Switch Bitch
 by Roald Dahl

Penguin
2011 (1974)
Paperback







"This was a gift he had, a most singular talent, and when he put his mind to it, he could make his words coil themselves around and around the listener until they held her in some sort of mild hypnotic spell."


Reviewed by A J Kirby

Like millions of youngsters across the world, I grew up feeling as though Roald Dahl was a member of my family. He was the friendly, but slightly sinister grandfather who "stole" my nose and then wouldn’t give it back. He was the Welsh-Norwegian giant who told me the stories which tickled the darker side of my funny bone (and all children have a dark side of the funny bone) and hit that soft spot in our heart which made us care about the characters he created and the stories he told about them. His books were a wondrous concoction of revolting rhymes, marvellous medicines, word stews, and chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. He was the Big Friendly Giant, the distiller of our dreams.

But, as well as being one of the most celebrated authors of children’s stories in the world, ever, Roald Dahl was also a highly successful writer of adult fictions. His short stories, noted for their twist endings, were particularly well received, and eventually went on to spawn the 1970s TV series Tales of the Unexpected. And it was in these stories that our Roald exhibited the full breadth of this "dark" side which we saw flashes of in his children’s stories. At the time, many of his stories were hold-onto-your-hats shocking.

Following the raft of publicity surrounding the release of a number of recent film versions of his children’s books (Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryFantastic Mr Fox) Dahl’s publisher, Penguin, has re-issued a number of his short story collections. Here, the 1974 collection Switch Bitch has been re-packaged by Penguin in order to introduce a whole new readership to these stories.

There’s a new cover which isn’t simply a "digitally re-mastered" version of the Tales of the Unexpected covers but a wholesale re-branding exercise. The sex is now made explicit; there is a woman’s stocking-clad leg draped across it. This, Penguin are saying, is not a children’s book. Nor is it, but I do worry that Penguin might have gone a little too far in this. To me, the cover comes over all soft-porn and "free summer read with an upmarket lad’s mag"- esque. I worry that with this re-branding Dahl’s adult fictions might not stand the test of time, that they might eventually start to read like the stories from another member of the family; the rather dirty knee-rubbing uncle who slobbers all over the lingerie section in the catalogue.

Switch Bitch is a rather short volume (I’m tempted to say knee-high to an everlasting gobstopper here), containing, as it does, just four stories, all virgin territory for me. After reading it, I’d have to conclude this is, not even by an enormous crocodilian stretch of the imagination, his best short fiction; for that see Lamb to the Slaughter and Man from the South in Someone Like You. It is though, an engaging read.

Bookended by two stories – The Visitor and Bitch - which feature a common Dahl-adult protagonist, Uncle Oswald ("a sporty gambler with a keen appetite for the bizarre") and also featuring The Great Switcheroo and The Last Act, the stories are primarily concerned with sex and desire, and, brass-tacks, with man’s insatiable thirst to get his end away, through whatever ingenious means available to him at the time, be it the development of a racy new perfume, the devising of a Blackadder-esque cunning plan to swap wives nocturnally, hedging bets and trying to seduce mother and daughter, or as part of a convoluted revenge plot.

There’s a note of caution here, which I really didn’t want to have to sound. At times, the stories teeter on the edge of plummeting into the kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, sea-side postcard-y, play-it-saucy for laughs stuff you might find in the Carry On films, or the stories your rather embarrassing uncle might tell you when he’s had one too many sherries over Christmas. Occasionally, they read like flights of authorial fancy or wish-fulfillment, like the worst type of Bond scripts (and Dahl did draft a screenplay for a Bond film). Take this example from the opening story, The Visitor:
Later, when the sun began dropping lower in the sky, we all sat around in out wet swimming-clothes while a servant brought us pale, ice-cold martinis, and it was at this point that I began, very slowly, very cautiously, to seduce the two ladies in my own particular fashion.
And, from the same story:
But I have no intention here of regaling the reader with bizarre details. I do not approve of washing juicy linen in public. I am sorry, but there it is. I only hope that my reticence will not create too strong a sense of anticlimax. Certainly, there was nothing anti about my own climax…
And this from The Great Switcheroo in which the object of Vic’s lust is a "married monogamous nympho-bird" who is the "fruitiest female" this Sid the Sexist a-like has "set eyes upon" in his whole life.

There is also a very sticky problem with Dahl’s female characters. Rarely are his women any more than cardboard cut-outs; it is even more scarce to see one break the mould or be entrusted to lead the action. The women here are little more than "purely passive instrument(s) in his hands." Only in The Last Act, the poorest of the stories, do we get a female point of view.

And so, in an effort to rescue this collection from any more savagery at the hands of this older, more cynical, reviewer me, I will now pull back a bit. The best things about Dahl’s stories as a child was that they were no-holds-barred rude. And funny. They didn’t seem held back by any rules or political correctness. This was imagination run wild. There was simply no room for sentimentality, and that’s what the kid in me liked. So I suppose it’s a little ironic that now we all look on Dahl through rose-tinted spectacles, remembering how we laughed at fart jokes and snozzcumbers. Man and mythic Big Friendly Giant, it’s now very difficult to separate the two.

Starting at base level, there is a playfulness, a love of language here, which translates from Dahl’s children’s stories to his adult fictions. Dahl clearly absolutely loves to surprise to shock, you can almost hear him guffawing in the background as he builds up his conceits. This is evident even in his manic over-use of exclamation marks. (From The Visitor: "I began gently to prise open the top of the case. Behold, it was full of books!" And, "I took out the letter (…) and glanced quickly at the signature, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, it said. It was Uncle Oswald!" And, "suddenly… there she was! Oh, my heavens, what a whopper. (…) This was too good to be true!" And from Bitch, "But my goodness, what a surprise I got!" And, "Come to think of it, I would be leaving tomorrow!")

Then there’s his brilliant character description. The recurring character of Uncle Oswald is very amusingly cobbled together from some bizarre Dahlian constituent parts. In The Visitor, we meet him travelling through North Africa and the Middle East, and it is immediately clear this is not a man who travels light. He carries everything with him, from "my personal bedding" (which he switches for the filthy sheets at the hotels he passes on the way) to "my killing box, my net, and my trowel" (utilised for discovering rare scorpions etc.), from his own library (which contains "thirty or forty of the best books in the world" including the doubtless riveting read which is The Natural History of Selbourne) to his own hang-ups, his misanthropy, his misogynism, his racism, and his extreme hypochondria (which would now likely be diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.)

This is a man who collects everything. Knowledge of rare and tropical diseases, Chinese porcelain, operas, "spiders and walking sticks." (Oswald swears that "the spider’s silk was superior in quality to the ordinary stuff spun by silkworms, and never wore a tie made of any other material.")

In Bitch we are introduced to the mad-scientist Biotte:
He struck me rather as a dangerous and dainty little creature, someone who lurked behind stones with a sharp eye and a sting in his tail.
And there’s a sense that this is exactly how Dahl would like to be seen as a writer. The essence of his children’s writing was this mixture of the sickly sweet and the sinister. The sting in the tail. The crime and punishment wrapped up as one. The strike, the twist, always the twist.

Take this anecdote from The Visitor:
Suddenly she swung round and poured out upon me a torrent of language so filthy that I had heard nothing like it from the lips of a lady since… well, since 1931, in Marrakech, when the greedy old Duchess of Glasgow put her hand into a chocolate box and got nipped by a scorpion I happened to have placed there for safe-keeping.
There’s always been a sense that Dahl draws a line in the sand for all to see, and then wilfully steps over it. His children’s stories will always be loved by children because he never butters things up for us. He admits there is darkness in the world. In terms of his adult fiction, attitudes to sex have changed in the forty years since Switch Bitch was first published and now the whole world has crossed that line, or so it seems. We live in cynical times; things that might have once shocked no longer do. I think, though, what we must hold on to is Dahl’s sheer delight in telling the tale such as it might be. It’s impossible not to admire the sheer joi de vivre which comes across on his every page, in his every exclamation mark. And it is a mark of Dahl as a writer that, even though I was not overly impressed with this offering, the first thing I did as soon as I closed it was to re-read the fantastic Someone Like You.


Read a story from this collection on Scented Pages


A J Kirby is the author of three published novels (Perfect WorldBully and The Magpie Trap) and a host of short stories. His crime fiction collection, The Art of Ventriloquism, is due for publication in early 2012.
A J's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus"

Howard Goldowsky (ed) "Masters of Technique"

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 3

Steve Morris "Jumble Tales"

Erinna Mettler "Starlings"

Ralph Robert Moore "I Smell Blood"

                     
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Roald Dahl was a famous short story writer who became one of the most successful and beloved children's writers of all time. He also wrote several screenplays. Born in Wales to parents of Norwegian descent, he attended British schools, but never went to university, opting to go work for the Shell Oil Company instead. He worked there for a few years, but when World War II started, he joined the RAF. While assistant air attaché in Washington DC, he began writing, which after the war became his life-long vocation. He wrote two novels, two autobiographies, nineteen children's books, and many short story collections, the most notable being Kiss Kiss (1959) and Switch Bitch (1974). He died of leukemia in 1990.