“I could feel him smiling,” said Felicity Dahl, widow of the great Roald, of her experience of viewing Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.“I was thinking, he’d love this.” Well, she would know, I suppose. But what am I to do then with my conviction that her late husband would have loathed this? That Wes Anderson, with his glockenspiels and drolleries and minutely faceted interiors, has travestied the raucous spirit of Dahl? And that the ideal Fantastic Mr. Fox movie would be a work of slapdash animation, soundtrack by Mötorhead, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait? I’ll just have to sit on it, I suppose.
Rarely can the movements of the muse be charted with any precision, but it appears that around 1959 the tutelary presence that handled Roald Dahl Inc. decided, with very little warning and no consultation, upon a major shift in direction. Ideas for the short stories with which he had made his name in the pages of TheNew Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly dried up, and Dahl found himself temporarily at a loss. It was not a position to which he was accustomed. Long-bodied, dented, worldly, impatient, Dahl came from enterprising Norwegian stock and had been educated in the heart of the British establishment. He was a former WWII flying ace (he fought with the Royal Air Force in Greece and North Africa), a former spy (as an attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., he had funneled political tidbits back to London), and the husband of screen goddess Patricia Neal. No literary career is easy, but his had gone pretty smoothly, relatively speaking: His first short-story collection, 1953’s Someone Like You, had garnered him comparisons with Saki, Somerset Maugham, and O. Henry, and his second, Kiss Kiss, was selling nicely.
But a limit seemed to have been reached. Those grisly, sting-in-the-tail plotlets of his, each with the economy of a black joke—they weren’t coming anymore, as he admitted to his publisher, Alfred Knopf. The one about the woman who beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then defrosts the murder weapon and serves it to the investigating police officers (“Lamb to the Slaughter”) or the sickly baby dosed by her beekeeping father with the healthful secretions of the hive until she acquires “a powdering of silky yellowy-brown hairs” on her stomach (“Royal Jelly”) … now, for some reason, Dahl was writing page after page about a small boy, a group of talking insects, and an enormous airborne peach.
Knopf didn’t blink, and James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961. The opening—”Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had had a happy life”—could have come from one of the short stories, but within a few lines little James’ parents had been dispatched (day out in London, escaped rhinoceros) with a cruelty that was part folktale gruffness, part-Nabokovian élan. He had magically fused his New Yorker voice with one that seemed to issue from the blackest Norwegian forest: brisk, practical, unsparing, mildly atavistic, and quite at home in the bizarre. This was Dahl 2.0. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came next, and then, in 1970, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Life, meanwhile, had missed few opportunities to pulverize Roald Dahl. In 1961 his 4-month-old son Theo was critically injured when his baby carriage was hit by a taxi. Olivia, Dahl’s first daughter, caught the measles in 1962, slipped into a coma, and died. In 1965 Patricia Neal, pregnant, suffered a massive stroke: Much of Dahl’s energy went into her subsequent years-long rehabilitation.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, coming at the end of this decade of punishment, was understandably not the tightest or most elaborate of his works for children. But then that’s the foxy thing about it—the book gets by on a scrape of a plot, some top-notch Anglo-Saxon alliteration (Boggis, Bunce, and Bean: You can’t beat that), and the charm of its leading man. Ted Hughes had come out with his classic The Iron Man a couple of years before, and there were elements in common: vengeful mechanized digging, for one, as both Mr. Fox and the Iron Man came up against the terrible tractors of postindustrial English farming. Dahl’s tale, however, unlike Hughes’, was free of mystical overtone. Mr. Fox is simply a dashing paterfamilias under siege, struggling to protect his brood and sustaining a fearful wound, a castration almost, in the form of his shot-off brush—that bleeding tail stump, “tenderly licked” by Mrs. Fox, providing one of the most shocking images in all of Dahl’s work.
Can we separate Dahl the Pied Piper, the battered figure at the heart of 20th-century children’s writing, from Dahl the littérateur? The light thrown retrospectively on his early stories is revealing: Their tone of sinuous expertise now seems rather obviously that of an adult spinning naughty tales for an audience of juniors.(Adolescent readers, for example, have always particularly enjoyed them.) Post-Peach attempts to recapture this tone, to go grown-up again, would be unsuccessful: Once the muse had made her move, that was that. Switch Bitch, a collection of creakily pornographic stories that had appeared in Playboy, seemed a relic even in 1974. “She laid a lovely long white arm upon the top of the bar and she leaned forward so that her bosom rested on the bar-rail, squashing upward.” (You can catch there a debauched echo of his early hero Hemingway—until the word “squashing,” that is, which is pure Dahl.) A 1979 novel, the dreadful My Uncle Oswald, was low-intensity ho-ho smut of the sort that might have tickled his old friend and fellow roué, the world’s laziest writer: Ian Fleming.
In the general economy of Dahl’s art, however, these books perhaps served their purpose, burning off a spurious sophistication and allowing him to perfect his true style, which was scruff-of-the-neck storytelling. (“Listen very carefully,” urges the narrator of The Witches. “Never forget what is coming next.”) The slightly ponderous precision with which he had set up his punch lines in Someone Like You became a secret weapon when he wrote for children—an exhilarated, second-by-second focus on the matter at hand. No one who has read it, or had it read to them, forgets the moment in Danny, the Champion of the World when the 7-year-old hero drives a car down a dark country lane, exquisitely slow to begin with but picking up speed, going from first to second gear, and second to third, in a mounting mechanical ecstasy …
Dahl was not religious by temperament or philosophy, and this seems important. Compare his bristling, stinking, unmetaphorical characters with the watery allegories of the Harry Potter cycle—and his prose with J.K. Rowling’s—and you begin to see that a supernatural frame of reference might not always be such a wonderful thing. A good Roald Dahl sentence is a physical event: It can leave a child literally writhing with glee. “The hailstones came whizzing through the air like bullets from a machine gun, and James could hear them smashing against the sides of the peach and burying themselves with horrible squelching noises—plop! plop! plop! plop!” You don’t need to know anything about Dahl’s dogfights over wartime Greece to enjoy that. He was better at beginnings than endings—”The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” begins three times—but then aren’t we all.
There will be kids, no doubt, who writhe with glee at Wes Anderson’s Fox, and more power to them: It has plenty of marvelous qualities. But something grizzled, abrupt, and rough-humored is missing. Something warty. “You can smell the danger, watch your step/ See the friendly stranger, stretch your neck …” One of Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes? Not quite. It’s Lemmy, from Motörhead’s “Die You Bastard.” I think the two of them would have got along very well.