Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Storyteller: thumbs up

"I knew that from then on," Wilder says, "the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth." Or whether Wonka was good or evil, sane or crazy, a question that isn't resolved until the last few minutes of the film. 
"Gene Wilder: It Hurts To Laugh," by David Segal, The Washington Post, March 28, 2005

Did you know that in the first draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket was Black? Roald Dahl's inspiration for the character was drawn on a servant he had while living in Dar Es Salaam, Mdisho. (It was horribly colonial: he was employed by Shell Oil company, and they provided each of their employees at Shell House in Africa with their own personal "boy.") Though Mdisho was only 3 years younger than Dahl, the future children's author was charmed by the 19 year old. "Mdisho's lack of guile and his simple, honest view of the world resonated with Dahl," writes Donald Sturrock on Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl.

Given the first draft of Charlie, it's surprising that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got Dahl in trouble with the NAACP, who objected to the portrayal of Oompa-Loompas as African Pygmies. If you think of the Oompa-Loompas as orange with green hair, like in the movies, you're right. Dahl changed the detail for later editions, shocked that people had seen it as offensive, but infuriated with the NAACP for what he thought was misreading his work. Interestingly, Charlie had been out several years before anyone started objecting to possible racist overtones.

Roald Dahl is, to my mind, not just one of the best children's authors of the 20th century, but one of the best authors, period. For example, I cannot think of any book nearly as disturbing as The Witches. I can still remember how the Big Friendly Giant (who wasn't so big for a giant) said "belly choppers" instead of "helicopters." When I went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox in the theaters, I remembered only one detail from the book -- about his tail -- but that vivid image stuck with me for two decades. Lemony Snicket, author of the wonderful Series Of Unfortunate Events, says that when he was first asked to write a children's book, he used Dahl as an inspiration.

But amazingly he was much more than just an author. He made two major contributions to the field of medicine, both to help ailing members of his family -- including helping his first wife, Oscar winning actress Patricia Neale, recover from a major brain injury, changing how stroke victims are given therapy. He wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, which was fitting, because he'd worked with Bond creator Ian Fleming on espionage matters duirng World War II. (He actually didn't like the original novel, but neither did the director.) It would be easy to make a movie out of his life.

He was an unpredictable man, perhaps the only person in all of England to say Salman Rushdie had made a mistake by publishing the Satanic Verses when he knew it would prove so offensive. (Though he was very kind to the owner publishing house who printed the book and got in trouble.) Editors were afraid to work with him, because you never knew what he considered helpful criticism and what he considered attempts to destroy his vision. Once, when he found a woman needed to raise money to by expensive electric wheelchairs for her children, and was looking for some autographed books to auction in a fundraiser, he not only signed a complete collection of his works, but also gave her $10,000 to buy a chair. He convinced his American publishers to pay him through a dummy corporation based in Switzerland to avoid paying enormous British taxes -- then complained about the conditions of the contract.

But -- most importantly to me -- the title of the book is very appropriate. He was a storyteller. I remember reading Boy, his memoir of his youth, years ago. It was aimed at a young audience, and I assumed he had simplified some details for them. Sturrock said he did more than that: a lot of it seems to be somewhat imaginary. It's hard to tell whether he was deliberately sprucing up his life story, or genuinely misremembered.

Dahl led a fascinating life outside of his stories, so I understand why so much time is spent talking about his affairs, his relationships with his family and friends, and so many other details. But I do wish there had been more about the writing process itself. It's amazing to know details such as the fact that Charlie was supposed to have a different skin color (and Willy Wonka had a son in that draft, too), or that Mathilda was supposed to die after using her powers to win at the track. Or which incidents in Dahl's life he drew a particular scene from. I would have loved to see even more behind the scenes looks at how his characters and plots evolved.

In the prologue, Sturrock tells of a conversation he had with Dahl over dinner, where Roald complained that all biographies are garbage. As was frequently the case, it's hard to say whether he believed that, or was baiting his guest. I think Storyteller has some flaws, but I think they're flaws endemic to most biographies. In 1975, when describing what made a good children's author, Dahl wrote that children are savvy readers. "But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort... But above all, bear in mind that they do not possess the same powers of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored.or diverted. Your story must, therefore, tantalize and titillate them on every page..."

By that standard, Storyteller is not for children. It has many fascinating moments, but fails to tantalize and titillate on every page. It starts slowly, describing ancestors Dahl was not aware he had, and how Nordic society changed over the course of the 19th century.I agree the book is authoritative, but feel it would be a smoother read -- and more to Dahl's taste -- if Sturrock had taken out about 50 pages from the work.

Anyway, it's been too long since I've read any of his work, and I've never seen his adult fiction. I'll have to check it out soon. In the meantime, I've taken my copy of The Witches out for rereading.