Review: The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
Michael Joseph, €22.99
Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00
In the past 15 years, lovely, crumpety old Stephen Fry has become perhaps the most adored personality in Britain.
Endlessly in demand as a chat-show guest and "product spokesperson", followed by millions on Twitter, he is at this point almost a franchise, with books, films and documentaries -- all wildly successful -- issuing forth from him at a bewildering pace. The mere mention of his involvement is a guaranteed green light for any project you can think of.
And yet there are those who find Fry's omnipresence irritating. He has been called a stupid person's idea of a clever person; a wag with an academic air who uses words just long enough to impress some people. And his career, when you look more closely, is perhaps not as impressive as it first seems. The sheer strength of his "brand" ensures success with the public, but the reviews of his novels and films, particularly, have been justifiably poor.
He seems drawn from the tradition of PG Wodehouse and EM Forster -- two of his heroes -- but will leave nothing like their legacy behind. The critic AA Gill summed up his career as "fireworks going off in the dark" -- pretty, but, ultimately, insubstantial.
Fry plays both sides of this debate, endlessly apologising for his success and drawing attention to his inadequacies ("my short-cutting intelligence") while subtly letting you know that, actually, his brain really is "the size of Kent". It's a manner that, in the brief few minutes of a chat-show interview, can seem charmingly self-effacing. Over the entire course of The Fry Chronicles -- his new autobiography -- it is, however, borderline unbearable. He begs so often for forgiveness and approval that he seems to force the reader into an extended "sympathetic-admire" -- you got a scholarship to Cambridge and became a famous multimillionaire soon after you left, but hated yourself every step of the way? How awful for you. What's clear is that all of this is pre-emptory. He's beating everyone to the punch. Fry can't take criticism, has written of his hatred of criticism and famously stormed out of a play in London in 1995 -- never to return -- after reading a harsh review. Self-flagellation is his protective cloak.
The book is the second instalment in his autobiography. The first, Moab is my Washpot, came out in 1997 and dealt with his life up to the time he went to Cambridge. Some of the same ground is covered here -- he writes at great length on his childhood addiction to sweet things -- but instead of going purely chronologically, Fry has decided to organise the book around a series of words that begin with the letter C -- "Comedy Credits, Cheerio, Cambridge, Carry on Capering, Commercials, Covent Garden, Compact Discs, Cappuccinos and Croissants", etc. This creates all sorts of problems for the narrative -- he has to jump around a lot -- and seems a frankly weird piece of whimsy that only Fry would get past an editor.
But then there wasn't much editing done on this book. It's 495 pages and a huge part of that is the fact that Fry, as he says himself, "likes to use 100 words where one will do". His prose is relentlessly tautologous, often using four or five different synonyms of the same word in a row (perhaps to show he knows them all). The second sentence of the book sets the tone, which continues the whole way through: "If only I had it in me to be all fierce, fearless and forthright instead of forever sprinkling my discourse with pitiful retractions, apologies and prevarications."
There are those who view this literary incontinence as just a part of Fry's donnish style. But he ruins interesting anecdotes about his very interesting life by lapsing into endless and pointless digressions. When he's writing about his sugar addiction, he feels he has to assure the reader that the past few paragraphs haven't merely been an indulgent list of different kinds of chocolate bars (they have). When he's writing about Cambridge, he catches himself sounding like a guidebook and then admits he took the information from ... a guidebook.
Quentin Crisp once said that comedians start with a persona that reflects their actual personality but the comedian moves on and the persona remains in place, a sort of caricature of what they once were. The Stephen Fry of this book is a sort of heightened parody of himself -- an overly verbose, self-styled smart aleck, who occupies a lucrative niche by appealing to the intellectual snobbery of the masses. Does Fry himself know all this? He all but admits it: "So much that is charming, unusual, provocative and admirably strange in youth becomes tragic, lonely, pathological, boring and ruinous in middle age."
But it doesn't stop him going on and on in a book that is dwarfed in entertainment value, if not in style, by its predecessor. It will sell like Harry Potter (it's already number one in every available format in Britain), but it's nothing much to be proud of. I'm sure at some length Fry will point that out too.