If you somehow grew into adulthood without reading Roald Dahl, I pity you. His children's works include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The BFG. All have been adapted into movies, but the novels themselves are even better.
Dahl fills his books with magic, excitement, his trademark dark humor, and his preoccupation with delicious morsels. This recipe resonates with children, but also makes for a delightful adult novel.
One of the best examples of this mix happens in My Uncle Oswald, one of Dahl’s lesser-known adult works.
In the novel, the titular Oswald chronicles his adventures in his never-before-seen diaries. Oswald tells the reader how he discovered ‘blister beetle’ — the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world — and used to make pressed pills that he sold to powerful men and women in Paris.
Spurred on to make even more wealth, Oswald teams up with the genius scientist, A. R. Worseley, and the femme fatal, Yasmine Howcomely, to dupe famous and genius men out of their semen, which they plan to sell to wealthy women who want to have genius children.
Risque subject matter for a man who has entertained generations of 5th graders with a story about chocolate.
However, Dahl keeps his signature style throughout this adult novel, showcasing his ability to blend children’s themes with adult ones.
The fantastical takes center stage in much of Dahl’s work. His most famous novels involve a magical chocolate factory, an abnormally large stone fruit, and a young witch. In My Uncle Oswald, Dahl’s fantastical imagination takes a naughty turn. Here, he describes the over-the-top and downright magical reaction to the aphrodisiac known as the ‘blister beetle:’
Precisely nine minutes later, my whole body went rigid. I began to gasp and gurgle. I froze where I was sitting […] this period of paralysis lasted only a few seconds. Then I felt […] a burning sensation in the region of my groin. (26)
Throughout the novel, the blister beetle’s effects take place like clockwork, exactly nine minutes after consumption. The beetle transforms a man (or woman) into an aggressive lover capable of thinking of nothing but carnal desire.
A Dark Sense of Humor
Dahl is often noted for the darkness of his works, too. Many of his child protagonists take morbid revenge on their tormentors. In fact, Dahl loves to see a rotten character get their just desserts. The darkness of his writing is offset with a light humor to keep the reader from despair.
In My Uncle Oswald, the plot itself is rather dark — using a drug to steal men’s sperm.
It’s a clear sexual violation. However, the writing is kept so light that it’s hard to be stern with Dahl. There’s sexual slapstick and parodies of some of the most famous writers, painters, and kings.
And the twist at the end is classic Dahl.
It’s no surprise that the man who wrote a famous novel about a confectionery factory is obsessed with food.
One of the many things I love about Dahl’s writing is his descriptions of tasty snacks, and how he uses them to tell you something about the characters.
For example, Oswald is spurred to acquire great wealth, it seems, simply to keep eating like a king. He is obsessed with wine, fine meats, and, of course, chocolate. Oswald often distracts himself from his own tale to recount the sumptuous food and drink he partakes in as he travels Europe with Yasmine.
The lobsters were huge and delicious, with enormous claws. The Chablis was good too — a Grand Cru Bougros. I have a passion for a fine Chablis, not only for the steely-dry Grand Crus but also for some of the Premiers Crus where the fruit is a little closer to the surface. This particular Bougros was as steely as any I had ever tasted. […]
…as I polished off the last lobster claw — and by the way, don’t you love it when you are able to draw the flesh of the claw out of the shell whole and pinky-red in one piece? There is some kind of tiny personal triumph in that. I may be childish, but I experience a similar triumph when I succeed in getting a walnut out of its shell without breaking it in two. As a matter of fact, I never approach a walnut without this particular ambition in mind. Life is more fun if you play games. But back to Yasmin. (163)
This kind of distraction by his food it quite typical for Oswald, a self described sybarite. He seems less impressed by the many famous men they meet than by his own knowledge of wines.
And, of course, the chocolate that Oswald and Yasmine use to drug their victims:
I opened a drawer and produced a box of chocolate truffles. Each was identical. Each was the size of a small marble. They were supplied to me by Prestat, the great chocolateers of Oxford Street, London. (115)
Oh, and if you were curious, that’s a real chocolateer who you can acquire your own confections from.
When Oswald disapproves of food, he disapproves heavily, which — if we had to guess — Dahl probably did, too.
At seven p.m. we sat down to the evening meal. It was boiled tripe with onions. I consider this to be the second most repulsive dish in the entire world. The most repulsive dish is something that is eaten with gusto by jackaroos on sheep-stations in Australia. (16)
Oswald then goes on to spend another paragraph and at least half a page to describe the most repulsive dish in the world.
These are just a few of the key techniques that make Roald Dahl one of the most beloved English language authors. Writers who enjoyed his work as children will undoubtedly enjoy this adult novel and seeing how Dahl’s style adapts to adult content.
The fact that Dahl wrote my favorite books growing up made My Uncle Oswald all the more delightfully naughty.
Dahl rightfully gets praise for his short stories — they are on a whole more forceful pieces of literature — but My Uncle Oswald is wrongfully ignored. Its lightness packs less punch than his short stories, but this underrated read fills the adult reader with childish glee then adds a layer of explicitly adult themes on top.