Roald Dahl’s readable but regrettable Uncle Oswald
- January 5, 2024
- Alexander Larman
The great children's author's adult misfire offers a glimpse into his deeply peculiar psyche.
He may have been dead for over three decades, but if the now-117 year old Roald Dahl was to be brought back to life by one of the bizarre contraptions that he so delighted in writing about, he would undoubtedly have been both pleased and bewildered by the way in which 2023 saw him return to vogue in, perhaps, the most high-profile fashion since his death in 1990.
Last year not only saw the release of the big-budget musical fantasy Wonka, a joyful and tuneful prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but also allowed one of America’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Wes Anderson, the opportunity to take an excellent repertory company of actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, and adapt a selection of Dahl’s short stories for Netflix, including ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ and the macabre delight ‘The Rat Catcher’. The Witches has been brought to the stage at the National Theatre, to critical acclaim, and his story The Enormous Crocodile came to life at the Leeds Playhouse. Under the careful eye of the Roald Dahl Story Company, the author and his work are big, big business.
Dahl’s reputation offscreen has risen and fallen, too. Attempts by his publisher Puffin, to make various changes to his books under the impetus of so-called ‘sensitivity readers’ were met with outrage when they were brought to light in February 2023, as it transpired that well-meaning but heavy-handed editors had changed numerous phrases and sentences that, at times, amounted to wholesale desecration of Dahl’s writing.
Given that Dahl had all but refused editorial interference in his lifetime – saying to Francis Bacon ‘I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!’ – this was seen as a particularly egregious example of after-the-fact censorship, and so Puffin had to announce that the ‘Roald Dahl Classic Collection’, consisting of the unexpurgated original texts, would be sold alongside the bowdlerised ones.
One-nil to Dahl, it would appear. Yet the author has also joined the ranks of that most terrible clan: The Problematic. At a time when issues of antisemitism have been more hotly debated than on any occasion since the end of the Second World War, it remains deeply unfortunate that the author gave an interview to the Independent, shortly before his death, in which he declared that ‘I’m certainly anti-Israeli and I’ve become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.’ Little wonder, then, that the Roald Dahl estate has had to distance themselves from these remarks, saying ‘The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.’
All very noble and commendable. Yet there remains a greater problem for anyone who wishes to exculpate Dahl from holding prejudiced views in suggesting that a couple of interviews given late in life were somehow not a reflection of his true beliefs. First, while it would be ridiculous to look at his children’s books and expect them to contain any accurate indication of his social or political views, there can be little doubt that Dahl had a contempt almost amounting to phobia of the overweight, the unclean or the short, although Hugh Grant’s droll and hilarious performance as an unlikely Oompa-Loompa named, wittily, Lofty in Wonka goes a long way to addressing that particular slight. But second, and perhaps most damningly of all, is the existence of one of the two novels that Dahl wrote exclusively for adults – the other being his obscure 1948 title Some Time Never – the deeply bizarre and profoundly un-PC sex comedy My Uncle Oswald.
While the book, like the rest of Dahl’s oeuvre, remains in print, it would not be going too far to suggest that everyone involved with the writer’s estate has attempted to distance themselves from it. It hasn’t been reissued in over a decade, and there has been no serious attempt – until this essay, perhaps? – to reassess the work in the context of Dahl’s writing. It is possibly the least well-known major book that Dahl ever came up with, and it isn’t at all hard to see why once you track down a copy. It’s short, virtually a novella at a snappy 205 pages, and revolves around the priapic antics of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius (deceased), who is described on the first page as ‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking-sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women and without much doubt the greatest fornicator of all time’.
Well, that’s not too shabby as a character introduction. Dahl was writing at a time when the likes of Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins were making a fortune writing sex-heavy glossy novels with names like The Stud and The Betsy, which were selling in their millions, thanks to their simple formula of regular couplings, glamorously evoked settings heavy on wealth and exoticism, and prurient titillation for their readership.
Dahl, an author never noted for his lack of interest in the financial side of the business, set about writing his own version of this, which became what his biographer Jeremy Treglown calls ‘an extended rude joke about a fictional early twentieth-century plot to procure the semen of some of the world’s great men and sell it’. The vehicle for the sperm being obtained is a character named, in a fine Dahlian aptronym, Yasmin Howcomely – a woman ‘absolutely soaked in sex’ – and her means of doing so is regular sex with everyone from Monet to Puccini, who are forced into uncontrollable sexual excitement by means of a proto-Viagra powder extracted from a Sudanese insect known as the Blister Beetle.
If this synopsis makes the book sound like a diverting romp, Jacqueline Susann with a masters’ degree, then it is almost jaw-dropping to read the instances of racism and xenophobia inside it, to say nothing of the way in which the pulchritudinous Yasmin is repeatedly raped by the great men of history, with this passed off as something between an occupational hazard and a running joke. The rot sets in from early on, when the young Oswald is introduced to a series of foreign ambassadors, all dosed with Blister Beetle powder, and a caricatured Mexican is said to clap his hands together and cry ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too many women!’ only for the German ambassador to retort ‘From too many goats and donkeys is more like it in Mexico.’
The reader can only be wondering what they have let themselves in for, but the nadir is yet to come. Firstly, we have a scene in which Yasmin is raped by a Cambridge don, crazed by powder, who Oswald has recruited as a partner-in-crime – and the whole thing is played for laughs. Then the discussion about sex with Proust, which not only suggests a queasy homophobia on Dahl’s part but also a prurient fascination at the mechanics of sodomy.
If this makes the novel sound immensely readable – which it admittedly is, albeit with the laughs alternating with gasps of shock and disbelief – then it still falls short even on its own, filthy terms. Dahl wearies of his central conceit long before the end; the couplings are described in the most perfunctory terms (Kipling, for instance, is dismissed as a “bristly little bugger”); and only a late set-piece involving Bernard Shaw offers a fully fleshed-out comic situation. By the end, which revolves around an entirely predictable piece of duplicity, it’s clear that My Uncle Oswald is nothing more than an especially perverse jeu d’esprit, and a half-amusing, half-chilling glimpse into Dahl’s deeply peculiar psyche.
It was neither a commercial nor a critical success – Treglown writes of his US publisher that ‘no one at Knopf was very enthusiastic about the book, but they were still anxious not to lose its author’ – and Dahl later regretted publishing it. Had he not done so, we would have been spared one of the strangest, most inappropriate novels of the 20th century, and certainly the oddest work Dahl ever published. The late, great author may be flavour of the month all over again, but this perverse and pretentious exercise in faux-intellectual soft porn is a reminder, if we needed it, that even the mightiest of literary idols can have feet of clay, too.