Thursday, March 04, 2010

Power of the dahlesque

“‘It’s a Snozzwanger!’ cried the Chief of Police.
‘It’s a Whangdoodle!’ yelled the Head of the Fire Department.”

Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach, p. 141.

Finished this last night having not read it for at least 20 years – and was anyway more familiar with a fab dramatised version on tape from circa 1983. Young James is a lonely orphan living with two beastly aunts when a strange little man offers to transform his life. All James must do is brew up a tonic from a bag of fizzing green thingies. But in his excitement James trips over and the green things disappear… into the roots of the old, dead peach tree.

This, the first of Dahl’s books for children quickly establishes the form. There’s the grotesque and funny people and incidents, the love of word play, lists and rhymes, and the simple, vivid imagery. It’s an exciting, wild adventure, embracing strangeness and danger. But all sorts of things struck me reading it now that never struck me back then.

James, unlike many of Dahl’s later heroes, is exceedingly good. He never does anything even a little naughty. He’s less consumed with a thirst for adventure than a wish for other children to play with and perhaps the odd trip to a beach. He appears feels no savage thrill of revenge – or indeed anything at all – when his horrid aunts are splatted. And we constantly see his good manners – he helps the creepy crawlies no matter how daft or difficult they are, he freely shares the peach flesh with the children of New York and he holds open house in his peach-stone home.

Yet, like many of the heroes to follow, James is smart and resourceful. He knows all the answers when needed, able to identify America from its skyscrapers and to put names to Cloud Men and rainbow-paint. (He might just be saying what he sees there, but his naming comes with authority and is taken up by the other characters.) He’s also the one who comes up with all the plans for getting the peachers out of peril.

I was conscious reading the book again of the comment on my post about Matilda, that Dahl,
“clearly had some issues with women”.

Mr K, 1 February 2010.

And I simply don’t agree. Yes, there’s the two grotesque aunties, but they’re balanced by the kind and nurturing Ladybird, Spider and Glow-Worm. As in plenty of Dahl, there’s much to be said about good parents – both the Mum and the Dad. The loss of James’ parents is what starts this story; in others its bad parents that drive things. Think of the spoiled children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or of Matilda’s philistine crooks. But there are examples of good parent-figures and bad – in Matilda there’s Miss Honey and the women at the library – and the good ones can be silly, difficult and even spiteful. For dashed off sketches of character, they’re rather rounded characters.

In fact, I’d dare suggest that one might accuse Fawlty Towers similar “issues with women”, because the female roles are so exaggerated and mad. But it’s true of the men too. The twisted worldview is not gender specific

The number of distinct voices in the book is an issue if you’re reading it aloud. There’s James, his two aunts and seven giant creepy-crawlies to begin with. Then there’s the crew of a ship in the mid-Atlantic (I made them all posh), the Cloud Men and – just as you reach the finale – a whole bunch of Jen-yoo-ine Noo-yor-kerz. (The Dr asked me, please, to stop doing those.)

These distinct characters have complex inter-relationships. The Earthworm and Centipede bicker the whole time, the Spider has spent her life living with human prejudice, while the Ladybird ends up marrying the (human) Head of the Fire Department - a few pages after we’d seen him cowering at the sight of her. That’s almost like something from Torchwood, the odd juxtaposition made part of the happy ending, with no judgement passed or comment on the impracticalities.

There’s a great swathe of coincidence and good fortune involved – but having had his parents eaten by an escaped rhino and then ending up with aunts Sponge and Spiker, I suppose it could be argued that James’ luck had to drastically improve. It’s almost a return to the mean.

But that’s not quite the point. The book celebrates the visceral and strange. The peach itself is a Freudian paradise, all soft flesh and soppingly juicy. The simple, vivid imagery is constantly arresting, Dahl’s world lurid and tactile.

That’s aided by Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which have been added to more recent versions. I don’t remember the original book too well so am less affronted here by the replacement of earlier pictures by another artist. But my memories of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator are indelibly tied up with Joseph Schindelman’s worm-like vermicious Knids - a formative strangeness in my early childhood, now sadly lost from new editions. (The Knids get a mention on p. 142 of James and the Giant Peach.)

There’s little to suggest the book is 50 years old, just a reference to the King of Spain not being on the Spanish throne (as he was before 1976). Perhaps a more recent book would shy away from kids freely accepting strange gifts from even stranger little men, or of mixing up and drinking down fizzing “magic” potions (something I remember being levelled at George’s Marvellous Medicine when it was first published).

A book written in the last nine years might also ditched the arresting image of the peach hanging above New York like a gigantic bomb while the President eats his cereal. The bomb then drops because a plane crashes into it.

A wild and witty madcap adventure that has stood the test of time. (We’re onto Fantastic Mr Fox next.)


Tara O'Shea said...

Have you read/re-read Mary Poppins yet? It puts the recut Disney trailer into perspective...

0tralala said...

No, never read but will take the tip. Only problem is it might be too scary for herself's bedtime story. Has got to be all about the chillax or it doesn't work.

Garpu said...

That was one of my favorites...having had bad parents, I could relate as a kid, and I"d secretly pretend that a stairwell leading into our basement was a peach pit house.