While at university, I met Stephen Fry’s German translator. This was (and probably still is) the most exciting, nerdy thing to have happened to me, because I fall squarely into the camp of Stephen Fry worshippers. It was only when I tried to explain to my family how exciting this meeting had been that I realised that it was hard to describe to a bunch of Germans just how amazing Stephen Fry is. He is an actor, yes, but Jeeves and Wooster is not very well known in Germany, and Wilde was… well, just one movie. The whole aspect of him being the intellectual overlord and infuriatingly clever man of Britain does simply not translate. To this day, my parents roll their eyes when I start a sentence with “Stephen Fry says…”. I have read all the novels and The Fry Chronicles, but somehow never got round to reading Moab Is My Washpot. Well, the time has come.
I have only read a handful of autobiographies, because the thought of making the private public in such a manner scares me. Also, there is a significant risk of disliking the author, simply because any justification can so easily be seen as self-important dribble and arrogance. Fry knows that, and he keeps apologising for it. He is acutely aware of how he comes across, so much that sometimes it’s exactly this self-awareness and apologising that made me angry. You just can’t win…
It took me a while to make my peace with this, Fry’s account of the first twenty years of his life. He describes his school days at elementary and boarding schools, the development of his character, talents and vices (again, focussing on the vices), and a slow descend into adolescent angst and crime. He tries his hardest to spell out exactly how deplorable his crimes were, but it’s hard to imagine all this in hindsight. The moment he turns his life around is clearly described, and you feel safe in the knowledge that he will go on to become the great man he is now. Everything before that feels alien and unreal. Or maybe that’s just my impression. Life at boarding school is both terrifying, with the young boy’s fear of sports and the need to lie and be evasive that turns into a real need to lie and steal, but you realise before he decribes it more explicitly that he still mourns the loss of this regulated, carefree school life. Then, of course, sex and love enter the picture, and things get more… intense. It’s been described as a candid book, and there are many, many scenes of an explicit nature, but Fry never strays from his friendly, slightly apologetic and sincere tone. It’s his life, and it is as it is. It’s the moments when he makes a subject into more than a personal anecdote that put me off the book for a while. I have always said that I’d like nothing more than have a long conversation with the man, and make him explain the world to me. Now, I’m not so sure. I just don’t like being lectured, and I beg to disagree, even with Stephen Fry. I can tell you exactly where I started thinking “No! Please don’t generalise here, Stephen!” It is this point of a list of things nobody should be apologetic for:
“To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive.”
No. Just no. I get what he’s saying in regards to schoolboys fancying each other, but paired with his earlier observation that caning pupils is not an act of abuse, every part of me objects. Again, I see how he never considered being caned an abuse, but in my eyes, it is, whether it immediately or in retrospect affects the child or not, an abuse of authority. I find the “age” bit of the above quote incredibly ill-considered. Brrrr.
This nearly ruined the whole book for me. In most aspects, I agree with Fry. He knows stuff, he values language and knowledge. It’s actually quite sobering to realise that even such a great guy says things I cannot agree with. All in all, it’s a pleasure to read. There are so many true things in the book, from childhood terrors to moments of self-realisation and the agonising transformation from the adolescent clarity and immensity of feeling to an adulthood that threatens to bury all that under daily drudgery. The much-used phrase “My whole life stretched out gloriously behind me” sums it up perfectly. So, by all means, read this book. And tell me if you agree.