“What’s a will, Daddy?” That’s my five-year-old two-thirds of the way through reading Matilda, Roald Dahl’s classic story of a precocious girl with mentalist tendencies. There are many words in Roald Dahl’s oeuvre which are difficult to translate from the swatchcollop and bogglebox of The BFG to the Whangdoodles and Vermicious Knids is in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its sequel. But a will, as in the document by which Magnus Honey, the father of Matilda’s kindly teacher Jenny Honey, left his daughter his assets before he was murdered by his sister-in-law (and his daughter’s boss, Agatha Trunchbull, was the one that stopped me in my tracks.
A will, I explained, is something you write so when you die so people know what to do with your stuff. My son paused then asked, stuttering as kids his age do when their desire to say something outstrips the form of what they’re trying to say “Dad…um…dad…dad, um, what will we do with all your stuff when you die?”
There are many ways to read Roald Dahl but here are four. I was first introduced to Dahl as a child, with books like Matilda, James and The Giant Peach, The Twits, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One reads these with interest and just a sense of foreboding. Then you grow up a little and open to Dahl’s darker work. As a teenager, I remember the thrill of finding the Roald Dahl Omnibus, a thick hardcover compendium of stories about wife-swapping (“The Great Switcheroo”), a frenzied fuck fest (“Bitch”) and the flesh trade (“Skin“). Woah, one thinks. Then, one reads about Roald Dahl. Through the pages of his harrowing memoirs Boy and Going Solo, both of which are strewn with horrific and sadistic abuse, one begins to see how the magic hitherto read is underpinned by trauma. And finally, as I am doing now, one reads, or rather re-reads, Roald Dahl to one’s own children. At each level, the tall dark Dahl’s stories refract light differently.
Matilda is our second foray into the Dahl universe. Technically, it’s our third. I attempted to read The BFG to the boys a year ago but they were too terrified from the very first chapter, “The Witching Hour.” “It gives me nightmares,” said my three-year-old. So we read Tomi Ungerer’s saturnine classic Moon Man instead.
Our first successful completion was James and the Giant Peach. I remember how peaceful it seemed to me as a child it would be to float above the world in a large, soft, fragrant stone fruit. But even this fantastical tale, I was quickly reminded when I reread it aloud, begins with the death of young James’ parents and his eventual adoption by two terribly cruel aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. It takes a long time to work through their abuse of James before we get to the peach.
And it was during these chapters that my audience began asking the questions that shook me in their innocence. My children knew parents could die. That they could accept, with sadness of course. But that adults could exist as mean-spirited and abusive as the Aunts did not compute. “Why,” they wondered, “were they so mean to James?” “What did he do to them?” asked my eldest.
Inadvertently, I had opened a world in which a child’s own family could be the source of suffering. Hitherto we had dwelt in a world of Runaway Bunny and Guess How Much I Love You?. Even in books which contain parental conflict, the so-called cruelty had had a cause. In the case of The Boy Who Cried Ninja, Tim’s parents made Tim water the garden because they thought he was lying. Also, watering the garden is kinda fun.
But in the Dahl world, the reason adults are crummy to kids has nothing to do with the kid and everything to do with the sadistic nature of adults. For a kid, this uneasy discombobulation is equally intriguing and discomfiting. As I read page after page of what is essentially child abuse, let alone murder and incidences of untimely passing, I could choose to soften or dampen Dahl’s language. Perhaps, for instance, when Trunchbull plucks poor Rupert from his chair in Matilda, I could skip over the part when, holding him, she lets loose this fusillade of abuse:
“You ignorant little slug!” the Trunchbull bellowed. “You witless weed! You empty-headed hamster! You stupid glob of glue!”
Absolutely none of those words — except perhaps glob of glue — are allowed in our house. Or a few pages later, there’s a temptation to skip over an extended section in which Trunchbull victimizes a young boy named Eric for what seems like hours with a tiger-like patience and ferocity:
“I don’t understand,” Eric said. “What do you want me to spell?”
“Spell what, you idiot! Spell the word ‘what’!”
“W . . . O . . . T,” Eric said, answering too quickly. There was a nasty silence. “I’ll give you one more chance,” the Trunchbull said, not moving.
“Ah yes, I know,” Eric said. “It’s got an H in it. W . . . H . . . O . . . T. It’s easy.”
Things don’t end well for Eric. And I can see my boys quail just imagining the scene. Yet at the same time, the spirit of Dahl restrains me. For what endears him and so many authors like him, but him most of all, to children is his refusal to look away from how terrifyingly cruel adults can be. For me, when I was their age, that admixture of terror and thrill with which I consumed his words also imbued words with their permanent magic. You don’t just read Dahl, you mainline the English language. So I read every idiot and stupid, elongate the moments of sadism dramatically. I know all shall be resolved eventually, that revenge shall be enacted by a little person against the world.
But of course, there’s a self-interested part as well. After spending 30 minutes in the company of the Wormwoods or the Twits or the Aunts Sponge and Spiker, my kids are a little bit quicker to return my “I love you” than before. Who knows if the visions of Dahl’s dystopia haunts their dreams. But at least when they awake, they’ll know how lucky they are for not every child has a father who thinks they’re gloriumptious human beans.