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One of Roald Dahls few substantial works for adults, My Uncle Oswald feels like its very self-consciously reaching for the higher shelves of adult classification, as if the author needed a release from all the repressed sexuality of his increasingly popular childrens fiction, but was still too much of a gentlemen to include much in the way of graphic description or recognised swear words. Although the generous blurb and opening chapter indicate that the reader is in for a no-holds-barred account of raunch and sauce across pre-World War II Europe, the entire narrative is primarily focused on Oswalds story of how he accrued his substantial wealth, explained in far more detail than is strictly necessary or, at times, palatable. It might give you some idea what to expect from the novel if I reveal that the most graphically descriptive sexual scene involves Oswald and his male associate catching a bulls ejaculation in a bag, while the human encounters are either glossed over entirely or relegated to vague metaphors of engine pistons and jousts.
The book begins with a confusing and rather pointless chapter of introduction from the author, whether this is intended to be Dahl himself or simply a fictional, otherwise unseen character, and is correctly identified as the third publication of his uncles memoirs following Dahls earlier short stories The Visitor and Bitch from the Switch Bitch collection. Although I havent read those, this opening chapter indicates, most likely as a joke, that their raunchiness no doubt represented the most conservative and chaste sections available from his uncles diaries, and he promises not to hold anything back in this third offering, an unfulfilled promise that ultimately only makes it more disappointing in the end. The narration switches to Oswald from chapter two and continues through the rest of the two-hundred-plus pages, though it has to be said that it loses the sense of a memoir after a while, reading like just another novel told in the first person. Dahls cheery writing style is easy to follow and enjoy, and he has a knack for ending chapters on a comparatively exciting note, but the storys main problem is that it really does drag by the end and becomes very repetitive, something the narrator even draws attention to, but fails to remedy.
The plot concerns Oswalds early years as a young entrepreneur before and after the First World War, learning from his fathers well-travelled friend the secret of the Sudanese Blister Beetle and its powerful effect on the human sex drive. Using intelligence, care and cunning, the seventeen-year-old Oswald pays a trip to the Sudan to buy a crate of this legendary aphrodisiac, and applies his scientific knowledge and keen business sense to manufacture it in pill form, ready to sell to the rich and desperate. This first section of the book is largely a prelude and works very well in setting up the situation and character of Oswald, a young man who enjoys the finer things in life and lives by strict, self-imposed moral guidelines: firstly, he is adamant that he must be supremely wealthy to be truly happy, but insists that this wealth can only be accrued through means that he finds enjoyable, and that bring pleasure to his customers. Secondly, more importantly, he must have an enormous amount of sex, and can never sleep with the same girl twice; he compares the very idea to the disappointment of reading a detective novel twice over. Oswald really is a sexual connoisseur (though he limits himself to female homo sapiens), learning the intricacies and distinct stylings of women from different nationalities and backgrounds, and even basing his preferred choice of music on the more debauched scenes of operas due to their associations. The rest of the book focuses entirely on Oswalds plan, based on the breakthroughs of his old University professor in artificial cattle insemination, to obtain and preserve the sperm of famous people for later sale to rich women desperate to have a child by Einstein, Picasso, Proust or King Alfonso of Spain, among many others.
Joining Oswald as a travelling companion and business associate for the second half of the book is the alluring Yasmin Howcomely, who agrees to take part in Oswalds hare-brained scheme primarily for the enjoyment it would bring, stating that she was looking forward to being ravished by kings and artists. Obviously, this makes the book a little questionable in terms of its attitude towards women, and even an attempt to discredit Sigmund Freuds famously phallocentric approach during Yasmins session with the Austrian doesnt really work as an apology. Its easy to treat this novel as harmless fun, though it does tend to ground itself a little too much in believable (and perhaps workable) science that even its slightly more ludicrous or exaggerated moments lack any of the fantastical nature of Dahls more famous works. One very strange aspect of the book is its unflattering parade of famous figures from the early twentieth century, some of whom come off better than others (Yasmin is particularly complimentary about the sexual practices and impressive size of writers, composers and artists, but isnt so fond of intellectuals), but all of whom are presented losing their inhibitions and assaulting a woman, admittedly under the influence of Oswalds beetle powder sneakily inserted into a chocolate. While this may please or indeed enrage fans of the many famous persons involved, the issues of libel make the whole thing pretty dodgy for being so grounded in reality.
My Uncle Oswald sticks out like a beetle-bitten pizzle in the bibliography of one of the countrys favourite childrens authors, and while its a fairly enjoyable read for the most part, it does unfortunately serve to demonstrate that Dahl didnt really have the knack for making realistic adult stories as entertaining as his childrens fiction. The scheme is suitably zany to maintain interest for a while, but it drags on for far too long and becomes overly repetitive, and the author even makes a very disappointing decision by off-handedly spoiling the ending about half-way through with a mention that there are a number of Proust-descended children currently growing up across Europe as he writes this, thereby removing the doubt that this risky scheme would eventually succeed. The slight twist that does transpire at the end is minor by comparison, and not really worth wading through the long string of vague sexual encounters to reach.
If you enjoyed Roald Dahls childrens books in your youth and are interested in reading something similar now youre grown up well, dont really bother with this, just dig out your battered copy of The Witches and read it again, youve probably forgotten what happens. There are a few creatures that should never have been permitted into Roald Dahls literary menagerie, and spermatozoa are one of them. At least they dont talk.
Just as a dog is not just for Christmas, a Dahl is not just for children. In fact, in this case it's not for children at all. Oh, no. You really don't want your kids reading this one. It's a bit mucky to say the least, what with it being full of fornication an' all. Allegedly taken from the diaries of his Uncle (Oswald Hendryks Cornelius) and dating back to the 1930's, Uncle Oswald's exploits make Casanova seem like a librarian. He describes his hobbies as "rakery and wenching" and he observes a "no-woman-more-than-once" rule. We hear how one Major Grout, having recently returned from the Sudan, tells the seventeen-year-old Oswald about a type of beetle found there which, when crushed into a powder, is an aphrodisiac - a very powerful aphrodisiac in fact - ten times more effective than Spanish Fly. (Y'know, Viagra hadn't been invented when this book was published - you don't suppose...?) Anyway, the stuff is so potent that when the Major took slightly too much once, he spent a fortnight lying rigid in hospital. This gives the entrepreneurial young Oswald an idea. So, while staying with a family in France, he nips to the Sudan, buys as much powder as he can get hold of, manufactures pills from it, tests them thoroughly himself with the help of the French family's daughter, and then sets out to make his fortune. It doesn't end there though. While at university, a tutor introduces him to the rather awkward practicalities involved in the artificial insemination of cattle... and this gives him another money-spinning idea - one for which he acquires the assistance of a female student. Together they set out to obtain sperm samples from the great and the good, by plying them with chocolate laced with beetle powder. (Although Proust proves to be a bit of a problem.) The images of Oswald grasping a bull's pizzle in dubious circumstances, and of a king shagg
ing on a joggling sofa, are ones that will live long in my memory. I imagine that if P.G. Wodehouse had a dirty little brother, then this is the sort of book he might have written. As I said, definitely not one for the kids. ¶ Paperback: £6.99 ¶ ISBN: 0140055770 ¶ pp 205 ¶ 1979 ¶ ___________________________________________________________ ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
Uncle Oswald is the greatest rogue, bounder, connoisseur, bon vivant and fornicator of all time. These are his fictional diaries.