I don’t remember when I found out Roald Dahl hated me, but it was after I read most of his books.
Dahl died in 1990, but his work is everywhere. Growing up, he is the author whose books I read most, and who taught me to love reading.
He was also, as I later learned, an antisemite and a racist.
Knowing that, it’s hard to have a coherent understanding of the author. On one hand, Roald Dahl was my introduction to everything. My writing style, my taste, my discovery of prose and poetry is defined in terms of what he wrote.
On the other hand, I’m Jewish.
I ordered most of his children’s books through the Scholastic catalogue, laughed at the perverted, twisted humour of “The Twits” and “George’s Marvellous Medicine,” enjoyed the clever rhymes of “Esio Trot,” and wished I was as smart as Matilda from “Matilda.”
I found out that a movie adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” existed when I watched it on a tiny TV in the break room of the summer camp I went to when I was six years old, because it was too hot outside for the counselors to make us play sports. It was the first time I learned that movie adaptations of books were even a thing.
After polishing off Dahl’s children’s books with the enthusiasm of Augustus Gloop finding a chocolate bar in his pocket, I found out about “Going Solo,” his delightful, embellished memoir of his time in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War 2 and a kind of sequel to “Boy — Tales of Childhood.” I bought it for a penny on Amazon.
Near the end, there’s a chapter where Dahl writes about being stationed in Haifa, a city now in Israel and then in the British Mandate of Palestine. At a nearby kibbutz named Ramat David, he stumbled upon a group of Jewish refugees from Germany. He talked to one of them about the nature of Zionism in the World War 2 geopolitical schema. Dahl readily admitted that he didn’t know much about Jews, or Zionism, or much about World War 2 beyond the larger mission to defeat Hitler.
It was the first time I saw Dahl mention Jews. He never mentioned us in “Boy” or in any of his other books, as far as I can remember. I walked away from that chapter thinking that Roald Dahl simply didn’t have much of an opinion about us.
I mentioned the chapter to a friend of mine, and responded with something along the lines of, “you know he’s an antisemite, right? And a racist?”
I didn’t. I was shocked. I could have gone online and learned more about Dahl’s views, but I chose not to. I didn’t want to stop enjoying his books. I ignored the accusations.
I also wanted to resist disliking “Going Solo” in particular. It became my favourite Dahl book. He wrote about sitting each day at his desk for hours and writing drafts of his novels. Until then, it hadn’t really occurred to me that writing was work, that novels didn’t just appear out of thin air. He taught me to read differently, and to understand writing as a job.
Later on, as a teenager, I bought “The Umbrella Man,” “Switch Bitch,” and “My Uncle Oswald” on my first visit to Strand, a bookstore in Manhattan. They were the first Dahl books I had read that he wrote for adults. They had the same dark, twisted, and morbid humour, and pushed it to extremes. In “My Uncle Oswald,” for example, the main character (a fictionalized version of Dahl’s uncle, a recurring character in Dahl’s stories) hatches a plot to trick wealthy and famous people out of their sperm to sell it to other wealthy people.
In a review of Dahl’s collected short stories, Joyce Carol Oates notes that, in his later works, Dahl took a colder, crueler turn toward the subjects of his satire. He also reveals himself to be a misogynist. As Oates writes, “Dahl’s females are particularly grotesque specimens… It must be that such misogynist female portraits are self-portraits of the misogynist’s malformed soul, since they draw forth such quivering, barely containable loathing.”
At the time I read that essay, I dismissed it. Roald Dahl? Hate women? But I love him!
Oates’ essay crept up on me.
I found out that Dahl told The New Statesman that Hitler had his reasons for the Holocaust: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity … I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Shortly before he died, he told The Independent, “I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic” and alleged that Israeli activity in Lebanon “was very much hushed up in the newspapers because they are primarily Jewish-owned … there aren’t any non-Jewish publishers anywhere.”
I also learned that the beloved Oompa Loompas from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were, in early drafts of the book, “Pygmies from Africa, slaves” before Dahl changed their origin upon criticism.
Dahl’s bigotry became more urgent this year, when Steven Spielberg — a patron of Jewish causes — adapted “The BFG” into a movie. It’s also the centennial of Dahl’s birth, making 2016 sort of the year of Roald Dahl. Asked about Dahl’s views, Spielberg said at a press conference that he wasn’t aware of Dahl’s views.
Later, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis pushed him on that point. Spielberg said that it’s a hard thing to grapple with, and he’s “run into that conundrum when talking about ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and D. W. Griffith and the exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan.” Everyone working in any art has no choice but to stand on the shoulders of the giants who paved the path before them.
Spielberg also dismissed some of Dahl’s comments as trolling: “All his comments, which I’ve now read about — about bankers, all the old-fashioned, mid-30s stereotypes we hear from Germany — he would say for effect, even if they were horrible things. So, I don’t know.”
I can’t accept that. Trafficking in Nazi stereotypes about Jewish conspiracies isn’t something to be said “for effect.” It’s horrible.
But as much as I grapple with Dahl now, I can’t escape him.
His clear writing, his imaginative storytelling, his dark humour: they all defined how I read, and how I write.
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