I still read The Best of Roald Dahl and hold it up as the “best collection of short fiction (by a single author).” When I needed a gift for a friend, I gave her this collection accompanied by My Uncle Oswald. There’s an Oswald story in the collection and it’s a riot; gifting more Oswald stories without reading them seemed an easy call. Then I finally read My Uncle Oswald and texted “Ohmigosh. I just realized I gave you porn!” (Soft core.) It’s hilarious, but I only recommend it if you’re a) not shy about sex, and b) in possession of a robust sense of humor.
My Uncle Oswald follows Oswald Hendrycks Cornelius as a young man and details how he made his fortune. Using a powder from the Sudanese Blister Beetle, he creates a pill that afflicts the user with overpowering sexual desire (and capability) exactly 9.5 minutes after ingestion. He sells this pill to various elites for huge sums. Once he discovers that the pill also works on women, he doubles his market by suggesting that men and women take it together. Oswald enjoys his pill business, but craves something more challenging and lucrative. He finds Yasmin, a young woman who isn’t hesitant about rough sex, and makes the acquaintance of A.R. Woresley, a scientist. With their help, Oswald perfects a method of collecting semen from the intellectual giants of the day and freezing it to sell.
“How long do you think it will take?”
“To make our fortunes? About seven or eight years. No more. That’s not such a long stretch when it means you can laze about doing nothing for ever after.”
“No,” she said, “it isn’t. And anyway, I’m rather enjoying this.”
“I know you are.”
“What I’m enjoying,” she said, “is the thought of being ravished by all the greatest men in the world. And all the kings. It tickles my fancy.”
“Let’s go out and buy a French motor car,” I said. (164)
Oswald travels Europe with Yasmin, collecting samples for his sperm bank from a roster of famous men: Monet, Picasso, Freud, etc. Each sexual conquest is outrageous, but the first few are best because the book grows repetitive. Dahl works variety into the scenes, but a clear pattern emerges nonetheless. Right when I worried the book was ruining its premise by becoming routine, Oswald says as much himself.
I give self-aware narrators a lot of latitude (particularly when they acknowledge faults in their telling of the story). Oswald’s self-awareness adds to the humor. He loves to preen and grandstand for the reader and win them over to his cause. He explains his schemes frankly (though under a tide of self-aggrandizement, of course) and his personal philosophies force the book to be lighthearted:
I myself have always found it difficult to treat anything too seriously and I believe the world would be a better place if everyone followed my example. I am completely without ambition. […] All I want out of life is to enjoy myself. But before one can achieve this happy end one must obviously get hold of a lot of money. Money is essential to a sybarite. It is the key of the kingdom. […] I refuse to have anything to do with money-making unless the process obeys two golden rules. First, it must amuse me tremendously. Second, it must give a good deal of pleasure to those from whom I extract the loot. (171)
Sure, the premise is crude, but what makes the book funny and endearing is Dahl’s unique brand of wit. Plus Yasmin, armed with a hat pin and watched over by Oswald, is never thought to be at risk. Like Penthouse letters, which no one takes seriously these days, each of Oswald’s stories is soaked in fantasy. Despite the content, much is described via euphemism or under silly circumstances, which keeps it from being vulgar. It’s warm, tongue-in-cheek, and seems crafted to humor more than titillate.
Overall: 3.8 It’s very funny with memorable scenes, but even Oswald’s self-awareness can’t stop the conceit/joke from wearing thin. The end has a great payoff that works as well as the wondrous endings found in The Best of Roald Dahl.
Translation: Recommended. A sense of humor is required.