My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


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Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement @ Courtauld Gallery

The exhibition space at the Courtauld Gallery is relatively small, just a little ante-room and a larger hall-shaped room. In these two spaces the gallery is hosting a scholarly exhibition devoted to a series of small sculptures of dancers created by the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin and titled Mouvements de Danse (Dance movements).

Room one

From around 1900, Rodin (1840-1917), by then the most famous and successful sculptor in France, became interested in the new wave of dance styles which were coming into fashion. A bit later this was to include the Ballets Russe around 1912, but the first room focuses on the 1906 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, which featured the first ever appearance in Europe of the Royal Cambodian dancers.

Photos and postcards show what appear to be children in ornate Cambodian costume, but it was their postures and movement which captivated Rodin. The exhibition includes Rodin’s eloquent prose descriptions which make clear that he was fascinated by their new ways of posing the human figure – knees bent, arms bent with hands folded back, to create strange expressive patterns. Combine this with an odd staccato way of moving, and an odd rippling wavelike motion of their limbs, and Rodin (and fellow Parisians) were taken by storm.

These highly stylised poses and movements are reminiscent of Indian sculpture and another display case contains photos of statues of the Hindu god Shiva, which also fascinated Rodin. Here and elsewhere the inclusion of Rodin’s written descriptions of the body and of these dance poses testify to his technical, anatomical interest in the design and dynamic, the posture and flexing and movement of the human body and how to capture it on paper or sculpture.

The first room also explains the new, more expressive dance styles, breaking free of traditional Western ballet styles, which were being introduced by pioneers like Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller and Ruth St Denis. There’s a photo of each of them (Duncan photographed dancing at a party given for Rodin, in his garden). The best one is of Loïe Fuller who, apparently, used bamboo canes to ‘extend’ her arms and support great swathes of dress material so that she looked like a dervish in movement.

In the 1900s Rodin was particularly close to an artists’ model and dancer named Alda Moreno. He made scores of sketches of her. The exhibition displays nude shots of Moreno from a publication, Le Nu Academique.

Le nu académique Journal of 1905 showing the newly discovered photos of Alda Moreno in the pose of ‘Dance Movement A’.(30 June) 1905 © Agence photographique du musée Rodin - Pauline Hisbacq

Le nu académique Journal of 1905 showing the newly discovered photos of Alda Moreno in the pose of ‘Dance Movement A’. (30 June) 1905 © Agence photographique du musée Rodin – Pauline Hisbacq

This is just one of the Moreno poses which appear in the many sketches Rodin made and which line the second, larger room.

Standing Nude Holding Her Right Leg by Auguste Rodin (c.1903) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Standing Nude Holding Her Right Leg by Auguste Rodin (c.1903) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance movements

All this is by way of lead-up to the series of Dance Movements themselves. These are twelve relatively small (about a foot high) sculptures in plaster of a naked woman dancer in a series of poses. They have been placed in a display case in the centre of the room so we can see them fully in the round. They are ‘numbered’ from A to G. This is ‘the first complete presentation of the whole series in terracotta and plaster, including related drawings’ – a historic opportunity to see them all together.

A Dance Movement by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement A by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

A separate case explains that Rodin made the figurines using a new technique. He modelled in clay two master poses, labelled Alpha and Beta. Then he dismembered these ‘bodies’ to produce a set of nine body parts, mainly arms and legs. Then he used the parts to assemble his set of 12. The commentary points out that he was experimenting with a new way of ‘assembling’ sculptures to reflect the new ‘experimental’ forms of dance which he was trying to capture. I found them a beguiling combination of the rough and read, and the highly expressive.

Dance Movement D by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement D by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

The Dance Movements were among the most private and experimental of Rodin’s later works. He only showed them to visitors to his studio and patrons, who commented on their rawness and energy.

On the whole I think I didn’t like them, because overall I don’t really like the rough finish and blockiness of Rodin’s style. But the small size and unexpected detail of some of them overcame that prejudice, and I did warm to several of the little figures. In fact the more I looked, the more energy I found, packed into these rough, half-finished figures.

Dance Movement I by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement I by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

The twelve little figurines are in the middle of a room are offset by thirty or so sketches, drawings and gouaches which hang around the walls. These were a very mixed bag ranging from the briefest of sketches, to pieces which were thoroughly worked over with multiple lines. Others – later works apparently – used heavy charcoal pencils whose lines he then smudged to create a sense of depth and dimensionality.

Seated nude folding forward by Auguste Rodin (1910/11) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Seated nude folding forward by Auguste Rodin (1910/11) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

And there were others where he’d used watercolour or gouache to simplify the outlines and create depth and contrast. In these I liked the way the colours bled over the pencil marks, creating a further level – a colour level – of discrepancy and dynamism – as in this painting of a Cambodian dancer.

Cambodian Dancer in Profile by Auguste Rodin (1906/7) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Cambodian Dancer in Profile by Auguste Rodin (1906/7) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Nijinsky

Off to one side is a mini-display devoted to the famous Russian avant-garde dancer, Vassily Nijinsky. Rodin was taken to see the Ballets Russes production of L’Après-midi d’un faun in May 1912 (the show includes a brilliant photo of Nijinsky wearing the parti-coloured outfit created for that role, and in one of his weird hieratic poses). Afterwards Rodin invited Diaghilev and Nijinsky to his studio and then Nijinsky stayed on to be modelled by the great sculptor.

Sketches survived but the cast for a small figure of Nijinsky was only discovered after the sculptor’s death, and only finally cast in bronze in 1957. To quote the Guardian‘s Judith Mackrell:

In the bunched up force of the curving torso and lifted leg, in the torsion of the neck and in the feral, almost goatish cast to Nijinsky’s features, Rodin captured something of the explosive impact the dancer made when he first appeared on the ballet stages of Europe.

Arguably this is the best thing in the exhibition, maybe because it is the most finished. I also like it because it most obviously connects to the Futurist, Vorticist, Cubist and Modernist sculpture which was just about to burst on the world – for example, Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913 currently in Tate Modern.

By contrast with this one hyper-modern work, the Alda Moreno pieces still seemed to cling to an essentially 19th century idiom.

But they are, nonetheless, records of a fascinating experiment, and this rare opportunity to see them all lined up in sequence is a rare opportunity to enter the thinking and vision of a man fascinated by the shape and pattern and texture and movement and expressiveness of the stretching, straining, leaping, constantly moving human body.

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