Matilda

Matilda1 Matilda by Roald Dahl

1988

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

It would be unconscionable to let any child get through childhood without reading the Roald Dahl books.  James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Witches – they all have the unmistakable slapstick humor, the silliness and nonsense, that Dahl loved to write and children love to read.  The nasty authority figures are morally horrific and physically repugnant.  Take Aunt Sponge, for example, with “one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it has been boiled”, or George’s Grandma with her “small puckered-up mouth like a dog’s bottom”.  The child heroes and heroines, who tend to be quiet, selfless, unassuming, and patient, devise ingenious schemes to thwart their torturers and they invariably succeed.  The bullies of the world are vanquished: there is no redemption for the wicked.  Dahl has had many detractors among adults, who have decried the gruesome violence and retribution, the tastelessness, of his books.  While critics and teachers are arguing about his subversive influence, his child fans are sneaking off to a corner to delight in yet another of his very funny books.DSC01470

Matilda was Dahl’s last major book, the culmination of a prolific writing career that spanned five decades, and it reflects the hand of a master.  The memorable Matilda is a tiny, brilliant girl who is reading Great Expectations and The Sound and the Fury at the age of four.  When she requests books of her parents, her vulgar father, a crooked second hand car dealer prone to wearing loud check suits, and her mother, a vapid peroxide blond who plays bingo every afternoon, direct her indignantly to the telly.  When she begins kindergarten, she encounters her ultimate nemesis, Miss Trunchbull, the sadistic headmistress.  Enraged by their beastliness and the injustice of it all, Matilda devises clever punishments for each of her tormentors.  She is a particularly noble heroine, since she achieves justice not only for herself but for her teacher, Miss Honey, who has been intimidated into submission.

DSC01466It is impossible to read Roald Dahl without envisioning the accompanying illustrations by Quentin Blake.  The pen and ink drawings appear to have been hastily scribbled: they have a scratchy, energetic, cartoonish quality, (Blake has attributed influence to Honore Daumier), that is perfectly paired with the zaniness of Dahl’s writing.  Blake has illustrated a number of writers, including his own books, but his lasting legacy will be his collaboration with Roald Dahl.

urlAside:  Avid Roald Dahl fans will enjoy his autobiographical duo, Boy and Going Solo.  In the former, he tells of dropping a dead mouse into the neighborhood candy shop’s Gobstopper jar to get back at the horrible Mrs. Pratchett.  He recalls the treat of newly invented Cadbury’s chocolate bars delivered to his boarding school for taste-testing, the genesis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The second book recounts his adventures with simbas and green mambas in Tanzania, and his dangerous missions as an RAF pilot in the early months of WWII.

9781417786084Aside:  It is worth listening to Jeremy Irons read James and the Giant Peach to hear his spectacular voices for the enormously fat Aunt Sponge (rendered with a moist lisp) and the tall and bony Aunt Spiker.  Unfortunately for the listener, they meet their end, crushed flat by the rolling peach, a third of the way through the book.

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danny the champion of the world

Danny the Champion of the World

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

1975

Danny lives with his father in an old painted gypsy caravan with built-in bunk beds, a wood-burning stove, and an apple tree out back.  His father, a car mechanic with an old-fashioned country filling station, is the perfect boyhood companion and the two have an idyllic life together tinkering on car engines, making kites, and launching tissue paper fire balloons on windless nights.  At the age of 9, Danny discovers that his father has a secret life – as a pheasant poacher in Mr. Victor Hazell’s woods, Mr Hazell being the arrogant and vulgar brewery owner and property baron of all the lands surrounding the filling station.  (“As he flashed by we would sometimes catch a glimpse of the great, glistening beery face above the wheel, pink as a ham, all soft and inflamed from drinking too much beer.”)  His father initiates Danny into the art of poaching by revealing his two pheasant-immobilizing methods, The Horsehair Stopper and The Sticky danny the champion of the worldHat, both based on the pheasants’ inordinate love of raisins.  Danny invents a new method, involving raisins laced with sleeping pill powder, and he and his father try it out the night before Mr. Hazell’s annual hunting party, thus thwarting his vain attempts to be accepted by the titled upper class.  Along the way, they receive help of various kinds from the kind Doc Spencer, the upright constable, the vicar’s wife, and the local taxi driver, all of whom turn out to be unlikely members of the poaching underworld.

danny the champion of the worldOf all Roald Dahl’s books, Danny the Champion of the World is the gentlest.  It is suffused with the tender love that exists between Danny and his father, two figures drawn close since the death of Danny’s mother when he was four months old.  The book is unusual for being naturalistic – there are no witches, no giant peaches, no magical dream powders.  There are scenes that are as funny as any that exist in Dahl’s writing (witness the rising of the pheasants from the baby carriage as the effects of the sleeping pills wane), but he does not resort to the nonsense verse, silly naming, and general absurdities that are his usual stock in trade.

Roald Dahl was particularly fond of this story.  He originally wrote it as an adult short story that appeared first in the New Yorker in 1959 and subsequently in the collection, Kiss Kiss.  Although he made significant changes when he revised it for children, including the switch from two friends to a father and son, the basic plot line remained intact and whole passages were lifted verbatim from the story.  Dahl often reworked an idea – the genesis for The BFG came from a bedtime story told by Danny’s father about The Big Friendly Giant.