Teller of the Unexpected: The Life of Roald Dahl, an Unofficial Biography by Matthew Dennison - review by Claudia Fitzherbert

Claudia Fitzherbert

Death by Chocolate

Teller of the Unexpected: The Life of Roald Dahl, an Unofficial Biography


Apollo 272pp £20

‘A witch is always a woman,’ wrote Roald Dahl in The Witches in 1983. ‘I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch.’ The Witches is a glorious romp of a book, but would it even be published now? I went to Google with an idle query about sensitivity readers, trans women and all witches being women and turned up an academic essay about Dahl’s novel which suggested that the grandmother coming to terms with the boy remaining a mouse – one of the novel’s many brilliant strokes – was a metaphor for the parent figure accepting the transgender child. Perhaps the lesson here is that Dahl’s invented worlds are so robust that we can still play games with them.

The only conventionally pious position Dahl ever took was against television – think what happens to Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Yet the cartoonish energy of his well-plotted stories is uniquely suited to the screen. Children grow up knowing the film adaptations as well as, if not better than, the books. Dahl died in 1990; last year Netflix paid his estate more than $500 million for the Roald Dahl Story Company. The psychotically grinning Willy Wonka as he oversees the drowning of an annoying child in a river of chocolate, the sadistic machinations of Miss Trunchbull, the frequent demonisation of the old, the fat, the bald and the bearded: it is as though these crude scenes, characters and tropes, having once come into the world, cannot be erased. They will be rejigged and rewritten, as the Oompa Loompas were rewritten by Dahl himself back in 1970 for the sake of a lucrative film deal, yet something of the anarchic power of Dahl’s stories will survive.

Dahl was born in 1916 to Norwegian parents who had settled in Wales. His father died when he was three, leaving him the only boy in a family of sisters, who called him ‘the Apple’ in recognition of his favoured status with their mother. The cigar-chomping Norwegian grandmother

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