More Fool Me is Fry’s third book of memoirs, and covers roughly the years 1986-2001, when he was professionally and personally flying high, not least due to incredible quantities of cocaine and vodka that fueled his addictive, rather needy personality. I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Fry, and it’s a far better experience than reading it would have been, I’m sad to say.
The recording starts with an hour of him recapping the events of his first two memoirs (and mock-apologizing for it frequently) and ends with almost three hours of him reading his daily diary entries from three typically busy months in 1993. Had I read this on paper, I’d have been furious about reading a book that seemed assembled from parts rather than written. But hearing it performed took a bit of the sting out of it. When he tells his stories, he acts out the characters, takes on the voices (his impersonation of John Cleese, if impersonation it was, was spot on), and it feels as if one is sitting across from him as he expertly paces and tells his stories.
That said, three months of daily diary entries is asking a bit much of the casual reader. Fry includes the passages as an example of how fast and frenetic his life had become and how, looking back, he could see that a breakdown was inevitable. But it does not avoid becoming a long recitation of name-dropping, self-indulgence, and snobbery. Trey Graham’s NPR.org review sums it up this way:
In barely three months of diary entries, from August to November of 1993, Bad Stephen writes a novel; sits for a portrait; attends the London premiere of The Fugitive and is embarrassed to be seated with the B-list celebs; attempts [writing] the book for an Elton John jukebox musical; races about England benevolently signing books and meeting blushingly with personal bankers; does a speechy thing or two for Prince Charles; tries out a new bespoke tailor; dines with Dennis (aka Mr. Margaret) Thatcher at the Garrick Club and pronounces him, with a blithe arrogance worthy of any Cambridge grad, “better read than I had ever imagined.” Eventually he purchases at auction two letters in Oscar Wilde’s hand — but not without both citing and complaining of the price, and not before dropping roughly as many names, familiar and obscure, as he does pounds sterling. Fear not, he footnotes the obscure ones so as to evoke suitable awe.
Graham concludes: “A misguided, misspent early midlife is one thing to recount and repent. The blithe snobbery, the casual cruelty, the condescension to those less gifted that’s on such vulgar display in this all-too-dense diary of excess — they all demand more examination, more reflection, more humanity than Fry provides.”
During the period described in this book, Fry was enjoying immense visibility from appearing in “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” and the movie Peter’s Friends. It was entirely unforeseen for the schoolboy described in his first memoir, Moab is My Washpot. There, Fry felt like an outsider due to his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, being Jewish, and whatever other unknowable demons drove him to skip school, steal from fellow students to feed his cravings for sweets and cigarettes, take advantage of everyone around him, attempt suicide, and otherwise transgress shamelessly.
His second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, sees him begin to explore relationships, act, write and perform, and become addicted to applause and attention. Though clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, that knowledge doesn’t stop him getting addicted to cocaine as chronicled in More Fool Me and indulging himself by snorting the stuff not just in the private clubs that became his second home but also in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Buckingham Palace. Though he never snorted at Hugh Laurie’s house, knowing Laurie and his wife disapproved; even Fry’s inner demons respected Laurie and his friendship too much to transgress there.
Fry makes no bones about it: he enjoyed himself tremendously and did not see himself as an addict. He details the little kit he assembled to carry and snort 3-5 grams of coke with him whenever he went and is pleased to describe in detail its compact stylishness. (When I smoked a pipe in my 20s, I also happily indulged in all the paraphernalia that goes with that pastime. There is pleasure in the fetish of the ritual.)
Fry throughout feels himself to be the outsider still, even when the evidence of being a tremendous insider explodes all around him – the private clubs, the celebrities, the parties, Lady Di telling him a secret: he loves every drop of it. Cocaine is the thick icing atop a very yummy cake, the soundtrack to the exclusive A-list parties.
Moab is My Washpot remains his best book-length narrative to date because he was able to see young Stephen in toto, forgive him, see him from his childhood into young adulthood and a new beginning, and thus shape the story into a satisfying whole. It’s a touching and affectionate book.
A key reason for the weakness of More Fool Me is that Fry’s larger story has yet to come to an ending. The book is reportorial, brimming with surface details, bright anecdotes, and, as said, an entertaining vocal performance. But not enough time has passed for Fry to really understand who he was and what happened so that he could shape the material into a story that could stand on its own. Fry begins the story bewildered and beleaguered, and ends the same way; there is no change or transformation, just incident after incident.
Much waits in Fry’s future after this book ends: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a continued and apparently unquenchable thirst for vodka, and several suicide attempts, including a very close call from 2012. Fry’s demons are still in there. Maybe one day, Fry (if he is still in there as well) will be able to tell the whole story.
To his credit, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, just a chance to tell his side of the story. I don’t demand an answer to the mystery of his behavior but I do need more than a raconteur’s dinner stories.
- Fry lists his early literary heroes as Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, and Doyle. You see their influence in his sometimes baroque, ornamental style. I wouldn’t say he loves the sound of his own voice so much as he loves the music he can make from his words.
- Fry is stung by Alice Faye Cleese’s remark that she and John prefer his shorter pieces, such as the Telegraph and Listener columns and essays he wrote that were collected in Paperweight, over his comic novels. Fry thinks they’re wrong, that Cleese believes comic novels cannot treat serious topics. But Cleese is right: the shorter length tamps down Fry’s natural discursive style and forces him to focus. In that smaller container, he says a lot more. I stopped reading his fiction after his third novel; they were OK but not memorable.
(originally posted 2016-10-29, updated for micro.blog)