Don’t be upset by Dahl, just don’t read him

'When I heard he was antisemitic, my first response was: they couldn’t find a better writer?'

December 17, 2020 10:50

The whispered apology by Roald Dahl’s family for the late author’s well-known antisemitism left me in a bit of a flap. Dahl made no secret of his aversion to Jews. In 1983 he found something nice to say about the Holocaust when he told the New Statesman that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”. He justified himself with the usual equivocation: “I’m certainly anti-Israeli, and I’ve become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.” Thirty years after his death, on the company website, “the Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.”

So that’s all right, then?

Whenever a case like this arises, and it is a distressing occurrence, a cry goes up to ban the writer’s books from schools, libraries, supermarkets and private lavatories. Given the present fad for cancel culture, I’m surprised we haven’t seen bonfires of The BFG on Biggins Hill and a shredding of Matilda in Maidenhead (Dahl is soooo Home Counties). Perhaps they’re waiting until Covid is over, but let’s establish before we go any further that banning books is wrong. Always, anywhere, any kind of book, offline or on, it’s wrong. You don’t like it? Don’t read.

Dahl, so far as I recall, never mentioned Jews in his children’s stories, and I’m sure I would have noticed while reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my kids. On the other hand maybe not, given that I often dropped off and had to be prodded to finish. The kids loved him. I thought him a dull wordsmith with never enough colour to grip my attention. When I heard he was antisemitic, my first response was: they couldn’t find a better writer?

In my own childhood, working my way like woodworm through Stoke Newington Public Library, I did not tell anyone that some of the novels I was reading had antisemitic content. Dostoevsky, for starters, all the way through The Brothers Karamazov. Georges Simenon, the most atmospheric of crime writers, had Jews fluttering in the shadows, always up to no good.

I did not have far into The Thirty-Nine Steps to find a character ranting that “the Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him” or that “Jew-anarchists” were out to rule the world. G K Chesterton depicted Jews as greedy and cowardly. Agatha Christie had unpleasant things to say, things she asked her American publisher to remove in 1945, fearing reader backlash. Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was a member of the British Union of Fascists.

I read all of them before I was barmitzvah and I wasn’t harmed a bit, or even upset. If anything, I was rather reassured that there were so few good writers who hated Jews. Since Simenon and Christie could be read in an afternoon, I assumed that their glancing swipes would have no lasting effect. The one author who disturbed me, and greatly so, was Charles Dickens. An orphan myself, I identified intensely with Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and was outraged that Fagin, for all his tender concern for Oliver and Nancy, was Jewish and a child-exploiter.

I had my own adult name on a dozen book spines before I discovered that Dickens, at the time of writing Oliver, had never met a Jew in his life. When he eventually did, as I describe in Genius and Anxiety, he quickly agreed to Eliza Davis’s appeal to show Jews “as they really are”, inserting the saintly Mr Riah in his final novel, Our Mutual Friend. Fagin was a stereotype that he thoughtlessly perpetrated while writing to a tight deadline. Once I knew more about writing from the inside, I could also see how Anthony Trollope created the odious Melmotte in The Way We Live Now more as a figure of fun than an object of malice.

Other authors I admired fell into the same trap. George Orwell admitted a passing fancy for antisemitism. Graham Greene wrote in the 1930s of a “hooked nose” and “tasteless semitic opulence”. In March 1984 I spent a day with Greene, much of it taken up with discussing Talmud stories about Jesus. I understood that, like Dickens and Orwell, Greene never had much to do with Jews before.

I hate to mention Dahl beside creators of this calibre, but the same principle applies. A writer is no more than a conduit for whatever is being said around the café tables of the time. To ban a writer for being offensive is like criminalising coffee for keeping us awake. It’s part of the job description. Don’t like it? Move on.


December 17, 2020 10:50

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive