Feature

Book of the week: Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock

Donald Sturrock’s new authorized biography aims to polish the legacy of a half adorable, half nasty writer.

(Simon & Schuster, 655 pages, $30)

Roald Dahl was an almost impossible man to love, said Kathryn Hughes in the London Guardian. “Crashing through life like a big, bad child,” the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author “managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty, and spite.” Generations of young readers have been drawn to the barely concealed cynicism that was evident in books like The BFG and James and the Giant Peach, which allow children to “stray into some very dark places” before providing happy endings that set the world right. But in the short stories and novels he wrote for adults, the author’s “native nastiness” often simply seemed distasteful. Donald Sturrock’s new authorized biography aims to polish Dahl’s legacy, but “one senses a strain in the book’s tone” whenever his subject’s peevishness creeps in.

Picturing Dahl as an overgrown boy can help, said William Georgiades in The Wall Street Journal. Even before he gained fame as a writer, Dahl lived “a remarkable life.” Born in Wales in 1916, he enjoyed a pleasant childhood until age 7, when his father and an older sister both died suddenly. After the typical tortures of a boarding-school upbringing, he was launching a career with Shell Oil in East Africa when war diverted him into service as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. A crash nearly killed him, but lent panache to his turn as a diplomat and favored party guest in wartime Washington. He bedded such luminaries as Clare Boothe Luce and Martha Gellhorn before meeting his first wife-to-be, actress Patricia Neal, at a bash hosted by Lillian Hellman.

Tragedies plagued Dahl’s later life, said Sam Anderson in New York. His only son was badly injured after being hit by a taxi. His daughter Olivia died at 7. His wife suffered, at 39, a debilitating stroke that stalled her acting career. Dahl supported his family heroically, even as he tortured them with crudely insensitive behavior: Sometimes it can be “hard to know” whether to root for Sturrock’s prickly protagonist “or for whatever angry hell-demon seemed so determined to bring him down.” Even on his deathbed, Dahl was half adorable, half nasty. The last words he spoke to his loved ones were heartfelt and tear-inducing. His actual last words, prompted by the prick of a nurse’s needle, were “Ow, f---!”

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