The Washington Post, January 20, 2012
Nobody likes a showoff. Oh, wait, I mean everybody does. Stephen Fry, the waggish, wonkish actor-writer-director-quiz-show-host-I-forget-what-else has attracted more than 3.5 million Twitter followers, which means that, at any minute of the day, a population larger than Berlin's is waiting for the next words to fall from his electronic lips.
Will these admirers line up for his second volume of memoirs? The answer may depend, first of all, on whether they're English. "The Fry Chronicles" drops name after showbiz name, and unless you're acutely Anglophiliac, seeing Ian Botham, Rik Mayall, Vic Reeves and Lenny Henry strut and fret their minutes upon the page won't produce many answering chords.
A second consideration: How close are you to a dictionary? Such words as "nubiferously" and "colaphize" lie strewn across your path, not to mention such phrases as "Parisian post-structuralists and their caravanserai of prolix and impenetrable evangels and dogmatically zealous acolytes." That hunk of text repeats itself at least twice by my count, but as Fry shrugs: "The felid remains incapable of permuting his nevi." No, don't get up. He only means that this leopard won't be changing his spots.
And yet a fairly deep change does play out across this funny, poignant, exhausting book. Readers of Fry's first memoir, "Moab Is My Washpot" (1997), will recall the author's deeply troubled youth, checkered by expulsions and suicide attempts and a brief spell of incarceration for stealing credit cards. When we pick him up again, he has somehow gotten himself into Cambridge University. Tall and gangling, covertly gay, he expects nothing more adventurous from his life than a teaching career, but after due consideration, he auditions for three drama club productions and gets into all of them.
"I loved the tingle of nerves as I waited in the wings," he remembers, "I loved the almost mystical hyperaesthetic way in which one was aware of each microsecond on stage, of how one could detect precisely where an audience's focus was at any one moment, I loved the thrill of knowing that I was carrying hundreds of people with me, that they were surfing on the ebb and flow of my voice."
Fry joins fates with two other undergrads: a semi-radical feminist named Emma Thompson ("She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed") and a rower named Hugh Laurie, who becomes Fry's best friend and writing partner. Their troupe, the Cambridge Footlights, wins honors at the Edinburgh theater festival, and, upon graduating, they team up for lightly watched TV sketch comedies. When Fry is asked to draft a new book for a musty British musical called "For Me and My Girl," the show becomes an unexpected hit, leaving him with a cash cow.
And with a problem: What exactly to do with this teeming brain and these plural talents? The answer, as any fan could tell you, has been a bit of everything. And there lies the rub. For all his urbanity and pukka assurance, Stephen Fry would like you to know—would really like you to know—that he is deeply insecure and compulsively self-lacerating: "a jack of so many trades and manifestly a master of none." "What a waste," he adds, warming to his subject. "What a fatuous, selfish, air-headed, indolent and insulting waste my life has been."
Okay, he protests too much. And even if he didn't, this book would be its own refutation, with its linguistic brio, its hilarious anecdotes about Alistair Cooke, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser ... and, fittingly enough for a champion tweeter, its glittering epigrams. The playwright Simon Gray "did not have a drinking problem. He had a drinking solution. ... Is it not a rule in life that no one is quite as stupid as we would like them to be?"
Fry may hate himself for not being his hero, Oscar Wilde, but he is Wilde enough in this respect: His prose feels like an ideal form of conversation. And at the risk of interrupting, I would propose that the world is already lousy with artists. It's the true entertainers who are thin on the ground. Shut up, Mr. Fry, and keep talking.