or at least safely removed from our everyday lives. We can read about Fu Manchu without fearing Vietnamese tiger cages. We can imagine hostile visitors from flying saucers without fainting when politicians emerge from limousines. And our sense of real human evil is safely numbed when we meet the hero of two of these present stories, Uncle Oswald, who, under various names, has infested gothic literature for centuries (he was a favorite of English playwrights in the 18th century). He is rich, experienced and (therefore) perverse, guaranteed to appear unexpectedly and to disappear predictably, leaving corruption in his wake but no great harm. A scamp, a ne'er-do-well, a rogue, "a celebrated rapscallion," he is in fact a nasty bastard, who "had never in his life been able to confine his attentions to one particular woman for longer than the time it took to conquer her. When that was done, he lost interest and looked around for another victim." This is unpleasant, but Dahl defuses the topic conventionally by insisting on Oswald's amorous skills: "Wherever he went, he left an endless trail of females in his wake, females ruffled and ravished beyond words, but purring like cats."

All four stories here deal with sex, and three show Oswald or his type conquering and then losing out. The losing is new to Dahl's characteristic story, as are the fairly explicit sex and the four-letter words. (Perhaps, like so many writers, he feels that the public demands coarseness now. The title Switch Bitch is made forcibly from two titles, "The Great Switcheroo" and "Bitch," and "Bitch" is the quite arbitrary name given an aphrodisiac.) The fourth and by far the best story tells how a rejected suitor drives the woman to suicide. Even in this one, however, we are required to believe that the woman is remarkably stupid. The other stories hinge on the traditional desert mansion full of opulence, beautiful women and a Strange Secret, on a difficult switching of sexual partners, and on an obligatorily aphrodisiac odor. Since we can't believe in these things the evilness in the story is presumably neutralized for us. As Playboy neutralizes pornography with an airbrush, so Dahl sweetens nastiness into mild amusement. (p. 23)

J. D. O'Hara, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 19, 1974.

Roald Dahl's stories always have a nasty sting in the tail. The four outrageous stories in Switch Bitch certainly do—literally—for they are all about sex…. It is all perhaps a little slick; but the slickness is that of the professional entertainer. In each case Roald Dahl sets up a realistic situation, then loads it with amazing and fantastic sexual possibilities. Then, somewhere this or the other side of pornography, he produces a dénouement of the banana-skin kind—black banana-skin at that. The lecher falls flat on his face, the reader is released into appalled laughter, and morality is placated. Mr. Dahl's children's stories for adults, in fact, are every bit as enjoyable and funny and clever as his adults' stories for children. But just make sure to whom you give which for Christmas. (p. 749)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 22, 1974.

The heroes and heroines of Switch Bitch are always confusing sex with pleasure, a condition which Dahl must find as amusing as the rest of us since all of them come to very sticky ends. The stories in this book prick the bubbles of sexual fantasy even before they have got off the ground, and they use those tricks of surprise and reversal, which would seem artificial within a novel, to great effect. (p. 711)

Roald Dahl has that eye for bizarre detail which can make [an] unhappy ending funny. (pp. 711-12)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 30, 1974.

Roald Dahl is a master of the short story in the tradition of O. Henry. Damnation by faint praise? Perhaps—but O. Henry's collected works are more often to be found in the literature section of the bookshop than in the more popular fiction section. Will Mr Dahl ever make the move from fiction to literature? Possibly—but not on the present showing. Switch Bitch [is] an agreeable and entertaining tetralogy of short stories, each with an O. Henry surprise ending…. Mr Dahl very nearly succeeds in creating a genuine fictional character in Uncle Oswald, who is the hero of the first story 'The Visitor' as well as of the last one, 'Bitch'. One has the feeling that Dahl is experiencing the temptation to create a full-blown character, ie, an entity whose function it is to survive for longer than the time necessary to experience one adventure. But the function of the O. Henry hero is to have only one adventure per story, and Dahl seldom has the courage to break the mould….

It is unhappy to have to say that Roald Dahl abuses the language. Several of these stories are written in a rare dialect of English—publisher's Mid-Atlantic, a purpose-built variety of standard English that allows British and American publishers to use the same sheets and cut production costs substantially. Mr Dahl has not yet mastered the dialect: American children seldom address the female parent as 'Mummy' and American patients never consult their doctor in his 'surgery'. (p. 72)

Paul Levy, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), March, 1975.