Roald Dahl: Teller of the Unexpected by Matthew Dennison

Nobody in their right mind could claim that Roald Dahl was a nice guy. He was a plagiarist, a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and overbearingly rude, even to his benefactors (Knopf, his first publisher, finally gave him the boot). He slept with umpteen women and called his power over them “ridiculously easy, like manipulating puppets”. He was a 6ft 7in real-life, nonfiction monster.

But children worldwide loved his books — James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda — more than anyone else’s. To date, Dahl has sold 250 million books in 58 languages. So resolving the tension between his apparent dislikability and his hot-wire to children’s imaginations is a problem for biographers.

At six-foot-seven, Dahl, pictured here circa 1970, was a real-life monster.

Matthew Dennison addresses this problem by devoting a large chunk of his book to Dahl’s Norwegian family and school days; their combination of warmth, tragedy, inspiration and savagery is brilliantly evoked. Dahl’s father, Harald, the co-owner of a Cardiff shipping firm, died in 1920 when Roald was three. Just weeks earlier, Harald’s favorite daughter, Astri, had died of pneumonia. Roald’s mother, Sofie, to comfort her only son, told him stories about Harald’s life, lightly fictionalized, and tales from Norse folklore, full of trolls, “black forests and icy mountains”.

Rather than scaring him witless, the stories fired his imagination. So did family trips to his relations. His grandparents, white-haired, wrinkled, pipe-smoking and parked in rocking chairs, became the template for Charlie Bucket’s old folks. The island of Tjome on the Oslofjord, with its skeletons of shipwrecked boats and its sunrises, made it for him “the greatest place on earth”.

The worst place, for Dahl, was Repton, the Derbyshire public school. His size (6ft 5in by his mid-teens), funny name and Nordic background made him stand out and he suffered bullying and canings.

Solace came from his mother. He wrote her hundreds of letters, jolly updates about staff tantrums and his plans to make a giant balloon capable of lifting “at least one boy” into the air. And he learned to rebel. At 16 he bought a 500cc Ariel motorcycle and, clad in helmet and goggles, roared through the school.

Dahl and his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, sightsee at the ancient Forum in Rome during their honeymoon, 1953.

Life outside England hurled him into a sequence of adventures. Bored by a job at Shell Oil in Tanzania, he went to Nairobi as war was looming and asked the RAF to teach him to fly. His adventures as a pilot were exhilarating, but nearly finished him. In September 1940, flying over Libya and lost in the darkness, he attempted a crash landing. The plane hit a rock, fracturing his skull and forcing his nose back through his face. A less egotistical man might have considered early retirement, but Dahl cherished his brush with death — and it kick-started his writing career.

Sent to work at the British embassy in Washington, he met a childhood hero, the author CS Forester, who was looking for flying stories for the Saturday Evening Post. Dahl promised to send him notes on his crash. Instead he wrote it as a story, and Forester, impressed, got it into print. It made Dahl $187.50, and inspired him to write for a living.

Roald Dahl was a plagiarist, a racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and overbearingly rude. But children worldwide loved his books more than anyone else’s.

In no time another story, about the gremlins that supposedly inhabit the engines of aircraft, had been optioned by Walt Disney, who spent $50,000 in script development and threw a party for Dahl, at which Hollywood stars (Spencer Tracy, Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy Lamour) appeared in gremlin costume. Dahl’s response was typically arrogant: he demanded control on all collaboration and insisted that Disney’s artists did things his way.

The film was canceled, but he was an overnight sensation. Among the locals fighting to meet the handsome former fighter pilot were several rich women: Elizabeth Arden, the oil heiress Millicent Rogers and Clare Boothe Luce, whose husband owned the magazines Time and Life. “I think he slept with everyone on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year,” remarked an impressed bystander.

Dahl outside the shed where he wrote, in Buckinghamshire, 1986.

Dahl switched restlessly between the US and UK, but settled for an English idyll in Gipsy House in Great Missenden. He bought a gypsy caravan and turned a garden hut into a crucible of creativity. But the trappings of wealth drew him back to the US and Manhattan.

“I think he slept with everyone on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.”

At 35 he met the actress Patricia Neal at a dinner party thrown by the playwright Lillian Hellman. Their marriage was long, tempestuous and full of tragedy. Neal’s third child, Theo, was three months old when a taxi plunged into his pram, crushing his skull. In England their daughter Olivia died, aged seven, of measles encephalitis. And in 1965 Neal suffered a stroke while in the bath.

Dahl’s response each time was to take control: to interrogate medical science to establish what caused these maladies; to co-invent, for the stricken Theo, a valve that would drain cerebrospinal fluid from the brain. For Neal he hired nurses and therapists and put her through a program of mental and physical stimulation that reminded visitors of “the way one trains a dog”. His tough medicine seemed to work, however.

After its treatment of Dahl’s childhood, Dennison’s biography becomes over-compressed, with sentences like this: “The novel took him two years, dilatoriness the result of oscillating conviction and lassitude, in turn a reflection of his low mental state.” It lacks the warm texture of Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 biography and doesn’t have any revelations. Yet it makes you feel grudging admiration for a bully whose self-belief was, in a way, heroic.

One also has to admire his doting fatherliness: how, at night, he would perch on a ladder outside his daughters’ window, pretending to be the Big Friendly Giant, blowing dreams into their room through a bamboo cane.

John Walsh is a former literary editor for The Sunday Times and editor of The Independent Magazine