Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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1980 / Buckinghamshire

Roald Dahl Stages a Symphony


symphony.png Mr. Botibol opened the front door, went into the living room, and switched on the radio; then he sat down in a large leather chair, leaned back, and closed his eyes. He didn’t feel exactly giddy, but there was a singing in his ears, and his thoughts were coming and going more quickly than usual. That solicitor gave me too much wine, he told himself. I’ll stay here for a while and listen to some music, and I expect I’ll go to sleep and after that I’ll feel better.

They were playing a symphony on the radio. Mr. Botibol had always been a casual listener to symphony concerts, and he knew enough to identify this as one of Beethoven’s. But now, as he lay back in his chair listening to the marvelous music, a new thought began to expand slowly within his tipsy mind. It wasn’t a dream because he was not asleep. It was a clear conscious thought and it was this: I am the composer of this music. I am a great composer. This is my latest symphony and this is the first performance. The huge hall is packed with people—critics, musicians, and music lovers from all over the country—and I am up there in front of the orchestra, conducting.

Mr. Botibol could see the whole thing. He could see himself up on the rostrum dressed in a white tie and tails, and before him was the orchestra, the massed violins on his left, the violas in front, the cellos on his right, and back of them were all the woodwinds and bassoons and drums and cymbals, the players watching every movement of his baton with an intense, almost a fanatical reverence. Behind him, in the half darkness of the huge hall, was row upon row of white enraptured faces, looking up toward him, listening with growing excitement as yet another new symphony by the greatest composer the world has ever seen unfolded itself majestically before them. Some of the audience were clenching their fists and digging their nails into the palms of their hands because the music was so beautiful that they could hardly stand it. Mr. Botibol became so carried away by this exciting vision that he began to swing his arms in time with the music in the manner of a conductor. He found it was such fun doing this that he decided to stand up, facing the radio, in order to give himself more freedom of movement.

He stood there in the middle of the room, tall, thin, and dressed in his tight blue double breasted suit, his small bald head jerking from side to side as he waved his arms in the air. He knew the symphony well enough to be able occasionally to anticipate changes in tempo or volume, and when the music became loud and fast he beat the air so vigorously that he nearly knocked himself over; when it was soft and hushed, he leaned forward to quiet the players with gentle movements of his outstretched hands; and all the time he could feel the presence of the huge audience behind him, tense, immobile, listening. When at last the symphony swelled to its tremendous conclusion, Mr. Botibol became more frenzied than ever, and his face seemed to thrust itself round to one side in an agony of effort as he tried to force more and still more power from his orchestra during those final mighty chords.

Then it was over. The announcer was saying something, but Mr. Botibol quickly switched off the radio and collapsed into his chair, blowing heavily.

“Phew!” he said aloud. “My goodness gracious me, what have I been doing!” Small globules of sweat were oozing out all over his face and forehead, trickling down his neck inside his collar. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped them away, and he lay there for a while, panting, exhausted, but exceedingly exhilarated.

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About the Text

From “Mr. Botibol.” In his early twenties in 1939, Dahl left his Shell Oil job in Tanzania and traveled to Kenya to enlist in the Royal Air Force. He sustained serious injuries when he crash-landed his biplane in the Libyan desert, an experience that he later fictionalized in his first published story, in The Saturday Evening Post. He published two story collections, Someone Like You and Kiss, Kiss, before turning his attention to children’s books. James and the Giant Peach was published in 1961 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964.

That which the sober man keeps in his breast, the drunken man lets out at the lips. Astute people, when they want to ascertain a man’s true character, make him drunk.
Martin Luther, 1569
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