I have mixed feelings about the author whose avowed brilliance is tempered by strange behavior, apparently due to his being subject to bi-polar disorder, as well as his aversion to Israel and Zionism. His half-Jewish background may partly account for the latter, and possibly even the former, but it doesn’t make me like him any better.
On the other hand, to see him act and to read his book is to love and admire him, both for his vast talent and for his disarming honesty. I laughed and cried, alternately gasping in admiration and clutching my head in dismay, as I read the 430 pages of this book, and am looking forward to reading its sequel. Even more exhilarating is the news that the third volume in the series has just been published. But I think I’ll give my quest to acquire additional Fry reading matter a rest for the moment.
There is no doubt that Stephen Fry has a way with words, as well as having something akin to total recall with regard to the sometimes audacious, sometimes salacious, aspects of the first twenty years of his life. He was obviously a troubled teenager, but if you are sent away to boarding school at the age of seven that is hardly surprising. According to Fry’s account, there is a certain similarity between public school and Borstal (he has experienced both), and to be deprived at such an early age of what one would hope is the warmth and security of family life must affect the individual in some way, for better or for worse. But then the question that has to be asked is: why don’t all those children who are sent away to boarding school at an early age turn out to be disturbed? Perhaps they do in some way or another, but then they’re not Stephen Fry, who would habitually steal money from his fellow-pupils in order to buy sweets, as well as playing pranks of various kinds on teachers and fellow-pupils alike.
Admittedly, Stephen’s father was somewhat eccentric, apparently being something of a genius, totally devoted to his work as an independent inventor and developer of various kinds of scientific measuring equipment. He seems to have been reasonably successful at this, being able to live in an enormous house which also served as his physics laboratory, workshop and production floor. He was a very distant person, and it was on Stephen’s mother, whom he adored, that the burden of bringing up three children fell (though of course there were servants who helped around the house and with the children when they were small).
One of the most touching parts of the book is Fry’s long and detailed account of falling in love at school at the age of fourteen with a boy about a year younger than himself. The pre-pubescent boy evidently possessed an almost ethereal beauty, and Fry describes the feeling of being hopelessly in love with astonishing fidelity, managing to evoke emotions that most of us have felt at one time but have long forgotten. The memory of that love, which may or may not have been unrequited, haunts Fry almost throughout the book, and although his tone is for the most part flippant and conversational, when it comes to this topic he plumbs depths of emotion that are both terrifying and uplifting.
After an undistinguished school career, eventually being expelled from yet another school, having been caught red-handed by the matron from whose handbag he was trying to steal money, Stephen spent some time in a detention centre and was eventually given a two-year suspended sentence and placed under probation. Once again, he failed to live up to his innate ability, but it was at this point that he decided to take himself in hand, managing to persuade the reluctant head of an external college to not only let him sit his A-levels again but also to sit for the Cambridge Entrance Exams.
By dint of his hard work, amazing memory and extraordinary intelligence, Stephen managed to excel in all his exams, and was offered a scholarship to Queens College, Cambridge, justifying his parents’ belief in him and serving to console them for all the trouble he had caused them till then.