I hope you all don’t mind a bit of a digression.
I have to suspect that, for others as well as for me, watching the debate about VS Naipaul and the latest go-round of the Wagner question on the Internet the past week has been tiring and lame. It’s a little like watching someone discover death way too publicly and way too late in life. It’s not that you lack sympathy for what the person is going through, not at all. It’s just that the public airing of those growing pains, by adults, can’t help but appear vulgar and crass. Yes, it’s true. Naipaul’s an asshole. Gauguin was a monster. The guy who wrote Ender’s Game is a lunatic and Phil Spector shot a woman in the face. Film at eleven.
And now Alex Carnavale is making the case against Roald Dahl, not a genius, but indeed something of a monster. I don’t much care for Roald Dahl. I find the playfulness of his writing mannered and I find the darkness that attends his work, however better than the sunny bullshit that animates most children’s literature, to be dishonest in its unearned prurience. But I do believe that there was an admirable precision in when and where that darkness was deployed. Despite what Carnavale says, many children’s authors employ cruelty and perverse sexuality in their work, however obliquely. Few recognize just when to do so with the consistency of Dahl.
It’s not every day I read an essay that provokes me to say of an anti-Semite and woman hater “this guy deserved better.” Carnavale “accuses” Dahl and his work of being macabre, unpleasant, and filled with unhealthy sexuality, which is a little like accusing Hemingway of being terse. Carnavale knows that this is the point of Roald Dahl, but can’t let anything get in the way of his argument Or perhaps I should say, get in the way of his observations. The post is researched the way a junior high school student researches a report about the tides: the act is accumulation, not construction.
It’s not Carnavale’s failure of imagination that animates his post, so much as the limpness of his conviction. He’s prosecuting the case against Dahl the person, and doing it as much with showy innuendo as with the plain, lamentable facts of Dahl’s misogyny and anti-Semitism. Carnavale claims that Dahl “began giving money away in earnest to hospitals in order to increase the likelihood of [being knighted] – indeed, he always had a selfish reason for doing anything benevolent.” Don’t ask how he could possibly know this; Carnavale Knows. The record of Dahl’s bad behavior and noxious attitudes is widely available and fairly well known, despite the breathless, “look at the truths I’m showing you” tone with which the post is written. Why muddy the waters with this kind of supposition? Carnavale, writing about Dahl’s distaste for Salman Rushdie, says that Dahl’s “real jealousy likely oriented around the fact that Rushdie had won a Booker Prize and he hadn’t.” Clairvoyance is unnecessary when the target is as obviously flawed as Dahl. Stuff like this only makes Carnavale seem grasping.
The problem is that he’s at once willing to pull Dahl’s work into his critique whenever it suits him, but fails to assess the writing in any kind of responsible way. We’re supposed to believe that Dahl’s work was made much better, or at least much more palatable, by editors who ruthlessly cut Dahl’s racist and misogynist passages, but there’s very little in the way of evidence to back up this conviction. I don’t doubt that the cuts took place, but to assert their importance to Dahl’s reputation requires so much more of a consideration of the work itself. Perhaps the obvious connection– that Dahl’s writing was given its strangeness and power by the same forces that made Dahl such an asshole– is a little too obvious. Perhaps it’s a little too cute. But I can’t give Carnavale credit for resisting the idea because he so clearly needs it, the implication of it, to give his essay a backbone. As it stands, the piece is a long litany of insults about a long-dead man, interspersed by the occasional tiptoe towards the line of a thesis and quick retreat. This isn’t an essay; it is a catalog mixed with commentary that can’t quite decide to articulate itself.
Character assassination, particularly when undertaken against people who are dead, should be concise, almost parenthetical; Carnavale achieves only a grind. The essay reads as nothing more than someone’s attempt to be praised as thorough. And if you’re seeking a particular reaction online, especially in a venue as meticulously curated for a particular (and particularly sympathetic) audience as This Recording, you’re going to get it, so you might aim higher than “you’ve really done your homework here, son.” If you’re in the mood for hearing advice: if you can name precisely what kind of reactions you’d like a piece you’re thinking of writing to engender, don’t write it. Carnavale is trying his hand at a sort of blank vindictiveness, and I suppose he imagines that his criticism is magnified by its monotonous and willfully disinterested voice. To me, it sounds like a teenager trying very hard to speak in an affected monotone.
I’ll tell you, friends, that I had no particular ill feelings towards this essay, beyond the familiar feeling that someone on the Internet is punching above his weight, until the very end. That’s where Carnavale inevitably drops the other shoe. The twist, such as it is, is that Carnavale has some regard for Dahl’s work and what it once meant for him:
I still remember squinting against the glare of a flashlight at my copy of Danny the Champion of the World, feeling the first true wonder of a story whose outcome I could not possibly anticipate. Dahl’s books teach us that the world is a horrible, bigoted place, full of those who wish us ill. It is precisely because he attempted themes that other children’s authors never even touched that his fantasies stand out so much in a crowded room.
The cumulative effect of these horror stories on me was unpleasant. Dahl’s oeuvre, which I consumed with great fervor, illuminated a terrible side of my childhood, one I might rather have been indoctrinated in later on. The fact that the world is full of such misery is not a consoling idea at that age. But so what? To be so gifted and yet so full of disdain for others was Dahl’s problem, not my own. His creations reflect that self-hatred, but if they did not, they would not be honest explications of a cruel and merciless world.
It’s true: life is irredeemably tragic. To treat this fact or an artist’s relationship to it as a mere opportunity to drop a zinger is inexcusable. The insult of Carnavale’s piece is that he lacks the courage to indict himself in his relationship with Dahl. If Carnavale wanted to write a piece about his difficult relationship with a difficult author, it would be one thing. Such an essay might be commonplace but I would read it with interest. But to twist the knife so late, to drop the takeaway so casually, gives the lie to the whole damn show. Talk about the man, or talk about his work, or talk about how he has influenced you, but when you indict him don’t seek cover in a last minute reversion to “but I’m a fan.” Timidity in criticism is rarely good, though restraint always is. But to be tentative in conclusion after being ruthless in commission, and in the service of preciousness, is unforgivable. Even for all of it, Dahl’s work deserves better.