THE FRY CHRONICLES
By Stephen Fry
Overlook, $29.95 448 pages, illustrated
Who else but Stephen Fry could write an autobiography - and a substantial one at that - all organized around the letter C? For this is not just some frivolity tossed off lightly with little thought or engagement. To a remarkable extent, it is a revealing look at a goodly slice of his life, from his school days, through university and into the world of theater, film and television. You’d have to be not just very smart but witty, humorous and inventive to have had the career he has, but still more to encapsulate so much of it, playfully yet seriously, in this book.
Of course his trick is to use dozens of topics beginning with C to illuminate a host of experiences. Sugar played a large role in his earlier life and so his first chapter is “C is for C12H22011 (its chemical compound), for Cereal, for Candy, for Caries, for Cavities, for Carbohydrates, for Calories.” If he can pack so much into the title, you can imagine what he does in nearly 20 pages of text, culminating with a harsh self-examination of his girth and weight, before he goes onto another addiction in the next chapter, “C is for cigarettes.”
Mr. Fry has been hugely successful in his chosen profession, though the personal demons that have bedeviled his private life have pursued him there, too. Although this book does touch on some of his travails, it for the most part focuses its attention on happy interludes in his life and in particular on those friends he made at the University of Cambridge. Some of them, such as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, have become lifelongtime professional collaborators as well, but there are others equally important to him who have not.
He consistently displays a respect for the privacy of others and, although he can be unsparing about his own limitations and flaws, he succeeds, for the most part, in admirably avoiding the unpleasant realm of “too much information” across the board. Somehow, discretion is not a quality you might at first glance associate with Mr. Fry, yet he seems to know just when to be wicked and mischievous, usually but not always at his own expense, and when to draw a welcome curtain.
One thing that impresses the reader on almost every page is that Mr. Fry is a true original, his own person, not one to go with the flow. Never one to simply absorb zeitgeist by osmosis, Mr. Fry’s years at Cambridge during the turbulent 1970s saw him marching to unusual tunes:
“Given that Britain was boiling with anarchic post-punk creativity, the political excitements of multiple strikes and the election of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party, that there was rubbish piling up in the streets, corpses going unburied and inflation rocketing skywards, given all that, a knot of tweedy Cambridge late adolescents gasping at the wonder of Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosis’ and Schoenberg’s ‘Transfigured Night’ seems what? Perfectly legitimate. Entirely in accordance with what education is supposed to be.
“Nonetheless, I’m slightly shocked at how earnest and dull a picture I present in my tweed jacket and corduroys, puffing at a pipe and listening to all that German Late Romantic noise. Is that where it all went wrong? Or is that where it all went right?”
Well, judging by “The Fry Chronicles” - to say nothing of its author’s public career - it seems clear what the answer is. There were a lot worse noises - musical and other - that could have served as siren calls to much darker places than he has ventured. Mr. Fry’s path has not exactly been of the primrose variety, but it has taken him where he appears to have needed to go. Until at the very end of the book when a sinister specter beginning with C - cocaine - rears its ugly head.
It is truly astounding how much Mr. Fry has been able to pack into these pages through the letter C. Perhaps it is a personal favorite, with an unusual number of associations for him. But given his range, I’d bet that there are a quite a few other letters that could provide jumping-off points for his memories and revelations. Based on this effort, many will be looking forward to seeing what he can do with at least some of them.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.