Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Book review: THE FRY CHRONICLES by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry as a mythbuster. All our myths about him – he busts them. Forget about tweedy self-confidence and self-assured looks of the most comfortable man in the Establishment – no, actually, it’s all about awkwardness, unwieldy appearance and millions of insecurities, big and small, bugging him every day (and night). Would be interesting if somebody actually took the pains to count how many times Stephen uses the word ‘embarrassing’ and ‘embarrassed’ throughout The Fry Chronicles. I’m embarrassed to admit… I know how embarrassing it sounds… That sort of thing. Indeed, some readers/critics of more cynical disposition (and those most probably include me) would be reminded of a question once asked by Fry’s dear friend, Alan Bennett: “Who can measure the self-servingness of self-effacement?”

Nah, don’t mind me. I love Stephen Fry (how can you not?), and God bless those myths. For me, Stephen has always seemed this formidable, warm wave of wit and intelligence you could always relate to. There’s no arrogance there, no snobbery. And with this colourful, absorbing memoir, you can probably understand why, and, as Nabokov put it, get to the architecture of it. Which may not necessarily be the thing you most wanted – do we really need sincerity from celebrities (awful word, I know)? – but it is an extremely engaging read, and a brilliant way to see what a great man is made of.

And Stephen Fry is most certainly a great man. Wikipedia could give you a rather long list of things he is, from writer to comedian, and if you disregard for a moment the not too credible ‘master of none’ motif that Fry never tires of repeating, you will have to admit that he pretty much excels in all those. Also, who else can boast of having both Christopher Hitchens and Ben Elton as a friend?..

The Fry Chronicles is his second autobiography. The first, brilliantly called Moab Is My Washpot, was published in 1997, and tackled his early rebellious years. This one picks up where Moab left off and ends with the launch of A Little Bit Of Fry And Laurie. If you’ve read anything by Stephen Fry, anything at all, you will definitely recognize his style – pleasantly stodgy, verbose, literate and self-consciously full of alliterations. Speaking of the latter, this autobiography concentrates on Stephen’s fixation with the letter ‘C’. Which means that the title of each chapter (and, indeed, the whole book) sounds something like this: Candy, Cambridge, Cellar Tapes, Computer… His obsessions and whatever it was that crossed his path at this or that point.

I’ll say it again: it is an extremely (sometimes painfully) sincere book. From his homosexuality to his constant sense of uneasiness and inferiority to his loose way with money (precious little about his religious views though), he lets it all out. And being the stellar storyteller he so clearly is, he knows just how to present it: from a comic angle, with loads of self-irony.

It’s been a long and eventful ride for him, and much of it is understandably lost and forgotten. So that what is left is a bunch of unforgettable events that stick out from Fry’s quite impressive memory. There are lots of great little stories here, like the nerve-wrecking auditioning for an Alan Bennett play or the heartbreaking participation in the University Challenge show. Some of these stories are actually downright eccentric, particularly the one where Stephen tries to insure the Cambridge May Ball in the event of the Queen Mother’s untimely death. Also, you get to hear some quirky details about certain illustrious personalities he had to deal with. Having said that, Stephen is mostly generous, what with his life-long dread of offending people.

As for those fits of modesty, insecurity and embarrassment, they are absolutely vital to the book; in the sense that if it were not for all his complexes and insomnias, his life would seem one of the most invigorating success stories imaginable. However, Stephen is quick to note, God doesn’t give a fig about talent: it all comes at a price. But Fry doesn’t have time for God: “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

With this book, Stephen Fry doesn’t make himself more down-to-earth, more like everyone else (which, if I understand the memoir’s confessional introduction correctly, wasn’t exactly the last thing on his mind). But it does make him appear more complete, which in all honesty is all we could really ask for. Stephen hints at the next installment at the very end of the brief, intriguing final chapter, simply entitled C. He thanks you for the company, but you inevitably want more. Out of all the famous people in the world, whose company would you most wish to share? I’m confident that quite a lot of us would nominate a certain Stephen Fry, and who would really mind if the famous man in question might feel embarrassed about it. And (oh God no!) have sweaty palms.

I began reading The Fry Chronicles while sitting in a cozy little café in Moscow. Outside I could hear muffled city noises, hissing traffic and clicking heels, but inside there was this beautiful vibe. It was almost idyllic: deep armchair, green tea and a chocolate pancake. I finished the book at home, amid the disarray of books, socks and whatnot. Interestingly, the vibe was much the same.


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