My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl / George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

IMG_1570 (2) Is it alright to say that Roald Dahl might have been a bit weird? Hard to know with a national treasure. His children’s books are the stuff of literary legend, of course. The education system has secured his place in the firmament: my daughter was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine for a Year Two school project last term, for instance. Dahl’s books for adults exhibit some of the same anarchist tendencies – lack of scruple, violence, transformation – but skewed for a post-watershed audience. This is where the problems begin. ‘You have an unsavoury predilection for the obscene,’ one character in My Uncle Oswald tells the hero (in this case, it’s an elastic term: he’s really a bit of a prick) Oswald Cornelius. You can’t help – dangerous game this, I know – feeling the same about the author. Oswald is a diary purporting to be written by the high-living Cornelius as he cuts a wealthy swathe through Europe in the late 1930s. This is not as much fun as you might hope. In fact, it’s not much fun, full stop. A fictional memoirist meeting real famous people offers up a lot of scope for entertainment. But not here. Oswald invents a sort of early Viagra, using the Sudanese Blister Beetle: Oswald’s Marvellous Medicine, if you like. He sells his little pills to very rich, well-connected men, who help to begin making his fortune. But the chance of even greater revenue beckons: his chemistry tutor at Cambridge, A. R. Woresley, has come up with a way of freezing sperm. Fellow student Yasmin Howcomely (well, Dahl did write the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, and obviously learnt a bit from Ian Fleming about female names) wants to get rich. To get Woresley to go along with his grand scheme, Oswald pimps out Yasmin to him. Yes, that’s right. Pimps out Yasmin to him. The idea is that the famous men – Einstein, Stravinsky, Manet, Freud, Henry Ford, various crowned heads of Europe and so on – will take the pill (in an innocently proferred chocolate truffle) and become frienziedly lustful for Yasmin. They will – there’s no other way of putting this – then sexually assault her and she will collect their sperm in an early condom. This will then be sold to rich women who will go through artificial insemination and end up with babies by geniuses. There is much jocular talk of rape. ‘Will he become violent?’ Yasmin asks in advance of her first encounter. ‘Just a tiny bit,’ replies Oswald. Gosh, what fun it all is. ‘I wish I knew judo,’ she says. ‘You’ll be alright,’ says Oswald. Yasmin, of course, says she ‘rather enjoys’ all of this physical abuse. ‘It tickles my fancy,’ she claims. Roger Graef’s documentary Police revealed the insensitivity of Thames Valley officers’ treatment of a rape victim in fly-on-the-wall style in prime time on BBC1. But that landmark – widely credited with changing police interview techniques and shaping public attitudes to the crime – was still three years away when Dahl published Oswald. Perhaps in 1979, rape sounded like more fun. But one doubts it. Interestingly, there is the vague possibility of evening things up a bit when Marcel Proust – or to give him his full name in this novel ‘raging hundred per cent fairy’ Marcel Proust – reveals his homosexuality, putting Oswald in the firing line. But no, obviously Yasmin must still do the business because Oswald refuses. He’s a man, after all. There are overlapping themes in the two books. For example, the physical wellbeing of George’s grumpy grandmother is (spoiler alert!) the cause of as little concern as Yasmin’s is for Oswald (although at least there’s no sex). George Kranky’s farmer father is interested in increasing yields in cattle, which was the very reason Worseley invented his process. Oswald – just a rather dull seeker after profit when it all comes down – is undone by a more or less predictable turn of the plot. And that’s that. Dahl is above all an odd author – it’s part of his power and a key to his popularity, particularly among children. They like odd, maybe because they tend not to get enough of it as well-meaning adults try to protect them from anything other. Many great novels for grown-ups have a similar approach: but even allowing for the mores of the time, Oswald is a tricky read today. George’s Marvellous Medicine has a lot more going for it.

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