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DAHL THOUGHT BIOGRAPHIES were boring. He told me so
while munching on a lobster claw. I was twenty-four years old and had been
invited for the weekend to the author’s home in rural Buckinghamshire. Dinner
was in full swing. A mixture of family and friends were devouring a platter
brimming with seafood, while a strange object, made up of intertwined metal
links, made its slow way around the table. The links appeared inseparable, but
Dahl had told us all they could be separated quite easily by someone with
sufficient manual dexterity and spatial awareness. So far none of the guests
had been able to solve it. As I waited for the puzzle to come round to me, I
tried to respond to Roald’s disdain for biography. I mentioned Lytton Strachey,
Victoria Glendinning, Michael Holroyd. But he wasn’t having any of it. Sitting
in a high armchair, at the head of his long pine dining table, he leaned back,
took a swig from his large glass of Burgundy, and returned to his theme with
renewed relish. Biographers were dreary fact-collectors, he argued,
unimaginative people, whose books were usually as enervating as the lives of
their subjects. With a glint in his eye, he told me that many of the most
exceptional writers he had encountered in his life had been unexceptional as
human beings. Norman Mailer, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Mann and Dr. Seuss were, I
recall, each dismissed with a wave of his large hand, as tiresome, vain, dreary
or insufferable. He knew I loved music and perhaps that was why he also
mentioned Stravinsky. “An authentic genius as a composer,” he declared,
throwing back his head with a chuckle, “but otherwise quite ordinary.” He had
once had lunch with him, he added, so therefore he spoke from experience. I
tried to think of subjects whose lives were as vivid as their art: Mozart,
Caravaggio, Van Gogh perhaps? His intense blue eyes looked straight at me. That
wasn’t the point, he said. Why on earth would anyone choose to read an
assemblage of detail, a catalogue of facts, when there was so much good fiction
around as an alternative? Invention, he declared, was always more interesting
than reality.

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