Source of book: I own this.
Most people in the English-speaking world are likely familiar with Roald Dahl. He wrote a number of modern classics for children, several of which, such as Matilda, have been made into plays or movies - or both. For those of us of my generation or later, we grew up with these books, and found them to be deliciously subversive of authority, zany in their imagination, like nothing else in the children’s section. Not all of our parents were thrilled about this, of course.
That said, far fewer people are aware of two other facets of Dahl’s life. First, he was a spy during World War Two - he spied for Britain against the United States. Second, he also wrote stories for adults - which are every bit as wicked and subversive as the ones for kids. And even more macabre and poisonous.
I ran across a used copy a couple years ago of this one, and decided to read it this month - it is always good to have some short stories on the nightstand to savor. There are a total of 24 stories in this book, all of them fairly short, and most with a nasty twist of some sort at the end.
Just as a sampling, there are a number of spousal murders, poisonings, people turning into insects, adultery, devious servants, and most of all, terrible marriages. If it wasn’t obvious from the kids’ books, Dahl was not “nice” in the usual sense. His mind went to nasty places, and he indulged in a bit of cruelty toward the deserving. (Think Trunchbull in Matilda, or the fate of the kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) Things are similar in this collection. The deserving often meet gruesome fates, the proud and snooty get their comeuppance. But also, weird crazy stuff happens.
I hesitate to describe the stories more than that, because it would be a shame to ruin either the setups or the twists at the end. I will, however, quote a few lines. Dahl is always full of wit with a razor edge to it. Take, for example, this description of the social climbing nouveau riche Mike Schofield in “Taste.”
But he was a stockbroker. To be precise, he was a jobber in the stock market, and like a number of his kind, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, almost ashamed to find that he had made so much money with so slight a talent. In his heart he knew that he was not really much more than a bookmaker - an unctuous, infinitely respectable, secretly unscrupulous bookmaker - and he knew that his friends knew it, too. So he was seeking now to become a man of culture, to cultivate a literary and aesthetic taste, to collect paintings, music, books, and all the rest of it.
Dahl isn’t wrong. As a lawyer, I know a very few stockbroker sorts who are scrupulously honest. But it is hard to do that job without a certain amount of self-serving, and to become truly rich, one must be able to sell with a straight face. The comparison to a bookmaker seems very apt.
This next one, from “Galloping Foxley,” the rare story that is not gruesome, but merely awkward to a real extreme, also describes a recognizable sort.
Personally, I mistrust all handsome men. The superficial pleasures of this life come too easily to them, and they seem to walk the world as though they themselves were personally responsible for their own good looks.
A much more bloody story is “Neck,” which opens with the description of an excessively eligible bachelor who recently inherited a fortune and a newspaper empire, and thus has to expose himself to the predations of female society.
Naturally, the vultures started gathering at once, and I believe that not only Fleet Street but very nearly the whole body of the city was looking on eagerly as they scrambled for the body. It was slow motion, of course, deliberate and deadly slow motion, and therefore not so much like vultures as a bunch of agile crabs clawing for a piece of horsemeat under water.
Dahl does have a bit of a misogynist streak in some of his writings, although men don’t fare that much better in this story collection. He is pretty equal opportunity in his poisonous descriptions. Another story that goes after women of a certain sort is “Nunc Dimittis,” in which the narrator commissions a painting of a woman from third-rate artist, whose “technique” is to paint in layers, starting with a nude, then working his way up one layer of clothing at a time. The narrator gets the portrait, then carefully peels back one layer at a time to see first undergarments, then the nude. Which he publicly displays. (But wait for the twist at the end of this one, of course…) The best line is about the narrator’s disappointment about women of a certain age and social standing, once he sees the underlayers.
Quite fantastic the whole thing seemed to me as I stepped back a pace to survey it. It gave me a strong sense of having somehow been cheated; for had I not, during all these past months, been admiring the sylph-like figure of this lady? She was a faker. No question about it. But do many other females practice this sort of deception, I wondered. I knew, of course, that in the days of stays and corsets it was usual for ladies to strap themselves up; yet for some reason I was under the impression that nowadays all they had to do was diet.
Don’t worry, this unpleasant narrator gets his in the end. As do most of the deserving.
One of the most bizarre and disturbing stories is “William and Mary.” The husband is dying of cancer, but his surgeon convinces him to have his brain and one connected eye kept alive if possible. The wife only finds out about this after the fact, when she receives a letter her (mostly) late husband wrote her before his final wishes were carried out. The letter mostly describes the discussion with the doctor, the proposed operation, and so on. But it also has a postscript which is pretty indicative of the relationship.
P.S. Be good when I am gone, and always remember that it is harder to be a widow than a wife. Do not drink cocktails. Do not waste money. Do not smoke cigarettes. Do not eat pastry. Do not use lipstick. Keep my rose beds and my rockery well weeded in the summers. And incidentally I suggest that you have the telephone disconnected now that I shall have no further use for it.
I will leave to the imagination what happens after that. Some men really have no idea that widowhood meant freedom to women throughout most of history - for the first time in their lives, they could own their own property, and indeed own their own lives.
So many of the stories involve this situation of the tables being turned on a husband or wife. Another one with a great ending is “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat.” So what does a woman do when her lover gives her a fur coat as a parting gift? It is a bit hard to explain to a husband. The opening of the story is wonderful.
America is the land of opportunities for women. Although they own about eighty-five percent of the wealth of the nation. Soon they will have it all. Divorce has become a lucrative process, simple to arrange and easy to forget; and ambitious females can repeat it as often as they please and parlay their winnings to astronomical figures. The husband’s death also brings satisfactory rewards and some ladies prefer to rely upon this method. They know that the waiting period will not be unduly protracted, for overwork and hypertension are bound to get the poor devil before long, and he will die at his desk with a bottle of benzedrines in one hand and a packet of tranquilizers in the other.
Succeeding generations of youthful American males are not deterred in the slightest by this terrifying pattern of divorce and death. The higher the divorce rate climbs, the more eager they become. Young men marry like mice, almost before they have reached the age of puberty, and a large proportion of them have at least two ex-wives on the payroll by the time they are thirty-six years old. To support these ladies in the manner to which they are accustomed, the men must work like slaves, which is of course precisely what they are. But now at last, as they approach their premature middle age, a sense of disillusionment and fear begins to creep slowly into their hearts, and in the evenings they take to huddling together in little groups, in clubs and bars, drinking their whiskies and swallowing their pills, and trying to comfort one another with stories.
A little background helps with this too: Dahl married an American actress (Patricia Neal), and they were married for 30 years, before eventually divorcing. From these years, Dahl got to see the Hollywood divorce carousel up close - and he isn’t entirely wrong when it comes to rich and powerful men marrying and discarding younger women, who take the chance to become financially independent with the divorce settlement. Obviously, this isn’t the case for most women, who end up financially worse off after a divorce - although often happier, if the man is abusive or neglectful. But for a certain sort of marriage, this description is pretty dang funny.
The final bit I want to mention is from one of the few purely amusing stories, “The Hitchhiker.” The narrator picks up a hitchhiker in his new and powerful car, is convinced to show how fast it can go, and gets pulled over by a very irate police officer who threatens jail time and more. But the hitchhiker, despite his various stories, turns out to be what he calls a “fingersmith.” Not a mere pickpocket, but a true artist, who preys on the rich and powerful. Kind of a Robin Hood of the modern sort.
“You’ve ‘eard of a goldsmith and a silversmith, for instance. They’re experts with gold and silver. I’m an expert with my fingers, so I’m a fingersmith.”
That gives a bit of the flavor of the collection. These aren’t exactly kids’ stories, but I suspect some of my more macabre kids would enjoy them. I found them quite diverting, if occasionally shocking and disturbing. This collection appears to have about half of Dahl’s complete short stories, so it is a great start and easy to find used. I may have to eventually try to find the two volume complete stories, though - I am a bit of a completist when it comes to books.