Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock:
I always approach a biography with a bit of trepidation. First, I'm always a little afraid at what I might find out about this wonderful person (I usually only read biographies of people that I find wonderful, inspiring, smart, cool....in other words, no bad guys or meanies). If I find out some rather negative information about my chosen hero, will I still look at them in the same regard. or will it all be tainted? Or will the truth set me free, and I appreciate them for the complex person as they really are/were?
The other reason I don't read a lot of biographies is because they are so darn long. I have to really want to know about a person to invest in a 600 + page biography. Sometimes, a quick look on wikipedia will suffice, or a biography from the juvenile section. I'm not the only one who thinks this way: on the back cover of Storyteller, Quentin Blake, longtime collaborator with Roald Dahl, writes "a 600-page book with the word 'authorized' on the cover looks to me a rather daunting prospect....." I couldn't agree more.
But the complex, flawed, adventurous, creative, generous person who was Roald Dahl is definitely worth the investment of reading time. In fact, after I put the book down I wished it had been longer. I wanted to know even more about this person who lives on in his stories. Little things, like what did Dahl think about the Beatles? Or, what was his favorite color? Or bigger questions, like would I actually like Roald Dahl, one of my literary heroes, if I met him? I think this is a sign of an excellent biography: you learn what makes that person tick, and are so engrossed that you want to know even more. Perhaps a pilgrimage to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is the next logical step.
I can't say enough good things about Donald Sturrock's writing. His research is thorough, his sources are abundant. He had met Dahl and spent time with him, so he knew him personally. He just "gets" Dahl, and is not afraid to paint us an accurate picture, warts and all. Interestingly, Dahl's mentor, Charles Marsh, is discussed a lot throughout the book, as he had a profound impact on Dahl's life. The more I read about Marsh, the more I wanted to know about him ("work hard, talk little, be truly a miser of time" he once advised Dahl). Same thing with Dahl's first wife, Patricia Neal - what happened to her after their divorce? How did she cope with being cast out of Gipsy House? I'd like to spend some more time with the figures who once spent time with Dahl.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the relationship he has with his characters. Readers know that every part of a book is part of its creator: the author's experiences, the author's personality, the author's flights of fancy. Dahl and a buddy used to go poaching, and schemed a way to score a load of pheasants that is identical to what you'll read in Danny, The Champion of the World. Dahl once came up with a story about a giant who blew dreams into the bedrooms of little children, to entertain his youngest daughters. Sounds like The BFG, yes? And, as Sturrock adeptly observes, one of Dahl's greatest characters, Willy Wonka, is simply a mirror image of his creator.
There are plenty of warts here - Dahl cheated on his first wife, he started arguments at dinner parties just for fun and he didn't always clean his fingernails......no matter. If you love Roald Dahl, you'll love him even more after reading this biography. Care to join me on the pilgrimage?