This book deals with his experiences at school, his criminal tendencies, his sexual awakening and his first love. It starts on the train to boarding school and culminates in prison (which is apparently oddly like boarding school in a number of ways) and then the entrance to Cambridge.
Autobiographies have a habit of becoming either self-glorifying grand narratives inexorably driving the author towards his major achievements, or staid sequences of events of the "and then I did this", however sprinkled with juicy anecdotes and opinions about how everyone else went wrong. Stephen Fry, being delightful, manages to avoid both clichés.
He laughs at linearity and digresses to his heart's content, skipping backwards and forwards with glee. The first time he did it he did not signal it, and it left me confused for a moment; but as the confusion passed I realised how much I love this way of doing autobiography: he holds in his mind at the same time the memory of himself as a boy and the world around him as it was then, and the knowledge of how it all develops. He does not force the one to submit to the other, in a sort of bleak determinism or an equally problematic nostalgia. Instead he is constantly commenting on the construction of the image of the past that he is creating. The opening words provide a good example:
For some reason I recall it as just being me and Bunce. No one else in the compartment at all. Just me, eight years old, and this inexpressibly small dab of misery who told me in one hot, husky breath that his name was Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce.
I remember why we were alone now. My mother had dropped us off early at Paddington Station.
The impression it gives is not one of fact recounted but of the progress of remembering. Interspersed with the memories are philosophical observations, literary discussions (there is some very good stuff about a gay, dandyfied counter-culture in opposition to the ideal of muscular christianity and its heteronormativity. And P.G. Wodehouse, of course.) and some delicious common sense.
The strangest part of reading the book was the oscillation in my mind between absorbing this book as a piece of literature, empathising with the protagonist and thoroughly enjoying myself, and the knowledge that this is Stephen Fry recounting (or at least producing an image of) his childhood. The story of how he was made to see a speech therapist, for example, is very different when you know how wonderfully distinctly he speaks now. The idea that his speech might be incomprehensible is so wildly unbelievable that it somehow becomes wildly interesting. That, and I love trying the tongue twisters. I think I startled Tor by suddenly saying that
Betty had a bit of bitter butter and put it in her batter and made her batter bitter. Then Betty put a bit of better butter in her bitter batter and made her bitter batter better. (103)
I also laughed out loud several times (cue more startled looks), despite the fact that so much of the book is taken up with recounting humiliations and difficulties in fitting in among other children. The theme should make it sad and difficult to read, but it is told in such a way that it is delightful (that word again),even hilarious. There is a story about a dead mole and an evil girl with a donkey which cannot be summarised. And Fry's rants about the horror of not being able to sing had me giggling.
The book also left me feeling that I now know all I ever needed to know about a young gay man's sexual awakening. Not to mention all the stuff that apparently goes (went?) on at public schools. But while I am usually very prudish about this sort of thing, it did not put me off here. Perhaps because of the way it is written. And perhaps because it was all tied up with rants about the evils of sports and physical education. I sympathise entirely. There is the marvellous passage which states that,
you could fuck me with a pineapple and call me your suckpig, beat me with chains and march me up and down in uniform every day and I would thank you with tears in my eyes if it got me off games. (233)
The description of his first love was charming. I am, of course, left with a powerful curiosity as to the identity of this ``Matthew'' (a pseudonym to ``spare blushes all round''), but it doesn't really matter. The idea of this boy, and the description of Fry's subtle approaches are so sweetly endearing I wanted to look up and go "awwww" at people. Homosexuality adds an extra component to the drama of teenage feelings, of course; and it is very interesting to read his thoughts on the strange rules of the public school environment, about what is ``queering'' (and therefore unacceptable) and what is just having sex with a boy (which is fine).
As I said, it ends in his 19th year (if my maths are right). The culmination of this part of his life is really a very shocking and sad one. It ends in a suicide attempt followed by a crime spree and then prison. But even at its saddest, it is an entertaining read. I had tears in my eyes sometimes, but I laughed more. And the book, thankfully ends at an opening up towards brighter things, with his entrance to Cambridge in 1976.
Still, I really hope the second volume, which comes out on September 13 this year, is happier than the first, because while it is entertaining as literature, it is very sad when you realise it is a description of an actual experience of growing up. And, Stephen Fry being delightful, you want him to have had a delightful life as well. Of course, that might have given us as readers fewer exquisite passages. But that thought is somehow morally problematic, isn't it?