Roald Dahl's "Boy"

A very nice habit we picked up from Liz's parents was her dad reading to her mom. We've adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I'm an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we've decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there's an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl's memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It's well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn't sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I've never seen before, in a place I've never been before, saying things I've never heard before.

Boy covers Dahl's first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It's a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: "Why aren't they using anesthetic, for God's sake?!?"

But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, "they do things differently there." On the occasions where a serious operation is needed--his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on--the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and '30s, and one was simply expected to take it.

Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone's caned bottom and admiring the housemaster's technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.

It's an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.

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