Monday, July 25, 2011

Review: The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry

Oh, Stephen Fry. It takes a certain kind of genius to write a series of memoirs and still make the reader feel welcome even if he hasn’t read them in order. I’m certainly in this boat, not having encountered Fry’s earlier autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot, before cracking the covers of his latest tome, The Fry Chronicles. No matter. Fry, that famed British actor, author, and exuberant ambassador of the sublimities of a life of the mind, is so adept at turning a phrase or unwinding a story that you don’t really mind the missing context. You’re in it for the roller coaster ride of his language.

The Fry Chronicles picks up where Moab left off – at the tail end of Fry’s adolescence, where he, among other things, spent time in prison for credit card fraud and is now pleading his way into a life of higher education. The memoir is framed around a fascinating conceit: each chapter and subchapter uses a word or series of words beginning with the letter C (Comedy Credits, Church and Chekhov, etc), a tipping of the hat, I suppose, to the word ‘chronicle’ or perhaps his alma mater, Cambridge, his time at which making up a significant portion of this book.

One could argue that The Fry Chronicles is a tad overwritten, but again, Fry’s love of language warrants a lot of forgiveness. Not many writers could get away with a 15-page description of a childhood addiction to candy, but Fry does it with aplomb. Or take this passage, illustrating the simple pleasure of lighting a pipe:

The sulphurous incense tingles in my nostrils as I tip the lit match at an angle over the bowl and then slowly flatten it out. Each inhalation sucks the flame downwards over the prepared tobacco which fizzes and bubbles in welcome, its moist freshness imparting a thick sweetness to the smoke. Finally, when the whole surface area is lit and just before my fingers burn, three flicks of the wrist extinguish the match. It tinkles as it hits the glass of the ashtray … I am puffing now. One, two, three, four, five draws on the pipe, smacking the lips at the side of the mouth. Each hard suck stokes up the boiler so that, on the sixth or seventh pull, I can breathe in a whole lungful.

The book details his brief period as a teacher at a private school, his time at Cambridge where he discovered his theatre bug, his early years cracking into England’s stage- and TV-acting scene, and his ascent from poorly paid participant in the highbrow arts to an increasingly wealthy player in England’s burgeoning celebrity culture. Along the way, Fry forges important relationships with the likes of Emma Thompson (clearly the most successful actor he went to school with, having gone on to win two Academy Awards), Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, and all manner of behind-the-scene kingmakers in London’s TV and film industries.

Fry also gives us a window into the budding obsessions that accompany his growing wealth. Some, like his fascination with the emergence of personal computers and their various technological accoutrements, are benign and even charming. (The scenes of he and Douglas Adams getting together like teenaged boys to play with their latest high-tech acquisitions are very endearing.) But when Fry starts to purchase several cars, a house in the country as well as a flat in London, and other trinkets of grandeur, we begin to worry about him. The introduction of cocaine into his life, near the end of this memoir, becomes the obvious and ominous next step in this progression.

One criticism that I do have about The Fry Chronicles is that Fry spends too much time undermining his own celebrity in the name of self effacement. It gets dull, very quickly, to read him downplaying himself and his accomplishments in comparison to Atkinson, Thompson and others. Even the captions for the book’s photos are full of pot shots at his behaviour and self image. It’s not that all of it is unnecessary, but its disingenuous persistence does break an unspoken covenant with the reader: we clearly know Fry is a big deal – otherwise we wouldn’t be reading this book – so can’t we just leave it at that?

Another pain point for me was the ending. It’s one thing to begin the second volume of a memoir in medias res; it’s another to finish it so abruptly, and under the presumption that he will not only write a third volume, but that we will read it. The final scene in The Fry Chronicles has him snorting cocaine for the first time and then closes with this: “I did not know it but this was to mark the beginning of a new act of my life. The tragedy and farce of that drama are the material for another book. In the meantime, thank you for your company.” Needless to say, I felt a little ripped off.

Having said all that, The Fry Chronicles is, on the whole, a wonderful read and a fascinating window into the mind and life of one of England’s most appealing public figures. For my money, this autobiography holds its own with the likes of Little Wilson and Big God and Are You Somebody? two exemplars of the memoir form from the U.K.

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