Roald Dahl's stories were a wonderful mix of darkness and wit

November 27, 1990|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,Knight-Ridder

Before the first crisp chapter of "Matilda" is done with, Roald Dahl, who died Friday from an undisclosed infection at age 74, has skewered doting parents and parents who are just the opposite. Of the former, Dahl sneers, "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful."

And then there are those -- even worse, he says -- who treat their children like scabs: "A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick if off and flick it away."

And before the first chapter is out, Dahl gets in not only parental criticism but literary criticism as well. The eponymous heroine of his 1988 fiction is a self-taught 4-year-old who has exhausted the juvenile section of her local library. So, under the helpful eye of the librarian, Matilda, during a six-month period, digests Charles Dickens and "Jane Eyre," Jane Austen and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," Rudyard Kipling and Invisible Man, John Steinbeck and "Brighton Rock," Ernest Hemingway and "The Sound and the Fury."

"Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don't understand," Matilda tells Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. "Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen."

"A fine writer will always make you feel that," Mrs. Phelps tells her. "And don't worry about the bits you can't understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music."

Dahl, the Welsh-born author of 19 children's books, nine collections of short stories for adults, and several film and television scripts, made you feel right there on the spot watching it all happen. And his words, indeed, washed around you, like music.

Which is no mean feat, considering that Dahl spun some darkly strange, gleefully queer tales. Consider "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (adapted to the screen as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"), in which a gluttonous roly-poly twit (hmm, do we discern a theme here?) gets sucked up in a vast vat of candy.

Or consider the short story "Lamb to the Slaughter" (first collected in 1953's "Someone Like You"), a macabre comedy about a woman who pummels her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then pops the murder weapon in the oven and serves it to the investigating police detectives. As was the case with a number of Dahl's feverishly twisted adult tales (collected in "Kiss Kiss, Switch Bitch" and "Tales of the Unexpected"), "Lamb to the Slaughter" was adapted for television. It remains one of the most memorable of episodes from the late '50s/early '60s suspense anthology "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

Dahl was born in 1916 of Norwegian parents, and his penchant for morbid humor in both his novels for children and his stories for grown-ups sprang from a life of black farce and bleak tragedy.

When he was 3, his older sister died from appendicitis. A week later, his father, grief-stricken, died of pneumonia.

A fighter pilot in World War II, Dahl suffered a fractured skull, spinal injuries and a smashed hip when his plane crashed in the North African desert. During the course of his life, Dahl had six spine operations. He had two steel hip pins and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.

In 1953, Dahl wed the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal. Their 30-year marriage was marred by more disaster: In 1960, the couple's baby son Theo was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident that necessitated a long series of operations. In 1962, 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of encephalitis (she was the same age Dahl's sister had been at her death). And in 1965, pregnant with the couple's fourth child, Neal suffered a near-fatal stroke.

Dahl was credited with nursing his wife back to health -- and their daughter, Ophelia, was born unharmed.

And so, the celebratory unpleasantness of Dahl's stories -- the greedy children who get their comeuppance, the philandering husbands, the murderous wives, the freak-show characters -- has its roots in real experience. But the experience was imbued with a savage wit, an exuberant, sardonic edge.

"I write of nasty things and violent happenings because kids are themselves that way," Dahl explained of his children's books in a 1982 Boston Globe interview. "They go about pushing each other around, grabbing at things. Kids are too tough to read about little cotton 'woolies.'"

The 6-foot-6 Briton with the angular face and wry smile added: "You see, my main purpose in writing for children is not to educate, but to entertain, to make a child fall in love with it, to say, 'There's something to this reading of books. It's lovely. I want more.'"

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