In school, in our sunlit library of two floors, an entire shelf stacked Roald Dahl’s books. So fond was I of Dahl’s macabre sense of humour that I was disappointed when I grew a little older and realised that the real world was not as magical or quirky. Peaches were never as succulent as the one from James and the Giant Peach , the only chocolate factory that I had visited on a school trip paled in comparison to Mr. Willy Wonka’s “gigantic rabbit warren”, and I knew no genius like Quentin Blake. The craze faded away later, but reading Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to his Mother (John Murray) now, I can still spot Dahl the writer in Dahl the schoolboy, the fighter pilot, the son.
Intimate and candid
The compilation of around 600 letters from Dahl to Sofie Magdalene over a 40-year period shows the evolution of his talent. Dahl wrote to her from the age of nine — from Cardiff, Tanganyika, Egypt, Iraq, Washington, and New York — till after his first wife, actress Patricia Neal, suffered a stroke. Sofie in turn kept every single one of them, bundling them with green tape and preserving them carefully even during wartime. They were handed over to Dahl, in a rather dramatic fashion, around the time of her death.
The letters are intimate, lively, and liberally sprinkled with humour. Dahl was a man with many hobbies including collecting stamps, painting, greyhound racing and photography. His family was close-knit; he always inquires about his siblings and “Bestepeople” (grandparents), but also unfailingly about the pets and menagerie that they owned. His love for animals would reflect in his works later, whether it was the clever Mr. Fox and loyal Mrs. Fox in Fantastic Mr Fox , the Centipede, Old-Green-Grasshopper, Glow-worm, Spider and other creatures in James… , or the vile Crocky-Wock in the poem ‘The Crocodile’. The letters are also refreshingly candid — but of course, Dahl would not have written them knowing that they would be read by anyone but his mother.
A one-sided picture
Sadly, we learn nearly nothing about Sofie. Donald Sturrock, who has edited the letters and published them to coincide with Dahl’s centenary year, describes her as a “remarkable woman”, who, from the age of 36, after her husband’s death, raised all the four children on her own. (Dahl would later describe her in Boy as “dauntless”, “undoubtedly the primary influence on [his] life”.) Although we don’t read any of her letters, we learn a little about her from Dahl’s side of the correspondence. She seems to have encouraged her son’s writing, for his humour becomes more daring and the profanities in his later letters continue unabated. Sturrock writes that she told him Morse tales and stories about magic, which would later find place in his books. In fact, Sofie herself would, for instance as the Norwegian grandmamma in The Witches whom Dahl “absolutely adored” and who was “a wonderful story-teller”.
Roald Dahl hated school. Perhaps Matilda best explains in fiction this unhappiness: the cruel, bull-necked headmistress Miss Trunchbull is said to bear resemblance to the headmaster of his school. But he never tells his mother about his misery or that his letters were censored, concerned that it would all worry her. (Sturrock also attributes this to the virtue of stoicism that was respected in Britain then; vulnerability was seen as a weakness.) Even back then, Dahl writes in what would later become his delightfully grotesque style. About owls eating mice, he writes: “They eat the whole mouse, skin and all, and then all the skin and bones goes into a sort of little parcel inside him and he puts it on the ground, and those are called pellets…”
Dahl was a sick child and rather obsessed with talk about medicines (as we would see in Attention Please! Attention Please! and George’s Marvellous Medicine ), but his humour always remained in the best of health. While the letters contain his world, we learn almost nothing about the world outside — the war or the Great Depression. The only time Hitler finds a mention in his early letters is when a waiter tips over food on a newspaper that he’s reading. “I couldn’t read about Hitler,” he tells Sofie, “for he was covered with bread sauce.”
But Hitler and Mussolini find more space in his later letters when he becomes a probationary member in Tanganyika with the Asiatic Petroleum Company — and not in a way that you would imagine. He names lizards after them and even invents a game of darts involving Hitler’s body (“navel: 5 (points); moustache: 20, etc. etc.”). While this obviously lands him in some trouble with the German Consulate, it is surprising that Sofie does not discourage this dangerous plain-speaking.
I was particularly excited to learn that this was also the period when he owned three pets: a dog called Samka, a cat called Oscar, and the famous Mrs. Taubypuss who would later be immortalised in Charlie and the Glass Elevator (“Kali Oscre says he’s not Wilde! Dog Samka wishes to be remembered to you — Mrs. Taubypuss sends her regards,” reads a footnote in a letter).
Dahl joins the Royal Air Force when war becomes inevitable. It is a crash in the Libyan desert that would become the subject of his first piece of published writing, “Shot Down Over Libya”. He goes to Washington DC to work for the RAF, a job that sees him hobnob with the rich and famous, including the Roosevelts and his own hero, Hemingway. This is when Dahl’s writing is not only recognised but appreciated by the best in the field — he even becomes close to Walt Disney and writes a major script for a film on the gremlins, little creatures with “types of horns and a long tail”. When he meets C.S. Forester for lunch one day, he unexpectedly goes on to taste literary success for the first time. Forester calls Dahl as he wants to hear of the story of his crash and write about it. But he struggles to eat and take down notes at the same time, so he asks Dahl to write the story. Forrester is astonished by the manuscript and sends the story to be published, setting in motion a glowing writing career.
His main inspiration
This September 13, the world will recall the fantastical plots of one of its most favourite children’s writer, but I think it is equally important to remember his mother who was his first inspiration, reader, and critic. Reading our favourite writers, we often imagine them to have been born with a pen, whipping up wonderful works effortlessly. Their fillips are often unknown, though these play critical roles in how they sharpen their skills. For Dahl, his mother was “the unwitting midwife to his development as a writer”, as Sturrock puts it. The love that mother and son share is heart-warming, and so it seems rather strange (and I felt let down by this) that though Sofie kept Dahl’s letters, Dahl did not keep hers.
An interesting anecdote is tucked away somewhere in the middle of the book. During his years in the petroleum company, Sofie worries about her son’s “lack of ambition”. Desperate, much like an Indian mother, she goes to get his horoscope read and keeps the psychic’s prediction to herself. “Dahl,” the psychic tells her, “will become a writer.”