By Donald Sturrock

A doorstop literary bio is one of the surest signs of canonization, so with the arrival of this thick and fully authorized life of Roald Dahl we can safely say the famous author of adult tales of the macabre and such classics for young people as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach has officially arrived.

Not that he would have cared much. A true outsider and eccentric, he thought of biographers as dreary fact-collectors poring over “all sorts of boring details.” His own memoirs contained a good deal of make believe. At a dinner party, an occasion when he was often at his most provocative, he even told Donald Sturrock that many of the most exceptional writers he had encountered in his life had been quite ordinary, unexceptional human beings.

This is a fact that readers of author bios will be well acquainted with. After trudging through the classics of the genre like Leon Edel’s life of Henry James or Richard Ellman’s James Joyce one is left wondering what James and Joyce did in their lives that was of any interest at all outside of writing the books they did.

Dahl, however, was the exception to his own rule, leading what Sturrock calls an “extraordinarily eventful existence.” A fighter pilot and then a spy in WW2, he socialized with FDR in the White House and partied with movie stars in Hollywood. (He married one of the latter, Patricia Neal, who died shortly after this book went to print.) And so while at 600 pages this is a bio that’s still a bit overweight with those “boring details” that make up the best part of everyone’s life, at least there are some interesting parts.

Though successful in many respects, it was not a happy life, in large part because of the health problems that lead Sturrock to imagine “some malignant neurological spell” hanging over the family. A crash landing during the war left Dahl himself with head injuries. His infant son had his skull shattered in a traffic accident. His oldest daughter died from a brain inflammation. His first wife suffered a stroke. A daughter-in-law died from an aneurysm brought about by a brain tumor. This is tough sledding even for bestselling authors.

In terms of character, Sturrock confirms the judgment of most who knew him that Dahl was a difficult man. “He was like a firework: unpredictable, volatile and exciting.” Sensitive and compassionate, he could also be harsh and hurtful to those closest to him. He was also, we learn, a mean drunk who had a thing for wealthy older women. Some of this may have come from being raised in a family that even his mother (who should have known) acknowledged to be “a bit out of the ordinary.” But Sturrock isn’t keen on psychoanalysis. There is also the problem “authorized” biographies have of adopting a protective stance toward their subject – not to mention their subject’s estate. Storyteller is typical in this regard, with Sturrock being far too deferential toward the surviving family, and in particular toward Dahl’s second wife Liccy. A greater critical distance should have been maintained.

As a children’s author whose work has been successfully adapted into several hit movies, Dahl retains a doubly firm hold on the popular imagination. And one suspects, or at least hopes for the sake of the children, that such a genuinely talented and original voice will long outlive the much more conventional fantasies of J. K. Rowling.

Review first published October 30, 2010.

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