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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Fat in the Fire Among the Penguins

Aggiornamento: 13 apr 2023

Try it. Put yourself in a ten-year-old’s mind and read Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. You shouldn’t dawdle over the illustrations or they will sway your young mind. Stick with the aim of registering whether your sensitivity suffers. The story of eighty-some airy pages is about a family of foxes, chockablock with family values, under mortal siege by three farmers. The men, “rich” and “nasty” are out to exterminate the happy foxes that, stealing with measure, live off farmyard poultry.

Any pain, so far? That nastiness can’t make you suffer because you are a ten-year -old out of the rat race. If the men’s riches are a problem, that’s for your parents to worry about.

The farmers’s names are Boggis, Bunch and Bean, which isn’t a pretty bouquet. Would you prefer Smith, Jones and White? Wait now. Boggis “was enormously fat” and “ate three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast”. Disgusting? Make that a bit of breast-meat on toast. He’ll lose weight. Bunce was “a kind of pot-bellied dwarf…so short his chin….” No bother. Say, slight of stature. Bean, “thin as a pencil,” took no food and “drank gallons of strong cider.” Should we fatten him up and put him on the water wagon?

Now you’ve fallen asleep. I can’t blame you. I only finished purifying the tale as a test. There is a lot of shovelling of dirt and how do you make that less dirty? The test was whether the excellent Roald Dahl (1916–1990) can be rewritten by his UK publishers. They now have an employee called a “sensitivity reader“ who changes anything felt to hurt the feelings of, well, anyone. The operation has been met with dismay and some opposition from various readers and authors. The publishers didn’t expect that reaction and have agreed to a compromise of sorts. Besides the sensitivity reader’s new version of Dahl’s stories, they will also publish the originals in a complete edition, One bookseller said, “Puffin and the Dahl Estate really have worked out how to cash in here: first a sales spike from the controversy seeing people buying up the previous printing, then a spike in people ‘supporting’ the changes, and now two sets of books in print.”

The publisher’s actions are, of course, in line, with more than commercial greed. They follow changes in social outlook that have been noticeable since the 1970s. Western society has shifted from seeking to improve itself as a mixed group, a political party, a social class, or part of a broad ideology. Social aims have fragmented. Groupuscules have taken the lead, each fixed, often with maniacal intensity, on a pet-goal. This has been dubbed “identity politics” and, though deserving a generous airing, can be no more than mentioned here.

As far as artistic creation goes, identity politics presents a problem. It calls for a moral stance, but a narrow one. For instance, that the white canes of the visually challenged (formerly the blind) should not have to pass through metal detectors, or that members of the Sikh faith should not be restricted as to where they can wear their paraphernalia. The rub is that the morality art proposes is different. Some argue—and the argument goes back to Plato—that it’s not morality at all. Yet art, and great art, continues to be made and to enhance our lives.

Now the writing of Roald Dahl is artistic creation of quality that takes the form of stories for children. A reasonable approach would be to let children and their elders enjoy it in the same way we enjoy Shakespeare or detective fiction. There’s no need to see the stories as populated by role models whose example must be policed lest they wound the delicate or lead us astray.

The publishers of Roald Dahl decided to go one better than reason, and one better than their author. In line with identity politics they presumed to sooth the feelings that might be hurt by his stories if read by various groups, for instance, by bald, wig-wearing women. In The Witches Dahl explains that their affection for hair-pieces simply results from the baldness of their pate. He isn’t above referring to “old hags”. But these are chased from the story by our guardian angels, the publishers, who add their own immortal line, Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

To simplify, beautify and flatten the world for us, the publishers also rid it of ugliness. The word has been deleted throughout. In The Twits, Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but just “beastly”. More bloodthirsty still, publisher Puffin has taken its cleaver to “fat”. The familiar, often lovable three-letter word has been slashed from Dahl’s complete oeuvre.

Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “enormous”, not “fat”. James and the Giant Peach used to read:

“Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat,/ And tremendously flabby at that./ Her tummy and waist/ Were as soggy as paste—/ It was worse on the place where she sat!”

No more. The publishers have done away with fat-shaming and solved the West’s obesity crisis at a stroke. That blow, among hundreds of Puffin changes, is the last back-breaking straw for the reader with a poetical backside.

We needn’t go as far as Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 to salute lardy beauty, but he belches to be quoted in answer to Prince Hal’s picture of him as

“That trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuff’s cloak-bag of guts.”

“Plump Jack” sees himself differently, “A goodly portly man, i'faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or by'r lady inclining to three score. And now I remember me, his name is Falstaff.”

In the midst of America’s Depression-hangover of the 1940s, Raymond Chandler used the romance of fatness to silence echoes of Hunger Marches and choruses of Can-You-Spare-A-Dime. In Trouble is My Business a character “called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest.” Beat that for weighty precision. Or hear this from The High WindowHer smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.” Chandler’s The Little Sister pays sublime homage to avoirdupois, “A fat man in sky-blue pants was closing the door with that beautiful leisure only fat men ever achieve”.

The supreme tribute to the extra-large came with Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon that began as a serial in Black Mask magazine in 1929, a Depression baby. A movie was soon made but hardly got off the ground before the Hays Production Code censors banned it as “lewd”. In 1936, a half-hearted comedy version floundered. But in 1941 John Huston proved himself equal to Hammett ’s story with his movie The Maltese Falcon that has become a film noir classic, perhaps the film noir. Huston’s movie is remarkable in its casting of the four main characters. It identifies the actors forever with their role. It is theirs. They are one with it. No one else can ever play it, no more than anyone can ever stand in for Charlie Chaplin as a tramp.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade becomes his cinema self. One is mesmerised counting his degrees of cynical disbelief as he twists his misogynic knife in Mary Astor’s Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy. (Let the anti-Irish affront pass this time.) She’s the prima donna of liars, changing direction like a feather in a cyclone. Homophobia lurks in Peter Lorre’s perfumed handkerchief. In Joel Cairo’s fussy clothes, he’s impotent evil forever nixed by macho uppercuts. And what about Elisha Cook Jr’s gift of Wilmer Cook? Is his donkey thinking unfair to mental slow-pokes? I’m afraid so, but that’s the joke.

Now clear the way and widen the doorway for the glorious Fat Man who needs a paragraph for himself. Sydney Greenstreet, a stage-actor doing Kaspar Gutman, weighed in at up to three hundred and fifty pounds depending on his distance from lunch. But every ounce of him belies the sobriquet Fatso that even the Frisco cops dare not utter. His very sweat drips with dignity as he spells out his obsession to the history-swamped Sam Spade. No one fat or thin could keep us guessing whether anger or denial is coming and then there’s a sudden gurgle of laughter, a tittering from the bottom of the barrel. The shot of Spade-Bogart’s drugged look up at Gutman-Greenstreet’s majestic midriff is a cinematographer’s moment of grace.

Kaspar Gutman done down by a Falcon of lead has not given up the search. Obsession-upright, he leads his rinky-dink gang out of the San Francisco apartment, Istanbul next stop. He’s wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. It gathers his stomach in a neat if copious pot. He is Humpty Dumpty in his Sunday best striding briskly toward his next fall.

Let us solemnly forbid any one to take that vision from us. Forbid as well mealy-mouth publishers to deprive the rising generation of its Boggis, Bunch and Bean.

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