Earlier this month, I got around to reading Roald Dahl’s My Uncle Oswald, which I’d picked up at the Salvation Army back in June. Dahl’s work, especially The Witches, really captured my imagination as a child, and in high school and college I read most of his short stories. Though it is definitely an adult novel, Uncle Oswald contains all the madcap magic of Dahl’s writing for children, and it was perfect beachside reading.
The action begins at a dinner party, in the year 1912. Oswald Cornelius, who at 17 is already a ladies’ man whose one ambition is to become a wealthy sybarite, hears the story of a beetle whose crushed carapaces have a Viagra-like effect. Recognizing his ticket to fame and fortune, Oswald heads to Africa and collects some beetle powder, compounding a pill that has the world’s most rich and famous men of a certain age willing to pay anything for a dose before his scheme is interrupted by service in World War I.
Fast forward a few years, and enter the adult themes: with the help of a scientist and a beautiful Girton student, Oswald decides to compile a sperm bank of geniuses (interestingly, the so-called “Nobel Sperm Bank” idea was being dreamed up right around the time the book was being written, in the late 1970s).
“Can’t you see her,” I said, “this rich, unhappy woman who is married to some incredibly ugly, coarse, ignorant, unpleasant industrialist from Birmingham, and all at once she has something to live for. As she goes strolling through the beautifully kept garden . . . she is humming the slow movement of Beethoven’s Eroica and thinking to herself, ‘my God! Isn’t it wonderful! I am pregnant by the man who wrote this music a hundred years ago!’ ”
“We don’t have Beethoven’s sperm.”
“There are plenty of others,” I said.
What follows is a raunchy, hilarious caper around the globe as sexy co-ed Yasmin seduces royals, painters and writers in pursuit of the literal essence of genius. Dahl uses his imagination to great effect when portraying these encounters, characterizing the victims as “jokers” or “genuises” and not hesitating to skewer even the most famous of men, especially his fellow writers (Proust and George Bernard Shaw get the worst of it). The gleeful triumph Oswald and Yasmin express after a successful heist recalls the elation felt by Matilda after supergluing her father’s hat to his head, which is almost enough to make the naughtiest bits seem like innocent fun.
My Uncle Oswald is marred by the occasional sexist or xenophobic remark (Roald Dahl was a man’s man of his time for sure) and every so often it crosses the line from irreverent to crude—but finding a new Dahl book was a real treat for this fan.