In 1988, a year before I was born, my mum interviewed Roald Dahl for a BBC radio programme. Going by memory of her memory of him, he was almost a caricature of a misanthrope; a crotchety old man who spent all his time in his garden shed (in his case though, writing stories that brought elated terror to generations of children).
But, I remember her saying he was perfectly polite to her. Plus, she was struck by his empathy for and understanding of children. He certainly didn’t hesitate to sign a copy of Matilda for my sister – nine at the time – who was an enormous fan of his books. We still have this in the family, and it reads, “To Ruth, with love, Roald Dahl”. With a name like Ruth Margolis, Dahl must have known he was signing a book for a Jewish kid. Either that or, as seems to be the age-old tradition with anti-Semites, he’d never knowingly met a Jew and was completely ignorant about everything from our culture to our names.
I could speculate infinitely over whether the author knew he was being kind to a Jew. He’s dead now, and so is my mum. All that’s left of their interaction is a short message in a book and an interview upon which neither party can comment. The only indisputable fact is that Dahl was an anti-Semite. One of the virulent variety, in fact (how come you never seem to come across mild anti-Semites?). This week it was revealed that, in 2014, the Royal Mint rejected plans for a Roald Dahl commemorative coin, because the guy was just too racist. As well as literally declaring himself an anti-Semite in an interview with the Independent, Dahl told the New Statesman, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
Holocaust denial is one thing, but actual justification for the industrialised murder of Jews? Wow.
The question of how/whether we should separate artists from their art is persistent to the point of being a little bit of a nag. Especially with the #MeToo movement, it seems like we’re constantly being asked just how shitty an individual needs to be before we boycott their entire oeuvre. I know many women who – like me – used to be fans of the likes of Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K, and can now barely justify finding them funny in the first place. For me, the biggest art/artist battle has been with Woody Allen. As heinous a human being as he is, I can’t just stop loving Annie Hall. When I look through my bank of “problematic faves”, I reach a point of resignation.
As far as anti-Semitism is concerned though, British literary classics are riddled with it. From Shakespeare to Dickens, it’s hard to find non-Jewish writers from history who portrayed Jews as anything other than Shylocks and Fagins. Sure, most of these artists were products of their time, and someone like Dahl – who was alive to see the Holocaust – should have known better. But Dahl, at the very least, didn’t seem to let his anti-Semitism infect his work. I’m struggling to think of any of his incredibly nasty characters who might have been implicitly Jewish. Dahl’s misogyny, on the other hand, was far less well hidden. Although it’s still one of my favourite things he wrote, The Witches is about as subtle in its woman-hating as a slap on the arse from a cigar-puffing male boss.
But Dahl wasn’t the only racist writer I grew up with. Off the top of my head, Enid Blyton (who depicted golliwogs in her books) and Rudyard Kipling (British imperialism’s poet lauriate) were also present in my bookcase of deplorables. As with Dickens and Shakespeare, these are instances of the authors’ terrible opinions actually seeping into their writing. And, if I had a kid, I’d have no particular desire to read them any Kipling or Blyton. Dahl, on the other hand, I’d be seriously reluctant to deprive them of. In fact, I’ve already bought The Twits and Matilda for my niece and nephew. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes in The Twits, “it begins to show on the face”. Perhaps he considered himself an ugly man. Either way, his novels were such an explosively imaginative part of my childhood, I don’t think I could censor them from someone else’s. My inner battle with him, in fact, is quite similar to my one with the Labour Party, and its anti-Semitic underbelly. Love the policies, hate the people.
But if I do have a kid who grows up loving Roald Dahl as much as I did, I hope they wonder what sort of a person the author was. Just so they can know the truth. Just so I can say, “Sorry sweetie, he was a total bastard.”