Thursday, September 15, 2016

lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a dahl's eyes

So it was Roald Dahl Day on Tuesday, which is apparently a thing that's been going on every September 13th (his birthday) for about ten years; this one is a bit more noteworthy though as it would have been Dahl's 100th birthday, had he not inconsiderately upped and died at the age of 74 in 1990.

In celebration of this Nia's school had a Roald Dahl Day of their own, where the kids were invited to dress up as characters from the books. Nia is still a bit young to know about the books, but we (well, principally Hazel) had a go at making her a Roly-Poly Bird costume which I think turned out pretty well. Nia's school posted a few pictures on Twitter, but as far as I can see none of them included her, so here she is:

The Roly-Poly Bird featured in The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits. I'm pretty sure I read The Twits once, but it wasn't part of my formative Dahl-reading experiences, which included Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, James And The Giant Peach and Danny The Champion Of The World. I can't quite remember when I first read one of his books, but I'd have been somewhere between 8 and 11, which is probably fairly typical. 

I'd say Danny The Champion Of The World is probably my favourite, as it seems the most generally well-disposed towards humanity and has a satisfying father-son relationship at its heart. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is his best-known book, and I loved it, but it was hard to find a character to identify with. Willy Wonka is too wild and unpredictable to be totally comfortable with, and it's hard to get behind his decision to basically withdraw completely from human interaction. I mean, I like chocolate more than most people, but come on. Obviously Charlie Bucket is the character you're meant to root for, and I did, but he essentially buys into Wonka's life-denying attitude by agreeing to take over the factory at the end. The sequel Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator was just a bit silly, notwithstanding the Vermicious Knids, which were pretty cool.

I own the two adult short story collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You as well, plus the bizarre novel My Uncle Oswald which basically revolves around stealing sperm samples from various early-20th-century male celebrities by slipping them a potent aphrodisiac (or, to put it more judgmentally, raping them).

The other thing about Dahl, and the problem a lot of people have with the uncritical celebration of his much-loved works, is that he seems to have been somewhat of a massive shit in real life. This manifested itself mainly in some general racism and in particular some virulent anti-Semitism. There isn't much you can say to excuse this sort of thing: 
There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.
I mean, if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but they were always submissive.
 So we're back in the territory of worrying about whether the stature of works of art should be diminished by their authors' unpleasant personality traits. Is the genius of Johnny B Goode diminished by Chuck Berry's being a scrofulous old pervert? Is Ender's Game less of a science-fiction classic because Orson Scott Card is a homophobic nutter? Is Two Little Boys made even more loathsome by its association with convicted sex offender Rolf Harris? Is Mein Kampf less of a work of genius because Adolf Hitler.....well, you get the idea.

But of course the trouble is that it's perfectly plausible, indeed likely, that a different personality would have produced different works of art, or indeed quite possibly no works of art at all. Were Chuck Berry's tight little nuggets of barely-suppressed lust (Sweet Little Sixteen and the like) the by-product of his priapic personal habits? More than likely. Is Roald Dahl's fictional universe where 99% of adults are horrible, particularly the fat ones (Dahl seems to have reserved a particular hatred for fat people), and youth and goodness ultimately prevail, reflective of his own childhood experiences and the adult those experiences made him into? Quite probably. Happy people have no stories, as the song says.

So I think it's entirely appropriate to celebrate Roald Dahl's work, loved as it is by millions, but also to acknowledge his personal foibles. This is a doubly difficult balance to strike with someone whose primary audience was children; my judgment in this case was that even an exceptionally bright four-year-old like Nia would probably not understand what I was getting at if I'd tried to explain. In any case you don't want her spoiling everyone else's day by turning up with a placard saying ROALD DAHL WAS A FUCKER, still less coming out with some mangled version of the story like MY DADDY SAYS HE HATES ALL THE JEWS or something.

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