Stephen Fry: 1st Rate Mind, 2nd Rate Memoir

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After doing blog entries on quantum physics, Wittgenstein’s linguistic puzzles, the art of war, and government theory, I started looking over my three year Self-Doctorate reading list for something a bit lighter.  The correct choice was at once obvious:  The Fry Chronicles, part two of Stephen Fry’s autobiography.

I’m not sure what Stephen Fry is best known for in the States.  As I write this, people may know him best as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother.  Fry started as a comedian and playwright, but I knew him first as an actor.  He very early worked with Emma Thompson, whose first roles were also largely comedic.  A little later he began working with Hugh Laurie, with whom he has been close friends for decades.  All three of these people are infuriatingly multi-talented.

Something about Fry always engaged my attention when he was on screen.  He’s a big man, crooked nose, not particularly handsome or not handsome— but he just exuded intelligence and roiled with wit.  Over time, I noticed his name popping up more and more, and seldom did a person write or speak about him without mentioning his intelligence or calling him a “Renaissance man” or something along those lines.  Finally, I thought to myself:  this is a dude worth checking out.  He is a contemporary and for all I know a genius, and I’ve never explored his thought at all.  My loss if I don’t look for the enlightening fire where there is all this praising smoke.

Alas, the book did not deliver the cerebral fireworks I had sought.  It is no surprise that Fry is verbose.  And, as I discovered, his memory is phenomenal—the kind of guy who just doesn’t forget things.  These two characteristics taken together—verbosity and prodigious memory—are not necessarily a good combination when it comes to autobiography.  Case in point:  Fry has now completed two volumes of autobiography, neither book a slender one, and I think he’s taken us up to about year thirty of his life.

Fry’s writing is competent, but where I was expecting philosophical insight and verbal gymnastics– and several dozen puns, of course— I instead found the narrative pedestrian and mundane and even at times, trivial.

Which is a shame– for, as Fry admits himself, he desperately likes to please.  Fry doesn’t like this quality in himself, saying that “wanting to be liked is often a very unlikeable characteristic.”

“All the true artists I know,” he says, “are uninterested in the opinion of the world and wholly unconcerned with self-explanation.  Self-revelation, yes, and often, but never self-explanation,” adding that “artists are strong, bloody-minded, difficult and dangerous.”

I was happy to see that Fry has the dignity not to turn his memoirs into a tell-all or a celebrity sob story.  Like any human being, he has lived through difficult, painful, and depressing times, but, at least in this volume, he doesn’t dwell on them.

The world, he says, does not want “to hear that people who are leading a high life, an enviable life, a privileged life are as miserable most days as anybody else”  […]  “instead the world would prefer to enjoy the idea, against what it knows to be true, that wealth and fame do in fact insulate and protect against misery and it would rather we shut up if we are planning to indicate otherwise.”

Despite my disappointment in the book, I still believe that Fry possesses a first rate mind.  But this book was not a showcase for his gifts.  It may be that he comes off best in conversation, as many great minds do.  Perhaps I’ll try to catch some interview with him where he is in top form, all the parts of his superior brain interlocked and full-throttle, and fully throttling his interlocutors.

What Fry’s book did do was convince me to try viewing again the old television series Black Adder, starring Rowan Atkinson.  I think it ran for four seasons.  Years ago, I watched an episode of the last season which I thought was rubbish.  However, Fry clued me in that the second season was more watchable.  And, indeed, it was.  I sampled the other seasons, and found them still not to my liking.  So, if you ever want to give Black Adder a chance, start and end with Season Two.  Rowan Atkinson is actually almost debonair in it.  Those episodes also feature Miranda Richardson who, even in the guise her comic version of Elizabeth I, comes off very fetching indeed.

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One thought on “Stephen Fry: 1st Rate Mind, 2nd Rate Memoir

  1. i’ve always thought Mr Fry was a panto intellectual. Dressing up, foppish hair, reasonably witty asides. In the UK people are suspicious of intellectuals and he is nicely manafactured, outrageous in a well-worn camp way that isn’t too challenging and is just a little bit naughty. But interesting review especially that the need to be liked isn’t very likeable

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