Posted by: Neil Hollands
Stephen Fry is one of those ubiquitous characters of popular culture who never becomes the main event, but pops up in all kinds of contexts. A Cambridge grad, he first came to broad public light in his writing and comedy work teamed with Hugh Laurie. He became famous in Black Adder II and Jeeves and Wooster (also working with Laurie). Some of his film appearances include Peter’s Friends, the title role in Wilde, Gosford Park and V for Vendetta. He narrated the British version of the Harry Potter audiobooks and fans still battle over whether they prefer his reading or Jim Dale’s. More recently he starred in a British series Kingdom and the documentary series Stephen Fry in America. He also had memorable supporting turns on the television show Bones and the movie Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. With his distinct lantern-jawed face and long bangs, a memorable voice, and an affable presence, he’s an easy actor to remember.
But Fry is equally gifted, and versatile, as a writer and would make an interesting subject for a book group meeting. You could take his work alone, or mix it with that of other contemporary British comedy/drama/writing triple threats, most of whom are good friends of Fry like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Michael Palin.
Among Fry’s novels, my personal favorite is The Hippopotamus, a raunchy comedy of manners that takes a curmudgeonly failed poet and drama critic to a country house where his cynicism is thrown for a loop for a teenage boy who people come to believe has healing power in a particular bodily fluid. This isn’t a choice for an easily shocked group, but honestly, the raunchy scenes are so over-the-top comical that it’s hard not to laugh even though it’s crude. With all the Wodehouse-and-Amis-gone-randy hijinks, there are a surprising number of interesting philosophical questions asked as well. In short, it’s a comic tour-de-force, but it’s more than that.
Another good choice is Making History, a time travel story in which a physicist and a history graduate student try to prevent Hitler’s conception. At the center of the book is an important question: would the pulse of the times have created similar events in the 20th century without Hitler? However Fry adds wit, some thrills, and some interesting notions on time travel.
Fry has two memoirs from which to choose. Moab Is My Washpot focuses on his first 20 years, including a surprising stint in prison, a suicide attempt (Fry is bipolar), and his exploration of homosexuality. It’s funny but thoughtful, frank but meandering, and charming in its candor.
The story continues in the recent The Fry Chronicles. You have to enjoy a bit of a ramble to truly appreciate Fry, he’s full of asides. He mentions a thousand plays, British television shows, cultural figures, and influences along the way, most of which won’t be familiar to Americans. He admits freely that he often takes a hundred words to express what others might say in ten, but there’s so much wit here you probably won’t mind. Fry’s self deprecation and suffering over the question of his own worth give this work a poignant turn.
These books are just the tip of the Fry-berg. You might also try the companion book to his Stephen Fry in America series, his essay collection Paperweight, his other novels Revenge and The Liar, or A Bit of Fry and Laurie to sample his early comedy writing work. No matter where in his writings you turn, I think you’ll be charmed by this uniquely British character.