March 20, 2011

Roald Dahl

My wife got me Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl for my birthday. I've been a huge fan of Dahl's since I was about five. I love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and, especially, the stories.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

It turns out that much of the received lore - that his Gloster Gladiator was shot down over Libya, that he wrote Charlie to pay for Patricia Neal's treatment after a stroke, that he had invented gremlins - was either fabricated or embellished.

The original Charlie was black, possibly based on Dahl's servant Mdisho in Tanzania. The Oompa Loompas were originally "African Pygmies," but had to be made blond after an outcry from the NAACP. (Irrelevant aside: my favorite cat, Mihwi, was eaten by pygmies in Burundi.)

After his first book of stories - the excellent Over to You - he struggled for years. His first novel, Sometime Never, was a complete failure, and is now out of print. No one would take his second, Fifty Thousand Frogskins. This was actually the most interesting information in the book to me. I have always felt that the four stories grouped under the title "Claud's Dog," as well as "Parson's Pleasure," in which Claud appears, were his best work. I'd even commented to my wife at one point that if he'd turned those into a book, it would have been an amazing work. Now, apparently the Claud stories were salvaged from Fifty Thousand Frogskins after it failed to find a publisher. So this means that the book I crave is actually out there! Will someone please, please publish it! Incidentally, Claud, and the father from Danny, the Champion of the World, were based on a neighbor, Claud Taylor, who was "a storyteller and a bit of a rogue," and was one of Dahl's favored companions.

Dahl was impossibly irascible. The book is worth reading just for some of his nasty exchanges with his publishers.

He spied for Britain, filing reports on politicians and socialites in Washington, D.C.

Ursula Le Guin disliked Charlie because it made her "usually amiable" daughter "quite nasty." I have noticed no such effect on my daughter.

As we're on the topic of Charlie, I have to end this post with my favorite lines:

"And cannibals crouching 'round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it's Penelope.)"

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