This was not necessarily a book that I would have bought or even borrowed from the library. However, a houseguest left it behind for my perusal, and I so I perused it. Fry covers his life from the period of his going up to Cambridge to his returning to England from New York in 1987 believing himself to be “the luckiest person” he “knew” (424). The other way of looking at the period covered is from his addiction to Sugar Puffs, which “were starting link in a chain that would shackle. . . [him] for most of . . . [his] life” (8) to his accepting the offer when a friend asked him if he “fancied a line” (425). Did he really not know, as he claims in the book, that he was totally unaware of what “a line” was/is?
After a short introduction headed by a quotation from Noël Coward “Work is more fun than fun” (1), Fry has two chapters “C is for C12H22O11” dealing with his youthful addiction to sugar; and “C is for Cigarettes, Convict [yes, that does say “Convict”] for Cundall, for Corporal punishment, for Common Pursuit, for Cessation” focussing on his relationship with tobacco. These chapters take up the first sixty-four pages of the book. The rest of the autobiography consists of two large sections: “College to Colleague” and “Comedy.” He also includes four groups of coloured photographs of his family and his fellow actors amongst whom the young Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson make frequent appearances.
Fry writes as he talks. This is the Fry of QI (short for Quite Interesting, a BBC2 show unavailable, more’s the pity, on Canadian television). He’s entertaining, more than slightly risqué, sometimes barbed, never dull, self-parodic, always candid. He admits to being really “obsessed with being famous” (288) but goes on to say such obsession leaves “nothing but dissatisfaction, vexation and horrible doses of heavy angst” (289). Although from the very beginning Fry asserts that he “really must stop saying sorry” (1), he does apologise quite a lot in this book. He reveals anxieties about his body, about his talent, admits to being a “plausible rogue” (192) “slick and deceitful enough to answer exam questions in just the way that achieved the best results with the least effort” (150). There were times, I admit, when I found his self-doubt a little over the top, but then I suspect Stephen Fry doesn’t do things in a particularly understated way despite his self-confessed tweediness. Ultimately, he comes across as a somewhat driven man, but it is very hard to dislike someone who asserts
“it is probably a betrayal of everything the Cambridge Literary ethos from Leavis to Kermode stands for, but I am much less interested in artistic standards, literary values, aesthetic authenticity and critical candour than I am in the feelings of others. Or in my own feelings, I suppose I should say, for I cannot bear to feel that I have offended or that I have enemies” (317).
On one level, I am often a little uncomfortable reading autobiography. I have to balance my own sense of being on one level a voyeur with the knowledge that the subject of the autobiography wouldn’t publish it unless he or she wanted it read. I’m not sure that Fry’s book is an apologia pro sua vita in the tradition of Newman or C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Despite its confessional tone at times, I don’t get the sense that it is an explanation or justification of a life. Fry’s forte is comedy. He is not the first to mine his own life for the source of his comedy. Furthermore, as is often the case with comedy, I left the book having laughed but also feeling rather melancholy. What happens when the laughter stops?