Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
by Donald Sturrock
Published by Simon & Schuster/McLelland & Stewart
657 pages, 2010
Roald Dahl’s Biography a Giant Peach
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Roald Dahl, author of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and many others, died on November 23, 1990, exactly 20 years ago today. It is no coincidence that the first authorized biography of Dahl’s life should be published on this anniversary. But what a book... and what a life!
In a professional way, Donald Sturrock, author of Storyteller, is one of the leading living experts on Dahl’s work. For starters, he has been artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation since 1992. He has been director of multiple television adaptations of Dahl’s work for the BBC and, in 1998, he directed the world stage premiere of The Fantastic Mr. Fox at the Los Angeles Opera. And even though Sturrock has a pretty good idea of what Dahl would have thought of a biography of his life, the new author soldiered on and, in the end, delivers a remarkable, well considered and researched portrait of his mercurial subject. From the Preface:
Roald Dahl thought biographies were boring. He told me so while munching on a lobster claw. I was twenty-four years old and had been invited for the weekend to the author’s home in rural Buckinghamshire .... Biographers were dreary fact-collectors, he argued, unimaginative people, whose books were usually as enervating as the lives of their subjects. With a glint in his eye, he told me that many of the of the most exceptional writers he had encountered in his life had been unexceptional as human beings.
Even if that is true, it would not extend to Dahl himself whom everyone who ever knew would report as extraordinary. Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, his father died when he was just five. Despite this early liss, Dahl went on to be a British intelligence agent, ace fighter pilot, husband to a movie star, father and grandfather of authors and, of course, one of the top selling authors of all time in the English language.
Despite the remarkable life he led, in his own life, Dahl very rarely stuck to the facts. As with biography, facts bored him and he was constantly reinventing himself and embroidering on the truth. Hence the title: Storyteller was not merely what Dahl did, it was who he was.
While Storyteller has a frank and forthright feel and Sturrock addresses some of the darker facets of his subject’s life and personality, one gets the feeling that there is still more left unsaid. Storyteller is, after all, an authorized biography and as almost anyone can tell you, the trade-off for cooperation is often compromise.
Still, Sturrock’s lithe prose and obvious respect and caring for his subject combined with said subject’s remarkable life, make Storyteller a must-read for those who enjoy literary biography. All factors combined, this is one of the best. | November 2010
Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.