[9 February 2011]
The title Storyteller is an apt one indeed for Donald Sturrock’s biography of British children’s author Roald Dahl. Dahl’s gifts as a storyteller should be apparent to anyone who has read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, or any of his other books, whether as children or adults. And as Storyteller proves, Sturrock himself has quite a gift as a biographer.
Dahl’s abilities as a storyteller naturally extended from his deep and abiding love for the art of storytelling. This may be why, as we find in the opening pages of this book, Dahl himself found biographies boring. Though Dahl penned two autobiographies in his later years—Boy and Going Solo—Sturrock takes care to make clear where exactly Dahl “massaged” certain sections in order to make for a better story. Facts can be, in Dahl’s estimation, little but dry and tedious. Stories are much more preferred.
And this is precisely where Sturrock’s talents as a biographer become essential when dealing with a subject whose working life revolved around the fantastical, the fictional. Working from the vast amounts of raw material at hand—much of which was provided by Dahl’s grown children as well as many of his former colleagues in the publishing industry—Sturrock had a massive job in sussing out exactly the trajectory this man’s long and full life took.
The subject is certainly worthy of such an effort. Though he began as a writer of short stories for such adult markets as The New Yorker and Collier’s, Dahl eventually began work in the early-‘60s on James and the Giant Peach, his first children’s book, only after some not inconsiderable pressing from his agent at the time. Having always been fond of children, Dahl soon realized he had found his calling. Though he would from time to time stray from children’s lit, Dahl produced a bevy of children’s books that remain both smart and pointedly not condescending to their intended audience.
As noted above, Dahl could be somewhat contradictory in his work as well as his life. A product of the English upper middle class, Dahl had a clear distaste for that sheltered lifestyle and could not wait to get away and work abroad. Although well-read and highly intelligent, Dahl never attended university and held the utmost contempt for snobbish intellectualism. Though he deeply loved his family, he could be cold, withdrawn, and emotionally lacking, even to his own children. How the man externalized these conflicting traits gives readers of his fiction a firmer handle on where his writing had its genesis.
But if one would like to learn more of this man and his work, one need only read Sturrock’s book. The book itself, not counting footnotes and other backmatter, is nearly 600 pages long, a number which bespeaks Sturrock’s thoroughness. Sturrock begins well enough at the beginning, with Dahl’s lineage from Norway, up through his childhood and adolescence, into his time abroad before the Second World War, his writing career, his family life, and ends with Dahl’s final days. This linear fashion of biographical storytelling may seem obvious enough, but Sturrock works well within this mode and never allows it to override the story itself.
For example, in the chapter “A Tornado of Troubles”, Sturrock details the horrible car accident that caused grievous head injuries to Dahl’s infant son, Theo. Just as the boy finally seemed to be through the worst of it, Dahl’s eldest, Olivia, is then overcome with measles encephalitis, which quickly took the life of the seven-year-old. Rather than follow the simple cadence of a medical report, Sturrock focuses in this chapter on Dahl’s stoicism in the face of these familial horrors and on the strain it added to Dahl’s marriage to American actress Patricia Neal. He then leads the reader to the subsequent chapter, “Breaking Point”, painting a sorrowful picture of this same stoic man who is almost subsumed with grief over the passing of his daughter. It is a delicate weaving of this man’s life story, treated with the utmost respect for not only the events as they happened, but for the life of the man they so deeply affected.
However, this sort of finesse cannot be achieved through carelessness, and Storyteller is paced accordingly. The book is not a page-turner. But in order to give the most accurate depiction of his subject, Sturrock needed to relate as much of the man’s everyday life as possible, from cradle to grave, and it is difficult to imagine that Sturrock left any stone unturned in this regard. There may be moments when readers feel extended discussions between Dahl and his agents, his editors, or his publishers could have been pared down, if only for brevity’s sake. After all, this is the sort of thing Dahl probably had in mind when he once referred to biographers as “dreary fact-collectors”.
But again, it cannot be stressed enough how absolutely necessary Sturrock’s relentlessly thorough research is in order to understand any artistic mind, especially one as prolific as Roald Dahl’s. With children’s literature, Dahl was able to paint vivid, imaginary word-pictures for young minds, and his style was rarely verbose. But with biography, if the subject calls for it, an author must be careful to exhibit every possible significant event or occurrence in the subject’s life in order to allow the reader to know as well as possible just who this person is.
Roald Dahl may have found biographies to be boring. But Donald Sturrock has defied this by presenting his subject in not the best possible lights, but in all possible lights. And the end result is anything but boring.