As for Dahl, well: I grew up reading him, first his child stories, then his 'adult' short fiction, a transition that hinged for me upon the reading of one story in particular, 'A Piece of Cake' (1942). And in fact, it was reading this one Dahl short story that decided me to be a writer. Odd, really.
Odd, not least, in that 'A Piece of Cake' really isn't a typical Roald Dahl story. His reputation as a short story writer depends largely upon his later collections of Tales of the Unexpected: 'sting-in-the-tail' pieces, the kind of story that ends on a narrative twist. I enjoyed all those tales, but they didn't inspire me with the desire myself to be a writer. Indeed it seems to me that this sort of story delivers a very specific, and rather limited, sort of pleasure. It is the pleasure of small-scale surprise, of an 'aha!' moment: limited both in intensity and in duration (it doesn't take long for the shine to come off this twist, in practice). Nor is it a pleasure that's especially repeatable. In this respect it has something in common with the punchline of a joke. Yet I don't think describing the twist with which this kind of story ends as a punchline quite gets it right, either. In a joke the body of the gag exists only to set-up the punchline; where I suppose in a twist-in-the-tale story the reverse is true: the punchline exists rather to cast the world of the story, or the world at large, in a new light. But it's a one-dimensional trick, for all that, and banal at least in the sense that life is very rarely eucatastrophic, and only slightly less rarely dyscatastrophic. Mostly life runs in predictable grooves, and the things we learn as we go along reinforce, rather than overturn, what we have learned thus far. But here's the thing (and I suppose the appeal of these sorts of stories resides in this): on those occasions when we do experience some sort of perceptual or conceptual about-turn, the experience is weirdly exhilarating. I'm not sure I see why this should be, but I suppose the desire to reproduce that exhilaration, in contained and diluted form, explains the perennial popularity of this sort of story.
At any rate, I've a soft spot for this sort of tale, and have in my time enjoyed Dahl's 'adult' shorts. I put adult in inverted commas there because I have to concede there's something puerile about them; even (or we should say: especially) his Uncle Oswald sex stories. 'A Piece of Cake', though, seems to me to be something different. On the surface it looks ordinary enough: an autobiographical account of flying in wartime and crashing his plane in the Libyan desert. But there's something else there, I think. I'm just not sure what.
At any rate, something about that story, and more to the point something about the form of that story (not its content, particularly: which is to say, it wasn't that I had a particular interest in WW2 or planes or anything like that) ... something about the way it was written, and structured, or the way it arranged its scenes and images, and the emotional affect it generated, rushed my 13-year-old conscious mind like a tidal bore, and made me want to write things myself. It was, more or less, as simple as that. I didn't want to be a writer before I read that story; I wanted to make animated cartoons. After I read that story, I wanted to be a writer. I have, as you might expect, thought about this a great deal since then, but I still can't understand why this particular story had so profound an effect on me. That I have never written anything like Roald Dahl, and have no desire so to do, flows naturally from this impetus, I think. The force of it upon my mind did not impel a desire to imitate, you see.
All this means that I'm probably too close to him, as a writer, to be able to discuss him properly. Critical discussion of Dahl tends to involve negotiating that debateable land between love for Dahl's writing, which had shaped many critics, and disdain for his cranky, bullying, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, occasionally sadistic, sexually incontinent self. Steering gingerly around the biographical fallacy, we nevertheless probably do want to discuss the extent to which his children's books revert to a misogynistic default (aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach, the Witches, Miss Trunchbull in Matilda) as opposed to their string of positive fathers and father-figures (Willy Wonka, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny's Dad in Danny the Champion of the World, the BFG). And we probably do want to talk about how the books' worldview treats things in terms of stereotypes (hence their occasional racism); about Dahl's cruelty and the reason it appeals to children so much—because it is, we might want to argue, a paradoxically joyful cruelty. Adult dismissal of Dahl, from the early snooty de haut en bas rejection of his 'violence' and 'nastiness' (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published successfully in the States in 1964; but it took another three years to find a UK press willing to issue it, because the publishers over here thought it too nasty for their lists) through to the latter-day critiques of his work's misogyny, racism and so on .... such critiques, I think, miss an important point. Which is to say, they prove themselves unable to tune-in to the kid's-eye view.
Tim Minchin said something interesting with respect to adapting Matilda as a musical, which he did (of course) to international critical and commercial success. He said that when adults read Dahl, and see in those stories other adults being sadistically cruel to children, they think of Baby P. But (Minchin said) that's not how kids take it; those aren't the associations children carry through to the stories. They find it all funny, not ghastly; or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that they find its ghastliness funny, not depressing. There's something in that.
It is also worth talking about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and more specifically the things Dahl added to Ian Fleming's rather narrowly conceived original novel. Dahl created Truly Scrumptious for instance; and the whole 'Vulgaria' plotline and—best of all—he dreamed up the Child Catcher. A genuinely scary creation, this last; the excellently camp incarnation of the principle of Adult Animus Against Children. In many ways a one-man embodiment of the Dahl ethos—which is, roughly: that the world is full of wonder and twisted fun for kids, but it is also full of large lumbering malevolent beings who hate children and want to hurt or kill them. These later are called 'adults' and all but a very few are irremediably malign. Dial F for Fun, but Dial M for Maturity which is as much as to say, for Murder. A case in point, dial BFG for example:
There's a sense in which Dahl is like Kafka. Not in the specifics of their respective fabulations, nor even in tone (although I'm reminded that Deleuze in Coldness and Cruelty insists that the original audiences for Kafka's stories positively fell about laughing at them, so hilarious they were deemed). And not in the sense that both Metamorphosis and James and the Giant Peach are 'about' gigantic insect life (although that is true). But in this sense: Kafka's stories only look like they describe nightmarishly aberrant worlds, worlds where the principles of kindness, logic, reason and decency do not obtain and individuals are persecuted relentlessly by motiveless bureaucrats or other powers. The mistake, of course, is in thinking that Kafka wrote 'fantasy' at all. The whole of the twentieth-century stands testament to the fact that he wrote the most precise kind of verisimilitude: a century in which this Kafkaen social logic covered most of the globe, from Communist and Fascist dictator states to the deracinated blankness of the deserts of late capitalist consumption.
There's something similar at work in Dahl. It seemed to many adults in the 1970s and 1980s that there was a perversely wilful nastiness in the way Dahl saw the world—not that people thought child abuse never happened, but that they thought it was a marginal, rare and regrettable deviation from the 'normal' course of childhood. Now we look back, through Operation Yewtree tinted glasses, at the sheer stomach-turning scope of the abuse that was going on, from Christian brothers schools and other church-related scandals, through secular schools, abuse in borstals and hostels, hospitals and asylums to the home. In Europe a tenth of all children experience sexual abuse at some time during their growing-up; in Asia the rate rises to a quarter of all children; in Africa the rate is a boggling one third of all children.
The crucial thing here is not that it goes on, or has gone on, sickening through the fact of it is; the crucial thing is that nobody really talked about it back then. This is not the same thing as saying that it was a secret, or more precisely it is saying that it was a secret of a very particular kind, a secret hidden in plain view. To look back at footage of the BBC's own Child Catcher, Jimmy Savile, in his heyday is to be struck by the thought: he could hardly have been more obvious about his delinquent weirdness. The great thing about the Child Catcher performance turned in by Sir Robert Helpman (by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap in real life) was the way it so hyperbolically performed its exaggerated sinister-ness, the way its spurious child-friendliness was so transparent, the way it was all so evident, right there on the surface.
Dahl's various unpleasantnesses as an adult were all, in their way, symptoms of a deep rooted immaturity. He was the sort of kid who loved playing practical jokes on others, often quite unpleasant ones, and he never lost that attitude as an adult. Which is to say, he seemed not to realise that there is a point in one's life when such things stop being mischievous and endearing and start being the symptoms of mere dickishness. Still, that refusal properly to grow up was the reason he was able to write the sorts of books that children love so forcefully. It drove his prejudices, too. It's not, I think, that Dahl hated females, blacks, Jews and so on; it was that he hated adult women, adult blacks, adult Jews. He hated them because he saw in them hatred; he gave his sadistic personality free rein with them because he saw sadism in them. In the same way that Kafka's prison societies turned out, after all, to be the most accurate emblem of the 20th-century global polis, so it may well turn out (after all) that the proper emblem of postwar adult-child relations is the gurning face at the head of this post.
It's worth saying something more, I think. The way Dahl writes his adult characters gets at something important as far as the question goes of why adults abuse children. I daresay we don't wonder too deeply about this, because inside the minds of people who do these things is not a comfortable place to project our thoughts. But presumably we imagine that an adult sexually molesting a child is doing it because he considers his own sexual gratification more important than the wellbeing of his victim. This isn't the truth, though, I think—which is to say, I don't think that saying so gets the heart of the molester's own motive. I think the truth is plainer. I think adults abuse children because adults hate children. Pinning this animus to sex is just the sort of thing adults do with those inchoate but potent negative emotions they find swirling around their inner beings. Trying to fathom such abuse entails the Coleridgean game of motive hunting for a motiveless malignancy. But Dahl gets it: adults hate children because that's what adults are. Because children have the crucial thing (youth, futurity—life) that adults are losing. And Dahl gets this, too: kids know it. On an instinctive level, they know it.
What Dahl adds to this unprepossessing vision of modern life is a twist of glee. After the manner of Freud's understanding of jokes, he take the grounds for existential misery and terror and imparts enough of a spin to mean that those things can occasion a pleasurable rather than a painful psychic release. Why does Agatha Trunchbull hate Matilda so? Why is she so violent and horrible to her? Trunchbull's power comes from her larger size, muscularity and ruthlessness; but she can only harm her victims' bodies. But think how unequal the struggle really is! Matilda Wormwood has telekinetic powers, after all, and uses them to torment Trunchbull both physically and mentally, eventually driving her away altogether. There's no contest; Trunchbull is so comprehensively outmatched. One might even feel a little sorry for her. It's like The Midwich Cuckoos was rewritten with the alien children as the heroes. Which is to say: the moral universe of Dahl's books has no place for such trivial quantities as 'right' and 'wrong': it is a matter of different valences of ruthless force grappling with one another, and the books understand that ultimately the kids are the stronger parties. Which, of course, they are. They're in it for the long game, after all. We adults are all, in our various ways, old, alone and done-for.
Miss Honey is pretty, of course, and Miss Trunchbull ugly; and The Twits starts with that little riff about how exterior ugliness is always the index of interior ugliness of the soul. Thinking ugly thoughts has a sort of Lamarckian effect upon the individual:
But this is only to say that kids make less of a distinction between inner nature and exterior reality. Perhaps they're right to do this: we adults can get rather hung-up on the astonishing existential irony that things aren't always as they appear to be! Like, duh! The more radical, and I'd suggest more profound, insight is how often things are precisely what they seem to be. Nor does ugliness as such deserve punishment in Dahl. Jenny Diski recalls trying to read George’s Marvellous Medicine to her daughter:
The last time I read Roald Dahl was to my seven-year-old in 1984. I’d got to page 46 of George’s Marvellous Medicine, beyond the first description of Grandma: ‘She was a selfish grumpy old woman. She had pale brown teeth and a small puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom.’ I’d managed George’s later depictions of Grandma as ‘a grumpy old cow’, ‘a miserable old pig’ and his remorse at not being able to cover her with sheep-dip: ‘how I’d love to ... slosh it all over old Grandma and watch the ticks and fleas go jumping off her. But I can’t. I mustn’t. So she’ll have to drink it instead.’ By page 46 George’s medicine is ready and I was about to read: ‘The old hag opened her small wrinkled mouth, showing disgusting pale brown teeth.’ But I’d had enough.You see what she means; but by the same token, there's something marvellous about George's Gran: a vitality and a jouissance in her later various monstrous mutations that aligns her more with the children than the adults. ‘Hallelujah, here I come!’ she screams in joy, as her head crashes through the roof. And why wouldn't she be happy? She's doing what kids do, but what adults cannot: she is growing.
Saying 'growth' is the key Dahl virtue' looks odd, since his own emotional and psychological development was, in many ways, so arrested. But he was big, physically; and becoming big, like Gran in George’s Marvellous Medicine, or the insects in James and the Giant Peach, or like the BFG himself, is usually a sign of fundamental goodness in Dahl. Apparent contradictions to this, such as the miniaturisation of The Magic Finger or The Minpins, actually (paradoxically) reinforces it: because such shrinkage has the effect on our heroes of rendering the otherwise mundane and tedious world around them gigantic. And since the real 'value' in these novels is force, that same force that through the green fuse drives the flower, they have a grudging respect for those monstrous adults who understand that force. The Witches look like ordinary human beings, but reveal themselves to be monsters in the course of the story; but then the same thing happens to the children, turned into mice and quite context to live musiform lives. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it is the kids who suffer the most: stretched, bloated, attacked, and all for the delight of ... well, of the children.
This is why it strikes me that 'sadism' is the wrong way of taking Dahl's novels. Not that his imagination didn't have its sadistic side—clearly, it did—but that sadism can't be neatly separated out from masochism, with both forces together dynamically constituting the development of subjectivity which is the true kernel of growth as such. Of Dahl's novels we might say, quoting Freud's famous passive-voice, 'a child is being beaten'. Tim Armstrong summarises:
Freud’s 1919 paper “A Child is Being Beaten” discusses the fantasy which he found in a number of patients, encapsulated in the bare statement “A child is being beaten.” Briefly, Freud’s account of the three-stages of the fantasy runs like this. It its adult form it is anonymous, “A child is being beaten” (always a boy, for reasons we need not consider here). However the origins of the fantasy lie in a very different situation: sibling rivalry. The very young child fantasizes a pleasurable scene in which “that other child, the bad child” – its rival for parental affection – is being beaten. The middle stage is the one which is repressed: the child expresses its Oedipalized love for its parent via a fantasy in which it is being beaten (“I am being beaten”). The punishment expresses a dual and contradictory purpose here: as a displaced expression of desire, and as punishment for that desire; if one desires one’s parent one deserves to be punished, but the punishment is also a pleasure. In the final stage the fact that the child is oneself is repressed, and the fantasy again superficially resembles the first stage: “A child [any child] is being beaten,” though that situation has a sexual charge attached whose origins have been forgotten. Across this trajectory, there is no fixed position for the self: at different stages in the fantasy one is sadistic, masochistic; present and non-present; guilty and innocent. The final formula: “A child is being beaten” disguises a shameful truth: “I am being beaten,” but also, even earlier, a pleasurable violence against a rival. Love becomes repressed and transferred from self to other via its attachment to a situation where a special kind of love is asserted, the incestuous love of Freud’s Oedipus complex. The beating fantasy is both sadistic (aggressive) and masochistic (passive): its aggression comes from its origins in sibling rivalry and in projection, its masochism from the desire to be punished for a transgressive fantasy.This fantasy propels a model of individual subjectivity, which is the painful but exhilarating logic of growth itself. George's concoction (just look at how toxic many of the ingredients are!) really ought simply to have poisoned gran, to have killed her. And in a sense it does that: ‘Hallelujah, here I come!’ is poised between a kind of orgasmic vital joy and an into-thy-hands-I-commend-my-spirit deathbed hopefulness. Growth: it's murder. In a fun sort of way.