04 August, 2011

'The Hippopotamus' - Stephen Fry

Recently I had cause to answer the question: who do you rank among the cleverest minds of our time? It's one of those frustrating enquiries, for which you know you've come across candidates, but put on the spot it can be hard to come up with a good answer, one that doesn't seem trite or obvious.

A day or so later, the perfect answer came into my mind: Stephen Fry. He is, irrefutably, a clever man. And one who has used being clever as a means to a very successful career. Watching him weekly on 'QI', one can never quite tell how much of the copious knowledge he spouts comes from research he's done for that specific show, the notes on the cards in front of him, or simply out of the larger-than-average font of knowledge that encompasses his brain.

In The Fry Chronicles, his autobiography, Fry endeavoured to affect a humility, a sense of 'Oh shucks, I'm such a lucky chap, I really don't know what I've done to deserve this good fortune'. He's routinely generous in praise for his friends - Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton (a joke-writing machine), Douglas Adams etc - and just as self-deprecating about his own talents. At the same time, he can't escape the fact that he's in a position to share his life story in a form that is likely to sell very well indeed, because of the very gifts he's keen to downplay, even dismiss. He must, of course, be acutely aware that he is, in fact, famous and that he's using the skills that have brought him to fame to his advantage.

The Fry empire covers making documentaries and TV series, acting in a few films, hosting a quiz show and stage shows, tweeting, and writing screenplays and novels. The Hippopotamus tells the story of Ted Wallace, a cantankerous old upper-class poet, fired from his job as newspaper drama critic, who is sent to the palatial Norwich home of his old school chum Michael Logan at the behest of his goddaughter, to investigate and report back on 'miracles' seemingly performed by the Logans' son. The hippopotamus of the title refers to Ted himself - he is a fat, wallowing, difficult creature.

Stephen Fry is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, but this is not a good book. This novel is an expurgation - it's Fry getting out all the witty turns of phrase, all the horrid toffee-nosed characters whose seeds have been planted in his writerly mind as he mingles ever more frequently with the highest British society. It's a chance for him to write about women salaciously, and frankly, it's all quite appalling.

The storyline is absurd, and isn't at all helped by the multiple storytelling methods. Ted is hard enough to like, without his characterisation coming variously from his own voluminous letters to his goddaughter, first person narration, third person observation and stitled dialogue from other characters.

Here's Fry, as Wallace, describing lunch:

Luncheon lies between the servantless breakfast served from tureens and the formal fig-feast of dinner in ceremony as in chronology. The library serves as the muster station and pre-prandial lapping-pool of choice; thence we are gonged to the dining room for solids....the imbibal of anything stronger than iced water is uncommon
Language and topics throughout are trite, contrived, pompous and pretentious. Entirely suitable, perhaps, given the class of Brits Fry is depicting.

There's also a scene with a horse that goes where Daniel Radcliffe presumably didn't go on stage in Equus. Call me squeamish but it was a bit more than I was up for.

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