The let­ters Roald Dahl wrote to his mother

“LOVE FROM BOY: ROALD DAHL’S LET­TERS TO HIS MOTHER” Edited by Don­ald Stur­rock Blue Rider Press $26, 304 pages, il­lus­trated

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Rubin Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Roald Dahl’s pen­chant for the macabre in his adult short sto­ries make them some of the most haunt­ing and chill­ing of 20th-cen­tury English lit­er­a­ture. It even made its mark, al­beit a lesser one, in what he wrote for chil­dren, the best known of these be­ing “Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory.” So it is un­sur­pris­ing to find it not al­to­gether ab­sent, par­tic­u­larly in the ear­lier parts of this col­lec­tion of the let­ters he wrote faith­fully to his mother from his days at board­ing school, be­gin­ning aged nine in 1925 and con­tin­u­ing un­til shortly be­fore her death more than four decades later.

But gen­er­ally speak­ing, his tone is mat­ter of fact, forth­right, and di­rect through­out and to me, it changed re­mark­ably lit­tle over all those years, ex­cept for an un­der­stand­ably in­creased level of frank­ness about more adult sub­jects. Some­thing else that did not al­ter is a level of re­flex­ive, nat­u­ral in­ti­macy, which I sense made this ma­ter­nal re­la­tion­ship the most im­por­tant in his life, de­spite two mar­riages and chil­dren. This is un­der­stand­able, since she raised him and his sib­lings as a sin­gle par­ent, his fa­ther hav­ing died when Roald was three.

Dahl’s bi­og­ra­pher, Don­ald Stur­rock, who edited and an­no­tated this col­lec­tion with great ex­cel­lence and nat­u­ral as­sur­ance, com­ments per­cep­tively that Sofie Mag­da­lene Dahl (both par­ents were Nor­we­gian im­mi­grants to Bri­tain) “was a loyal, tire­less, phleg­matic, and un­shock­able cor­re­spon­dent.” This judg­ment is the more re­mark­able be­cause, although she saved all her son’s let­ters neatly tied up, he ap­pears to have kept none of hers. But as Mr. Stur­rock rightly says, “his side of the cor­re­spon­dence re­veals much about her” and that “her pow­er­ful, prag­matic, un­shock­able per­son­al­ity emerges strongly, if only by in­fer­ence, in her son’s cor­re­spon­dence.” Although the bi­og­ra­pher of­ten finds “a sense that Roald is talk­ing to him­self,” I sensed his mother’s al­most pal­pa­ble pres­ence in ev­ery­thing he writes: there is no way he could have writ­ten these words to any­one else in his life.

Mr. Stur­rock finds “the ab­sence of any of her let­ters in Roald’s ar­chive… per­plex­ing. For a man who kept to so much cor­re­spon­dence, it is dou­bly sur­pris­ing that not one let­ter sur­vived.” I find this less so than he does, sim­ply be­cause while Sofie Mag­dalena led a very seden­tary ex­is­tence, to say that her son’s adult life was peri­patetic is an un­der­state­ment and he sim­ply had no time to hold on to let­ters.

In­deed, the va­ri­ety of lo­cales where he wrote these let­ters is a large part of what makes this col­lec­tion so fas­ci­nat­ing. Whether he was in East Africa in the late 1930s, work­ing for an oil com­pany, or af­ter the out­break of World War II in the Royal Air Force in North Africa and the Mid­dle East — or cross­ing oceans be­fore dur­ing and af­ter these pe­ri­ods — his descriptions of what he is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing are ex­traor­di­nar­ily vivid and ab­sorb­ing. He is sim­ply in­ca­pable of writ­ing a dull let­ter.

It is his time as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer at­tached to the Bri­tish Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the fi­nal two years of the war which pro­duce the most in­ter­est­ing let­ters — and not just for Wash­ing­to­ni­ans. Not only do his bud­ding lit­er­ary ef­forts get him swept off pe­ri­od­i­cally to Hol­ly­wood, stay­ing at the lux­u­ri­ous Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, thanks to Walt Dis­ney, and hob­nob­bing with movie stars, but back in D.C., de­spite his ju­nior rank (the RAF equiv­a­lent of cap­tain), he mixes in the most ex­alted cir­cles. He meets Martha Gell­horn, the wife of his lit­er­ary idol, and re­ports to his mother with char­ac­ter­is­tic pun­gency that “Martha Hem­ing­way is a good type. She uses as much bad lan­guage in her talk as her hus­band does in his books.” Per­haps his Nor­we­gian parent­age and first name helped him get to know the ex­iled Crown Prince and Princess of Nor­way and their young son the present monarch (“I think he will make a good King one day),” but how did he get to play ten­nis with his am­bas­sado­rial boss, the aus­tere, aris­to­cratic Earl of Hal­i­fax?

But noth­ing can re­ally top his descriptions of life en famille with Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roo­sevelt. It was in the com­pany of Crown Princess Martha, a great fa­vorite of the pres­i­dent, that he was in­vited to stay at Hyde Park, but his fre­quent in­vi­ta­tions to in­ti­mate din­ners at the White House must be tes­ti­mony to his ex­tra­or­di­nary charisma and com­mand­ing ap­pear­ance (six and a half feet tall). All the more re­mark­able be­cause Mrs. Roo­sevelt was no fan of Martha. In­deed, his pic­ture of the First Fam­ily’s life is a good deal jol­lier and the food served at the ta­ble less pen­i­ten­tial than most other ac­counts would lead you to be­lieve. It is Eleanor who pours the cock­tail and the mar­i­tal at­mos­phere is cor­dial. Given the many painful op­er­a­tions and other vi­cis­si­tudes he en­dured, de­scribed here in vivid de­tail, it is seems strange to de­scribe Roald Dahl as liv­ing a charmed life. Yet he man­ages to make it feel that way for us much of the time.

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