31 January, 2011Issue 15.2LiteratureWriters

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A Modern Apostle

Luke Maxted

foerStephen Fry
The Fry Chronicles: an autobiography
Penguin, 2010
438 Pages
ISBN 978-0718154837

Stephen Fry’s latest memoir—documenting his life between his acceptance at Cambridge and his ascension to the English comedic hierarchy—has received a fair amount of censorious press since its release five months ago. If a kind of anti-Fry movement has emerged, its main representatives deride Fry as the dim man’s clever man, and judge his latest book to be transparently self-celebratory, little more than a collection of pleasant chit-chat. The Fry Chronicles does contain a lot of pleasant chat. We learn about Fry’s boyhood addiction to sugar (“C12H22011…[that] beguiling and benighted substance”), and with moderate sympathy, we offer him a consolatory pat on the back. We are told of Fry’s extravagant and romantic sojourns, and of truanting excursions from the Norfolk College of Arts and Technology to the American Bar of the Ritz Hotel (to which he found himself drawn, “like Dr Watson…drawn to Piccadilly”).

But behind the cocktail and Sobranie-filled hours of amiable chat which The Fry Chronicles jovially and apologetically delivers, there lies what appears to be its author’s main purpose: that of erecting an “indestructible shell of personality around himself”, to borrow Simon Callow’s pithy description of Fry. This book is not an “explanation of extraordinary behaviour”, as Wilde said of his De Profundis (1897), but simply the chronicling of a series of extraordinary events that have shaped an extraordinary character. While De Profundis was the last thing Wilde wrote, as Fry’s concluding paragraph notes, he himself has more “for another book”, and far more time in which to write it. Fry has not yet reached the stage of Wildean explanation; his concern continues to be the creation of a legend.

The Fry Chronicles is split into three main sections, each beginning with “C”. The first is a compendium of addictions and misdemeanours, tracing Fry’s toils with Cereal, Candy, Cigarettes and Cessation. The section is somewhat indulgent; at times the reader may feel as though he’s sitting patiently while Fry lists with guilty glee the kitsch names of his favourite sweets. But thankfully, some Hollywood name-dropping (Lindsay Lohan and Peter Jackson are both afforded cameos), a fantastic Tom Stoppard vignette, and a good deal of charming, alliterative prose entertainingly carries us to the book’s second section.

The “College to Colleague” section introduces the book’s pivotal location, a place that turns out to be essential to the constitution of both the work and its subject. That setting is Cambridge. As with Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room (1922) or Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde (1989), Cambridge (or Oxford in the latter case) is acknowledged as a place liable to define an entire life, and Fry, in search of definition, treats his alma mater as he does himself: he transforms it into an ideal, a legend. Initially, his defence of Oxford and Cambridge, with its vaguely paranoid tone, resembles his defence of himself:

It is natural for people to despise the very idea of Oxford and Cambridge. Elitist, snobbish…Oxbridge doesn’t fool anybody with all that flannel about “meritocracy” and “excellence”. Are we supposed to be impressed by the silly names they give themselves? Fellows and stewards and deans and dons and proctors and praelectors. And as for the students, or undergraduates, I beg their pompous pardons…

Ultimately, however, it is quite clear whose side this former Cambridge undergraduate is on. In the succeeding paragraph he argues that honesty and sensitivity should be looked for in those who initially appear “attitudinizing and posturing in every gesture”. According to Fry treating these students with instant contempt only strengthens the shield which may hide those “pitiful posers” who are in fact “shrinking and shrivelling like salted snails” on the inside.

This desire for honest, sensitive human relations is the essence of the young Fry’s idealisation of Cambridge. He recalls that before arriving at university, he

believed in [Cambridge] completely…I hero-worshipped E.M. Forster and G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles and their associated Bloomsbury satellites Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and Lytton Strachey as well as the more illustrious planets in that system, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I admired especially the cult of personal relations that Forster espoused. His view that friendship, warmth and honesty between people mattered more than any cause or any system was for me a practical as well as a romantic ideal.

Fry’s Cambridge came to embody this ideal. He seems to have swallowed whole Forster’s comments on the virtues of university life in Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1934):

Body and spirit, reason and emotion, work and play, architecture and scenery, laughter and seriousness, life and art – these pairs which are elsewhere contrasted are there fused into one. People and books reinforced one another, intelligence joined hands with affection, speculation became a passion, and discussion was made profound by love.

Fry assures us, “I know how insufferably awful I must appear when I tell you that I wanted to go to Cambridge because of the Bloomsbury Group”. But in fact, it is hard to believe Fry is indeed aware of this. One suspects he simply predicts that a number of readers will interpret his motives as “appallingly precious”—and he wouldn’t want to be pipped to that post. Overall, it is clear that Fry maintains to this day his unapologetic belief in the Cambridge of Bloomsbury and the Apostles. His juvenile ideas of Cambridge are related with a fondness which does not snigger or patronise, and that ultimately comes across as honest and completely worthy. Fry’s assertion that it was the “intellectual and the ethical tradition that appealed to [his] puritanical and self-righteous soul” is likely to seem antiquated and alien to all but a few present-day Oxbridge applicants. But for Fry, it is the core of an ideal that remains long after his association with the university has ended, part of an entire programme for living. This ideal is evoked in a lyrical metaphor form Woolf’s Jacobs Room:

…if at night, far out at sea over the tumbling waves, one saw a haze on the waters, a city illuminated, a whiteness even in the sky, such as that now over the Hall of Trinity where they’re still dining, or washing up plates, that would be the light burning there – the light of Cambridge.

After the poetic profundity of The Fry Chronicles’s second section, it is difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the third. The “C” this time stands for Comedy, and the narrative is little more than a list of Fry’s excellent showbiz achievements (though the writing does retain its characteristic verbosity). Phone conversations with Stephen Sondheim and mounting commissions for more and more shows are related without the starry-eyed wonder evident in the Cambridge sections. Where the second section is paradoxical and exploratory, and provides contrasting representations of the author, the third offers a prosaic, step-by-step guide to Fry’s activities after his departure from university. Whether he is describing himself as a “twat in tweed”, a “punchably pompous buttoned-up arse-hole”, or “hopeful and daft” and genuinely quite scared, in these late stages Fry seems intent on removing the romantic lustre from a tale of incandescent success while polishing its artificial sheen with the other hand. But the failure of this last section matters very little, because we have already glimpsed something much more substantive than a mere list of facts. Oscar Wilde said, “You must never destroy legends. Through them we are given an inkling of the true physiognomy of a man.” The Fry Chronicles exists not to explain, nor to delve aggressively into its author’s character. This book exists primarily to add to the legend of Oxbridge and to the legend of Stephen Fry.

Luke Maxted is reading for a BA in English Language and Literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.