It’s been a while since I’ve written about Roald Dahl. My posts on him have been largely critical and I may, just may, have given the impression that I don’t like him.
I don’t like the guy, but I do like the author. I couldn’t have written so much about him if I didn’t, which is probably what wise people mean when they say ‘love is close to hate’.
So this post is about what drew me to Dahl; it’s an analysis of his short story Neck. What makes this particular story interesting is, like Grammatisator and ultimately The Witches, it shows that Dahl was able to see beyond the shallow-minded propaganda which he drank in gulps most of the time.
If you wonder what I mean by that, please read my posts on Dahl’s knee-jerk anti-German prejudices, his patronage by Charles Marsh and FDR, his willingness to subvert democracy to save democracy… all the usual elitist double-think.
Sometimes, in the dead of night, when nobody important was looking, Roald Dahl crept down to his writing shed and toyed with the forbidden knowledge of conspiracy, ethnicity, the supernatural… all things that an enlightened man of the 20th century knows don’t exist. Roald Dahl is the archetypical storm-trooper who yearns to join the resistance; a slave stealing peeks at freedom.
So, on to Neck!
Sir Basil Turton, a rich publishers’ heir on the verge of middle-age, comes into his fortune. He’s a reluctant newspaperman (yes, that’s right!) with the power to topple the British government. Still single, this malleable bachelor is suddenly the most eligible man in London, and every young lady has their claws out. Basil is totally helpless, having spent most of his life in quiet country living and bookish pursuits.
Then, out of the blue a foreigner snares him; he’s married in a trice. His foreign wife ‘cheats’ with this hasty marriage, because she snags him in August, when every well-bred contender is on vacation.
You can imagine that the London ladies were indignant, and naturally they started disseminating a vast amount of fruity gossip about the new Lady Turton (“That dirty poacher,” they called her).
I side with the English Roses. Dahl does too. When I first read this story, I wasn’t expecting Dahl to agree with me: I’ve gotten used to ‘right-think’ in everything and, clearly, the marriage market should be global. Roald’s breaking step was refreshing and suddenly the story got interesting– for me anyway.
So, the new Lady Turton is a foreigner, but what type of foreigner? No one really knows, and in that at least, Dahl seems to have taken a page out of Bulgakov’s book. You’ll remember that in Bulgakov’s writing, spies and the devil Woland are often of nebulous, ‘foreign’ origins. This is how Dahl puts it:
… what made her [Lady Turton's] case unusual was the fact that she was a foreigner and that nobody seemed to know precisely what country she came from, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria or Russia?
Could Dahl be drawing on his wartime espionage experience through the character of Lady Turton? Is he commenting on the spook-talent-pool? Could he and Bulgakov have noticed something similar? Neck was first published in 1953 by– you guessed it– Alfred Knopf, the famous New York publishing magnate who Dahl lampooned in Grammatisator. It’s possible that an English version of The Fatal Eggs made it into Dahl’s hands, though Master and Margarita wasn’t published in Russian until 1967. It’s likely, therefore, that these men drew their own conclusions separately.
Dahl liked to focus on noses and mouths to convey aspects of character. His description of the new Lady Turton is masterful and typical in this respect:
The nostrils for example were very odd, somehow more open, more flaring than any I had seen before, and excessively arched. This gave the whole nose a kind of open, snorting look that had something of the wild animal about it- the mustang.
Art is the running theme through this story; art describes Basil’s life and the the woman he married is artful. It’s fitting that glamorous Lady Turton be compared to a painting:
The hair was black, and to go with it she had one of those pale, oval, innocent fifteenth-century Flemish faces, almost exactly a Madonna by Memling or Van Eyck. At least that was the first impression. Later, when my turn came to shake hands, I got a closer look and saw that except for the outline and colouring it wasn’t really a Madonna at all– far, far from it.
And the eyes, when I saw them close, were not wide and round the way the Madonna painters used to make them, but long and half closed, half smiling, half sullen, and slightly vulgar, so that in one way or another they gave her a most delicately dissipated air. What’s more, they didn’t look at you directly. They came to you slowly from over on one side with a curious sliding motion that made me nervous. I tried to see their colour, thought it was pale grey, but couldn’t be sure.
And her deportment…
She was clearly conscious of her success and of the way these Londoners were deferring to her. “Here I am, ” she seemed to be saying, “and I only came over a few years ago, but already I am richer and more powerful than any of you.” There was a little prance of triumph in her walk.
The new Lady Turton is a thoroughly nasty character, and she makes Sir Basil’s life equally nasty by treating him with contempt and parading lovers in front of him. She takes over the publishing business, naturally.
How do we, the readers, know all of this? The narrator, a thinly veiled version of Dahl himself, is a gossip columnist who wheedles an invitation to Sir Basil’s home from the Lady. This set-up is a variation on the ‘dinner guest’ theme that Dahl used for Taste, and many of the same observations apply.
The narrator knows as soon as he steps inside Sir Basil’s home that something is off. The butler likes to gamble and sell information about his mistress. Sir Basil’s modern art looks out of place in the English Renaissance stone mansion. Sir Basil himself is surrounded by his wife, her lover and her stocky, lesbian friend Carmen La Rosa. The Lady greets the narrator with a threat, and ‘Dahl’ feels instant comradery with the long-suffering Sir Basil.
I’ll cut to the chase. Sir Basil gets back at his wife, in a fashion. He achieves this through his art collection, so more on that now.
There are three modern artists who get the spotlight in this story: Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It’s Epstein’s work in particular that looks out of place in Sir Basil’s country pile. The narrator mentions Gaudier-Brzeska just as Sir Basil notices his Lady making love to somebody else in the garden (she reveals her true nature). The lady gets her head stuck in a Henry Moore while kissing her lover. Sir Basil fetches an axe– to break the statue or to chop off her head?
I see interesting symbolism here. Gaudier Brzeska was a hugely influential sculptor and part of the Vorticist movement, made famous by Ezra Pound in his treatise on the artist. Gaudier Brzeska’s death in WWI is what Pound says lead him to ask the political questions which eventually got the poet accused of treason after WWII. That aside, Gaudier Brzeska’s art sought to strip away the artful and expose true form. It’s beautiful work; it unmasks the unfaithful lady.
Jacob Epstein was an Jewish-American transplant to the U.K., who was also associated with the Vorticist movement, but who found some success and patronage amongst the class of people ‘Sir Basil’ belonged to. He is particularly famous for his bust of controversial figure Paul Robeson. Epstein’s artwork is out-of-place on an English country estate, yet Sir Basil is surrounded by it.
Henry Moore is the most famous of the three and held socialist views. ‘Socialism’ is a term almost as abused as ‘fascism’; but for Moore that meant selling his art at a discount so that the less fortunate could enjoy it. (He could easily afford to!) Moore’s generous acts have not always elicited a generous response from those he would enlighten, however, he was the son of a coal-miner and I believe that he probably did have genuine love for the lower classes. Lady Tuton gets herself stuck playing with his work, which is easy for any rich socialist to do!
Sadly, Sir Basil destroys the Moore rather than his wife, but he does win a small victory in doing so. I’m left thinking that his wife will be slightly tamer in the future, now that she’s been named.
Neck uses the same tricks that I’ve come to expect from a Dahl adult-short: lots of direct conversation, gossipy tone, all the go-to imagery. However, Neck was the first time I saw dissension by Dahl in a grown-up story. FDR, Intrepid and Charles Marsh would not be amused.