‘The Twits’ is, I think, the most hate filled and misanthropic of all Roald Dahl’s books. It is also disgusting and cruel and very funny, which makes it ideal for kids.
The Twits are a married couple who despise each other. They live in a squalid, windowless house surrounded by dead trees and grass, completely cut off from the rest of the world. Their only companions are The Mugglewumps, a family of monkeys who are not so much pets as slaves, and spend much of their time standing on their heads as part of The Twits twisted scheme to turn the poor creatures into a circus act. In reality, however, they get them to stand on their heads because they know it’s uncomfortable and demeaning and because they’re a right couple of nasty bastards.
Their nasty bastardry knows no bounds: Mr. Twit smears a dead tree with Hug Tight Sticky Glue in order to catch unsuspecting birds for a pie – when some schoolboys get trapped instead he is quite happy to eat them instead. Happily, they escape, losing their trousers but keeping their lives.
The couples most deeply felt contempt is reserved for each other. Strindberg’s famously bleak psychodrama ‘The Dance Of Death’ features a marriage slowly disintegrating over a series of bitter, violent arguments but, as I recall, there is never a bit where a glass eye is put in a pint of beer, live worms are served as spaghetti or the wife is fooled into thinking she has a serious disease called ‘The Shrinks’ before being carried away by a number of hot air balloons, which is where Dahl is clearly superior to grumpy old Strindberg.
There’s a happy ending to the story, of course: The Twits die.
Originally sparked by Dahl’s hatred of beards, the book features a fantastic passage which details the contents of Mr. Twit’s prodigious (and prodigiously filthy) face fur. I’ve read the book dozens of times (it’s very short), but this bit never fails to make me laugh – and cringe.
‘As you know, an ordinary unhairy face like yours or mine simply gets a bit smudgy if it is not washed often enough, and there’s nothing so awful about that.
But a hairy face is a very different matter. Things cling to hairs, especially food. Things like gravy go right in among the hairs and stay there. You and I can wipe our smooth faces with a flannel and we quickly look more or less all right again, but the hairy man cannot do that.
We can also, if we are careful, eat our meals without spreading food all over our faces. But not so the hairy man. Watch carefully next time you see a hairy man eating his lunch and you will notice that even if he opens his mouth very wide, it is impossible for him to get a spoonful of beef-stew or ice-cream and chocolate sauce into it without leaving some of it on the hairs.
Mr Twit didn’t even bother to open his mouth wide when he ate. As a result (and because he never washed) there were always hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face. They weren’t big bits, mind you, because he used to wipe those off with the back of his hand or on his sleeve while he was eating. But if you looked closely (not that you’d ever want to) you would see tiny little specks of dried-up scrambled eggs stuck to the hairs, and spinach and tomato ketchup and fish fingers and minced chicken livers and all the other disgusting things Mr Twit liked to eat.
If you looked closer still (hold your noses ladies and gentlemen), if you peered deep into the moustachy bristles sticking over his upper lip, you would probably see much larger objects that had escaped the wipe of his hand, things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a mouldy old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine.
Because of all this, Mr Twit never went really hungry. By sticking out his tongue and curling it sideways to explore the hairy jungle around his mouth, he was always able to find a tasty morsel here and there to nibble on.
No wonder kids love it, the dirty, morbid little devils.