Tag Archives: Esio Trot

A love story, a hate story, and a grieving Roald Dahl

"He had loved her from his balcony for many years, but he was a very shy man and he had never been able to bring himself to give her even the smallest hint of his love."

I’ve been loving this little project of ours, reading through all the books we can find by Roald Dahl. When I bought Esio Trot from Book City, the woman smiled at me as she rang up the sale and said, “Oh, this is a great little love story.”

And it is.

Dumpy, balding, middle-aged Mr. Hoppy lives for two things: the potted plants on his balcony, and the splendid Mrs. Silver — “sweet and gentle and full of kindness” — who lives one floor below, fussing over her tiny pet tortoise Alfie. But Mr. Hoppy is too shy to profess his love for Mrs. Silver, and makes do with years of small talk and fleeting glimpses until one bright day in May, when Mrs. Silver confesses she’s worried Alfie isn’t growing fast enough. “Try to think how miserable it must make him feel to be so titchy! Everyone wants to grow up … I’d give anything to see it happen.”

Mr. Hoppy sees his chance, and gets scheming. He teaches Mrs. Silver a chant in “tortoise language,” a series of backwards words to be muttered to Alfie morning, noon and night. “Worg pu, ffup pu, toohs pu! … In a few months’ time, he’ll be twice as big as he is now.”

Then he visits every pet shop in the city, and buys up their supply of tortoises. Each week, he steals a “titchy” tortoise and replaces it with one just two ounces bigger. And just as a parent doesn’t notice her child growing steadily day by day until suddenly the clothes don’t fit, so Mrs. Silver doesn’t notice Alfie’s girth until he is too big to get through the door of his tortoise house. Of course, Mr. Hoppy has a chant to fix that too: teg a tib rellams, a tib rellams.

How could Mrs. Silver fail to fall for such a clever man? (She doesn’t realize just how clever he is — deceptively so, and cleverly deceptive — but that’s another matter.)

Carl van Vechten portrait of Neal and Dahl. Patricia Neal said in People Magazine, March 1997: "Over the years, I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald – who died in 1990 – couldn't say a word.... It was locked inside him."

In a way, Esio Trot is the flip side of The Twits, which was a kind of hate story rather than a love story, and saw Mr. Twit shaving away bits of Mrs. Twit’s cane so that eventually she came to believe she had “the shrinks.” It makes me wonder what kind of a practical joker (or worse?) Dahl himself was in his day. Certainly his love life got complicated. He was married for 30 years to the actress Patricia Neal, and they came through many tragedies as a family: in 1960, their son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab, and the baby suffered a brain injury; two years later, with Theo still vulnerable, their 7-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis; in 1965, a pregnant Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms, and sank into a coma for weeks. She delivered the child safely, and Dahl became very involved in her rehabilitation, but their marriage, apparently always turbulent, was never the same.

These horrific events took place within a mere five years, while Dahl’s career as a children’s writer was just getting going. I wonder how he coped, and how writing played a role. A couple of years ago, when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, I put my pen down the day I got the news. I got up from my desk and left everything just where it was for weeks. I couldn’t return to it right away, not even to close things up or to tidy. It was as if everything was suspended. But there came a time I needed to return, and though it wasn’t me who was sick, writing was my medicine.

The Guardian calls Dahl "a tricky customer for a biographer.... Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite. Tempered by the desire to be very wealthy, he was able to finesse this native nastiness into a series of compelling books for children who loved to see their anarchic inner world caught on paper. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Matilda all do the work of contemporary folktales, allowing young readers to stray into some very dark places and still get home in time for tea."

Dahl was writing James and the Giant Peach when Theo was injured in 1960; and he was revising Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Olivia contracted measles. Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl recounts this period in detail. It’s almost unbearable to read about the father wrapping his daughter in an eiderdown and carrying her to the ambulance. Harder still is a passage written by Dahl himself, meticulously documenting Olivia’s decline. “I sat in hall. Smoked. Felt frozen. A small single bar electric fire on wall. An old man in next room. Woman doctor went to phone. She was trying urgently to locate another doctor. He arrived. I went in. Olivia lying quietly. Still unconscious. She has an even chance, doctor said.” And later: “Got to hospital. Walked in. Two doctors advanced on me from waiting room. How is she? I’m afraid it’s too late. I went into her room. Sheet was over her. Doctor said to nurse go out. Leave him alone. I kissed her. She was warm. I went out. ‘She is warm.’ I said to doctors in hall, ‘Why is she so warm?’ ‘Of course,’ he said. I left.”

According to Sturrock, the account was written in a notebook labeled OLIVIA and tucked in a drawer. It was found 28 years later, when Dahl himself had died. One can only speculate as to why he wrote it, and why in that clinical style. I suspect that no words seem powerful enough to express such profound grief, so rather than document the impossible emotions, he documented the facts that stood out to him — both to get them out of himself, and to preserve the last moments of his daughter’s life.

We’re in a bit of a lull right now, as we need to go Dahl-shopping, but this is how our list looks so far:

The Gremlins
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
The Twits
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The BFG
The Witches
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Matilda
Esio Trot
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Minpins
Revolting Rhymes
Dirty Beasts
Rhyme Stew

I’m adding three more — Dahl’s autobiographies Boy: Tales of  Childhood, Going Solo and My Year— because I’m sure it will be interesting for both of us to read about the author’s life having read so much of his fiction. Autobiographies written for children don’t seem terribly common to me, so I’m curious to see what N will make of these. I like that she thinks about authors as well as the books themselves, and it sounds like plenty of kids do so when it comes to Roald Dahl. According to his widow Felicity (he and Patricia Neal divorced in the 1980s), children still turn up looking for Dahl at the home they shared.

“It’s just awful because they look over the gate and say, ‘Roald Dahl lives here doesn’t he?’ … And I say ‘Well he did.’ [They say], ‘Oh, has he moved?’ And I have to say, ‘No he died.’ And it shatters them.”

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Fear makes you tiny

Good friends of ours are finally coming to the end of an extensive house renovation that’s pushed them down to the basement, the four of them in one room with a makeshift kitchen and beds. Now and again they’ve emerged dazed, squinting at the brightness of daylight, and shaking the plaster dust from their hair. “You’ve been living like the borrowers,” I said to my friend, and she laughed and agreed. Later I sought out the book and showed it to N to see if she’d be interested, and now we are well into this 1952 Carnegie medal winner by English author Mary Norton.

I remember loving this novel as a child — the teeny-tininess of the people and their things, the dressers made of stacked-up match boxes, the postage stamps hanging like portraits on the walls, and also the story within a story within a story: as the book opens, an old woman named Mrs. May tells “wild, untidy, self-willed” Kate about the miniature people she learned of in her own long-ago childhood. But it wasn’t Mrs. May who saw the borrowers first-hand; it was her little brother, who’d been sent to Great Aunt Sophy’s in the country to recover from rheumatic fever. Through the night he would hear an old grandfather clock striking the hours. “And, under this clock, below the wainscot, there was a hole….” From here the story dips beneath the floor, through dark and dusty passageways, to the place where the borrowers live.

I recall trying this book with N some time ago, but the complexities around whose story it was seemed a little beyond her. She needed a clearer entry point back then, so that she could go hand in hand with her protagonist through the book. Now, she follows every twist and turn, regularly pointing out that what the borrowers are doing is certainly not borrowing.

“I mean, I don’t think they ever bring any of those things back, do they?”

She’s quite intrigued by Arrietty, only child of Homily and Pod Clock, who longs to know what it’s like upstairs, outside, or even in the far away lands where other borrowers have gone. The Clocks are the only borrowers left in the house by the time the story starts, and for Homily and Pod it’s a point of pride to remain. Not so for Arrietty. “I know we’ve managed to stay on when all the others have gone. But what has it done for us, in the end? I don’t think it’s so clever to live on alone, for ever and ever, in a great, big, half-empty house; under the floor, with no one to talk to, no one to play with, nothing to see but dust and passages, no light but candlelight and firelight and what comes through the cracks.”

But the world outside is dangerous. So much so that only men creep out to borrow necessities for survival, scuttling across floors and climbing curtains and risking being seen by “human beans.” Women and girls stay in their dark, safe places with the house creaking and groaning above them.

N’s eyes widened at this. “You mean girls can’t borrow?” she asked. “Just because they’re girls? That’s not fair.” That’s what Arrietty thinks too, of course, but she’s grown up hearing about the disappearance of her cousin, Eggletina, whose curiosity got the better of her. One day she sneaked upstairs “in a blue dress and a pair of button-boots … yellow kid with jet beads for buttons. Lovely they were.” Eggletina never returned, but her legend grew. “It just broke up your uncle Hendreary,” said Homily at last. “He never went upstairs again — in case, he said, he found the button-boots. Their only future was to emigrate.”

This is essentially a story of fear and of freedom. Early on Mrs. May tells Kate that the borrowers were not always so tiny. “It was because they were frightened that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden.” Arrietty doesn’t want to live in fear. When she finally gets outside, she discovers how glorious it is to run. “You could never run under the floor: you walked, you stooped, you crawled — but you never ran.” She marvels at the giant coloured stones and the waist-high blades of grass; she picks a primrose and holds it like a parasol. And then something glitters nearby. “It was an eye. Or it looked like an eye. Clear and bright like the colour of the sky. An eye like her own but enormous. A glaring eye.”

And that’s where we left off this morning — tasting freedom, Arrietty had been seen.

The Carnegie Greenaway Living Archive tells me that Mary Norton was born in 1903 in London, and raised in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, the setting she chose for The Borrowers series (there are five books in all). She was short-sighted, and mesmerized by the tiny creatures she’d see crawling in the grass, set against the blurred back drop of the larger world. She was a secretary, an actress at the Old Vic Theatre Company, and then a wife and mother before she started writing children’s books. Her first was The Magic Bed Knob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons, published in 1943, and followed up by the sequel Bonfires and Broomsticks. Good old Walt Disney merged the stories into the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course (given the success of Mary Poppins) set it all to music. I love the early cover shown here of The Magic Bed Knob. It reminds me so much of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, and especially for his own Mrs. Armitage on Wheels. So I did a search for Waldo and Quentin together, just to see what would come up. I digress slightly, but here’s what I found at nationmaster.com, under the heading “practical joke”:

“The American humorist H. Allen Smith wrote a 320-page book in 1953 called The Compleat Practical Joker that contains many examples of practical jokes. A typical one, recalled as his favorite by the playwright Charles MacArthur, concerns the American painter and bohemian character Waldo Peirce. Peirce was living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘made a gift of a very small turtle to the woman who was the concierge of his building.’ The woman doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the woman’s apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress. This was the storyline behind Esio Trot, by Roald Dahl.”

I love how things go around, and come around.

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