Tuesday, September 13, 2016

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Roald Dahl, Children’s Book Legend)

Sept.13, 1916—Roald Dahl, who used his wartime experience as a springboard to a career as a creator of TV and movie scripts, short stories and children’s novels, was born in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales, to Norwegian parents.

Three generations of children have been exposed to such Dahl works as Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and The BFG. Hollywood has adapted these novels into big-screen projects, and Broadway did the same with the long-running, award-winning musical Matilda.

Dahl did not publish the first of his 19 children’s books, James and the Giant Peach, until he was 45. I was never required to read any of these novels as a youngster, did not read them as an adult, and have never watched any films made from his books that were targeted to children.

But so varied were his interests that I did know many of his works for adults. First, I saw You Only Live Twice (1967), for which he wrote the screenplay. It must have amused him to adapt the James Bond novel by Ian Fleming.

But I also knew and loved his other work for adults. Much of this, now compiled for the “Everyman Library” as his Collected Stories, include such story collections as Kiss Kiss (1959) and Switch Bitch (1974).

With his 6 ft.-6-in. frame, red hair, wounded incurred during a crash as a British pilot in the Royal Air Force campaign in Libya, and considerable charm, Dahl cut a dashing figure at cocktail parties when he was posted to Washington in WWII--ostensibly as an English assistant air attache, though
actually as part of a spy ring to nullify isolationist interests and switch American focus on the war from the Pacific to European theaters. He became friendly with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and very friendly indeed with Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce. (Possibly in preparation for his future career as a storyteller, Dahl once said that he’d had his way with the playwright-turned-politico on every piece of furniture in her house.).

As he recounted later in his essay “Lucky Break – How I Became a Writer,” once hostilities ceased, Dahl was unsure about what to do with his life when he met author C.S. Forester for lunch. The creator of the popular “Horatio Hornblower” seafaring books was casting about for different material, and agreed to pay Dahl for notes on his plane crash.

When Forester received the material, he was astonished to find a finished story rather than the fragmentary notes he expected, and was supposedly so “bowled over” by the piece that he urged the younger man to submit it under his own name. (More recently, Jeff Meaney has cast doubt on this chronology, noting that the piece was submitted anonymously to Reader’s Digest four years earlier than Dahl had let on. In fact, a June 1942 account, in which Dahl writes that he's "just done another story," called "Gremlins," appears in the new book Love From Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to His Mother.)

Several of Dahl’s subsequent stories—macabre and slyly mocking—became the basis of classic episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Having tried his hand at TV writing earlier (for the series Suspense, in the aptly named episode “Poison”), he went on to write the teleplay for one of the most memorable Hitchcock episodes, “Lamb to the Slaughter.”

Dahl possessed a restless intelligence, not only writing in a wide range of forms but even, because of family crises, contributing to the advancement of modern medicine. (After his young son contracted hydrocephalus, he collaborated with friends on the Wade-Dahl-Till valve to alleviate cranial pressure—and, after first wife Patricia Neal suffered devastating strokes, he designed techniques that restored her to full functionality--procedures now standard in treating stroke victims.)

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