Love From Boy by Roald Dahl
“The vital skill for a writer of fiction is to make lies seem true,” said John Carey in The Sunday Times. As this volume of letters to his mother shows, Roald Dahl “strove to acquire this” skill from an early age. The Weston-super-Mare prep school to which he was sent in 1925, aged nine, was a “horrible” place, but Dahl’s letters give “no inkling of its cruelties”; instead he remarks on what “fun” the teachers are. Admittedly, Dahl was forced to write with the headmaster “leaning over his shoulder”, but at the next school he attended, Repton, where there was “no such censorship”, the “charade of cheerfulness” continues. In fact, Dahl was “deeply unhappy” at Repton, yet he depicts himself as a “dauntless harum-scarum, revelling in pranks and japes”. Did he invent such “fibs” because he didn’t want to upset his mother, who’d been left widowed in 1920, when Dahl was four? Was it that, as the “man in the family”, he wanted to “cut a dash”? Or were the letters a way of creating a “never-never land of imaginative escape”, where, instead of being a “misfit” (Dahl’s parents were both Norwegian and he never felt at home among his posh boarding school contemporaries), he became “accepted and popular”?
These letters, covering the 1920s to the 1960s, were written “not to confess but to entertain”, said Sam Leith in The Guardian. “Fits and splinters” of the qualities that marked Dahl’s later work are evident: anti-authoritarian impulses, a love of practical jokes, a sense of the macabre. From early on, there are “little flares of style”. It’s also striking how “free” Dahl was with profanities: there’s a “calvacade of jokes about tools and balls and whores” – but “almost nothing” about his own sex life. The letters are an “intriguing” mix of “fierce candour and, in certain respects, a complete absence of it”.
Roald Dahl “single-handedly reinvented” children’s literature, giving us words such as “scrumdiddlyumptious” and characters as lovable as Matilda and the BFG, said Melissa Katsoulis in The Times. Yet the man himself wasn’t easy to love. Perhaps, though, it’s unfair to judge him too harshly for being “angry and difficult”, because all his life he suffered “terrible traumas”. Having lost both his father and older sister when very young, he was nearly killed in the War when he crashed his plane in the Libyan desert. He then lost his “beloved daughter” Olivia to measles when she was seven; saw a son brain-damaged in a road accident; and was responsible for nursing his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, back to health after she suffered a series of massive strokes while pregnant with their fifth child. Most men could not bear such a load, but “bear it Dahl did, and ferociously”. As a storyteller, Dahl made “more children laugh through reading than anyone else”, said Michael Rosen in The Observer. This book, meticulously edited by Donald Sturrock, offers a “fascinating view of an extraordinary, mid-20th century, upper-middle-class British boy and man talking to his extraordinary Norwegian mother”.