Completing Dahl: Short Stories
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
This year I’m blogging once a month here at Pornokitsch about trying to read everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. I’m closing in on the end! Just a few more odds and ends to go. The usual full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote, save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.
Random Stories from Someone Like You (1953), Kiss Kiss (1960), Tales of the Unexpected (1979), More Tales of the Unexpected (1980), Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life (1990), and Collected Short Stories (1991)
This might sound like a lot for one blog, but thanks to my trusty copy of The Roald Dahl Omnibus there were only a handful of stories for me to read this month. There’s nothing that particularly ties them together, so I’ll just take them on one by one. I’m going to try to not spoil any twist endings while still engaging with the texts, as usual, which means some of these write-ups will be brief unless there’s something really juicy to treat with.
There were some real gems among these stories which I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading before. In particular, “Mr. Botibol,” “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,” and “The Bookseller” were all delightfully messed up. It was wonderful reading some top-form Dahl after some of the real stinkers I’ve endured (*glances at Some Time Never*), and even the lesser stories among this batch (“The Butler” and “The Surgeon” were still very enjoyable.
Oh, I should say now that I’m severely jet lagged from my trip to Tokyo, so if this reads a bit incoherently, well, there you go.
“The Sound Machine” (The New Yorker/Someone Like You) Obsessed eccentrics are always a favorite subject for Dahl, who in that regard might have been a good guest-writer for The Avengers had they tapped him for a “weirdo of the week” episode. Anyways, while the protagonist of “The Sound Machine” might not be as barking as George the Vicar of “Georgy Porgy” or Albert Taylor from “Royal Jelly,” Klausner is hiding something in his woodshed. Literally. Obsessed with sound, Klausner has invented a machine that brings sounds beyond human hearing into the range comprehendible by the human ear.
“The Sound Machine” was first published in 1948, but like so many of Dahl’s stories, the central idea was clearly something that wouldn’t stop rattling around in his head. Echoes (see what I did there) of what Klausner discovers can heard in the conversation between the BFG and Sophie where they’re discussing his incredible ears.
“Vengeance Is Mine Inc.” (Someone Like You) Maybe it’s the title of this piece that got me thinking about The Avengers, because damn. Not only that, but Steed and Mrs. Peel would absolutely go after the entrepreneurs behind this particular enterprise.
Two seemingly unemployed men, possibly brothers, are unsuccessfully trying to live on an allowance insufficient to their needs. One cold morning, drinking coffee and idling over the society gossip columns in the newspapers the narrator remarks on how dearly the victims of those journalists must wish to get some of their own back. Then it strikes him—politicians and debutantes can’t go punching the lights out of various scandal-makers, so why not be the middlemen in that regard? Thus, Vengeance Is Mine Inc. is born.
Though not one of my favorites, this story is classic Dahl. Ur-Dahl. Scoundrels? Check. Schemes? Check. Ugliness of mankind on glorious display? Oh yes. Someone affecting a silly accent? Yep. Dubious morality? Indeed. Twist ending? It got me, but not for the reasons I expected, at any rate.
“Mr Botibol” (More Tales of the Unexpected) I really liked this one. I’m amazed I’d never encountered it, and shocked it wasn’t included in the Omnibus but it is rather long and meandering, even for Dahl. Just the same, it was fantastic.
Mr Botibol is basically a sad little weirdo. Odd-looking and unlucky, at the beginning of the story he has just accepted an offer from a man who wants to buy the company he’s run into the ground, for far less than it’s actually worth. The man takes Mr Botibol out to lunch, whereupon Mr Botibol gets “melancholy drunk” and begins an extraordinary conversation:
‘Mr. Clements,’ he said without looking up, ‘do you think that it is possible for a man to live to the age of fifty-two without ever during his whole life having experienced one single small success in anything that he has done?’
‘My dear Mr Botibol,” Clements laughed, ‘everyone has his little successes from time to time, however small they might be.’
‘Oh no,” Mr Botibol said gently. ‘You are wrong. I, for example, cannot remember having had a single success of any sort during my whole life.’
Yikes. Cheerful stuff. Anyways, the story takes a really weird turn after this discussion, which includes an aside about Mr Botibol’s lack of success extends to, ahem, the ladies. Tipsy and morose, Mr Botibol settles in to listen to the radio and ghost-conducts a symphony. It gives him a thrill, and he quickly becomes obsessed with not only pretending to conduct music in front of a live audience, but imagining that he is the composer. He installs a small theatre and gets records of applause to play for himself and everything. It comes off as vaguely masturbatory, and FYI I’m not just being a pervert—when Mr Botibol meets a girl and invites her back to his playroom the implications (and stakes) are very clear, though the ending is open to interpretation. I loved this one. A++
“The Butler” (Travel and Leisure/(More Tales of the Unexpected) One of Dahl’s wine stories, similar to “Taste” but with an interesting upstairs/downstairs angle. Not my favorite, and not a lot to it, but if you’re a misanthropist you’ll probably smile once or twice.
“Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” (The New Yorker/Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life)
I… what can I even say about this rather dirty piece? Perhaps I was predisposed to like it, given my affection for Naughty Marietta, a terrible Victor Herbert operetta in which the song referenced by the title is sung and then heavily reprised. (The song also is referenced in Young Frankenstein, in a similarly dirty way to Dahl’s short story).
A man’s heifer is bulling, and so he leads it to a neighboring farm to have her serviced by their prize Friesian. (As with “The Sound Machine” and “The Bookseller” one of Dahl’s short stories foretells a scene in some later, longer work—this time, My Uncle Oswald, where another heifer is mounted by a bull, and discussions of sperm ensue.) On the way, the man’s servant tells him that the farmer has queer notions of how the whole romance should play out. Sure enough, when the farmer leads out his bull, who is a lovely fine fellow with “bangers” Dahl takes the time to describe as “like a couple of cantaloupe melons in a carrier bag” he instructs the man to turn his heifer towards the sun. According to him, the union will yield a heifer rather than a bull calf that way. It’s… a really weird story that gets increasingly weird. I’ll leave it at that.
“The Umbrella Man” (Tales of the Unexpected)
A short piece in which Dahl teaches us two lessons: you can always tell a gentleman by his shoes, and don’t you ever fucking trust anyone.
“The Bookseller” (Collected Short Stories)
This story is particularly twisted, even for Dahl, which probably accounts for why I liked it so much.
Two horrible, almost Dickensian grotesques, Mr. Buggage and Miss Tottle, run a used book store that is not all it seems. While people rummage looking for rare volumes in the front of the store, they extort the bereaved in the back (I’ll redact how because it’s delicious to find out). He gets three quarters of the profits, she gets one quarter, which isn’t fair but that’s life, especially in Dahl’s stories.
What makes this slice of nasty so abject is not their plot, nor is it their methods. It is the fact that these two villains constantly get hot for one another while carrying out their schemes. Neither of them being particularly attractive (Mr. Buggage picks food out of his teeth, is described as “flaccid” and possessing a terrible thicket-like beard—more on that later—and of Miss Tottle, “the best you could say about her was that she had a generous bosom, but even that had its faults. It was the kind that makes a single long tightly bound bulge from one side of the chest to the other, and at first glance one got the impression that there were not two individual breasts growing out of her body but simply one big long loaf of bread.” Holy shit.
So, that description prefaces them banging twice in one short story.
Onward to The Beard. Roald Dahl apparently had a horror of beards. The description of Mr. Buggage’s beard strongly reminded me of the extended anti-beard rant that opens The Twits. The first chapter, if you recall, is called “Hairy Faces” and basically an extended musing on how terrible beards are. Dahl’s objection seems to be the perceived dirtiness of beards—grime and food getting stuck in them—and it really seemed to have bothered him. In fact, apparently the entire inspiration for his writing The Twits was to “do something against beards.” Though he might have just thought hair was gross in general. In “The Bookseller” he also treats us to a brief remark about pubic hair escaping a bikini. I loved this story.
“The Surgeon” (Playboy/Collected Short Stories)
Roald Dahl’s last short story (1988), first published in Playboy, isn’t the best. I mean, it has a happy ending. But, there is some pretty gross surgical horror. So, a mixed bag.
It’s sad but true—I’m all done with Dahl’s short stories! The only things left on the docket are Two Fables and, uh, Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety. I can’t believe it!