Books: The bottom line
When he makes the effort, Stephen Fry the writer can produce something much finer than lavatory humour. Roger Clarke muses on a dandy's progress
Saturday 27 September 1997
After all, you've seen him on Cook's telly, thumbed his best-selling tomes curled in the weak sun of Diss station and read the nauseating encomiums from Messrs Coren and Sherrin plastered over their defenceless backs (pappe kak, one of his more etymological characters says - Dutch for soft shit). He is a talented man; everyone says so. To tell the truth, I'm somewhat astonished that he can find the time off to "motor" out to the Broads, as he might say. He works hard, positively churns out the stuff. In fact, the man is arse-barkingly fecund.
But one cannot live by telly alone, and in order to research the Fry soul I traipsed to Hatchards to buy his collected works. There are piffling stocking-fillers tenderly limned with that sound man Hugh Laurie (a genre Fry calls "Harpic-stained", bearing in mind their final destination), a collection of yellowed newspaper jottings of dubious merit, two quite good novels heaving with the jovial buggery of public schoolboys and one stab at rewriting the past and Hitler's part in it, Making History. Next month, Hutchinson will regale us with his memoirs, cryptically entitled Moab is my Washpot.
In Nanny's favourite publication, the long-defunct Listener, Fry first made his writerly mark as a book reviewer and provider of pastiche Sherlock Holmes stories. As a writer, he's more like Jeeves than his beloved Oscar Wilde, whom he now impersonates in a new film. There's something deft and calculating about him rather than winning and inspired, although the sensual torpor of Wilde is much to his taste. He likes high camp, lightly fluffed. If he weren't Jewish, he'd be Popish, sure as eggs are eggs. He's artistically inclined towards the bells-and-smells school, a votary of purple Ronnie Firbank and a shameless disciple at the shrine of St Simon Raven.
Poor old Simon Raven. It must be galling for the novelist at his time of life to see young whippersnapper Fry cruise in and bag the loot just because he's famous and on the box. In his novels, Raven did everything that Fry did, only better. There's that same bohemian mendacity, that same screaming snobbery, those same lecherous warts-and-all sexual imbroglios with underage totty.
From the evidence of his books, with their diet of references to yesterday's men such as Maugham, Kipling and Forster, Fry hasn't read anything that came out much after the Sixties. So it's almost startling to find the dyspeptic narrator of The Hippopotamus name-checking the beat poet Gregory Corso with great disgust (Corvo, yes! Corso, no!). Disorientating, also, to find the main character in The Liar, a camp schoolboy tyke called Adrian, get sacked for owning Burroughs's The Naked Lunch. Kipling has no antidote for such reefer madness, even though he did have a delinquent son who probably would have written it had he lived.
If You Can Be a Man When All Men doubt you/ You'll be the Black Meat of the Centipede, My Son.
There are an alarming number of meditations on poetry. One might almost think Fry a frustrated poet himself. Perhaps he has stashes of scary verse tucked away in some locked Reisener Secretaire, or secreted in a rotting Norfolk gazebo.
Certainly, he originally made his name from his appreciation of the more chromatic nuances of language: ingeniously misused adjectives and adverbs, a lip-smacking relish for naughty syllables in silly words. He does dwell lovingly on bottoms, arses and all thereof and therein. Bottoms hover, omnipresent, like great zeppelins in the mind of his Blackadder general. As with Burroughs, it's all in the voice, my dear. His writing only succeeds when you can hear that voice, engorged with its love of language (and bottoms), ring joyously forth.
I came across Fry's memorable phrase about looking as sexy and attractive as a bin-liner full of yoghurt in his second novel, The Hippopotamus. It seems destined for the Fry entry in all future dictionaries of quotations. Everyone seems to think it describes himself, but of course it's his hideous alter-ego Ted Wallace, failed poet and whiskey-sodden hack, who utters the dread self-reference. It says a lot about Fry that everyone accepts it would be normal for him to refer to himself in such a revolting way. We are used to his violent self-disgust, and rather treasure it.
If young Adrian Healey in The Liar is Fry as a young turk at school, Ted Wallace in The Hippopotamus is the future he fears most: an embittered Kingsley Amis type (whose much-anthologised poem about queer public school love forms pretty much the plot of The Liar), given up to the demons of self-recrimination. The Liar, too, gives some hint of things to come. The novel has a nervous breakdown two-thirds of the way through, and goes walkabout in central Europe.
As for the collected writings, Paperweight should either have been called Lightweight or simply Paper. It contains the shredding-machine confetti of numerous Telegraph columns, radio sketches, and humorous out-takes from the good old Listener. Long after Fry has sold his manuscripts to California and students come knocking on his door, academics will pore over the strange sketch entitled "Latin! Or Tobacco and Boys". Still, Fry shines as a writer in unexpected ways: a telling turn of phrase, a love of pastiche (Dickens as well as Conan Doyle), a zest for highly complex structures which never quite last the distance - but well done for trying.
After the outrages of his three novels, it is something of a disappointment to read extracts from the rather staid autobiography. The fiction, however, contains graphic scenes of paedophilia and horse-molestation, but skilfully rendered so as not to offend anyone but the most prudish reader.
So, Aunt Aggie, there is no need to lock up sons, daughters or even the horses when Stephen Fry comes to stay because he is capable of deporting himself with enormous charm and grace. His books so far reveal a great interest in class and sex, and the amusing collision of the two, and he knows a bit about how things work in the countryside. He doesn't strike one as a gent exactly, or someone who has been to a pheasant shoot (described in The Hippopotamus) more than once or twice - and only then to take notes. He knows the depthless minds of butlers; but there again, he acted one, didn't he? What ho!
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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