There's nothing like trying to rave about a writer to make one self-conscious about their own writing. For quite some time now I've been trying to find just the right words to wax on about a particular wordsmith. Unfortunately these are the best I can come up with, although there are quite a few of them...:
Never mind Hugh Laurie, I think I'm in love with his colleague Stephen Fry.
Yes, that is a very silly thing to say. After all he's too tall, too English, and too predisposed not to be interested in someone with my particular chromosomal structure for us ever to have a future together... No, I just mean that he seems like someone who would be absolutely fascinating to meet for a conversation sometime.
Which, given that I think I may only be two degrees away from him via several avenues, may not be beyond the realm of possibility of ever happening. But more on that later - first, the gushing...
I could begin by gushing about his acting. He fits the criteria of actors I admire - people for whom acting isn't a substitution for their own intelligence but rather a vehicle for expressing it. I have not yet caught up with the full catalog of his dramatic productions but what I have seen so far I've enjoyed. See, for example, his portrayal of P.G. Wodehouse's unflappable butler Jeeves. Jeeves was Wodehouse's notion, but his televised embodiment was Stephen Fry's creation. His Jeeves is a pillar of quiet strength, servile but hardly subordinate, and, if I were the type to ever use such a word, also completely adorable. Such a figure of reassuring steadiness is his Jeeves that I always feel better whenever I see him on the screen, personally comforted by the knowledge that with him on the job all will soon be set right.
I could also continue to gush about Stephen's own original comedic work. I've watched every bit of Fry and Laurie I could find, including the sketches they did before their own series. My face still aches from all the smiling. What's notable, though, is not that he's funny, per se - because what does that mean, anyway? - but that he has a sense of humor. These aren't the same things. Tragic figures can be funny - people are always able to laugh at other's misfortune. But it takes a sense of humor - an ability to actually sense the humor - to create something that's meaningfully funny. I always get the feeling that he's someone who enjoys a laugh as much as he likes to inspire them, and as a result it's easy to trust his humorist sensibilities.
It's his sensitivity generally that shines through in his other work as well. He's lately been doing a series of documentaries - on HIV, on manic depression, on genealogy - and in this non-fictional work he comes across as genuinely caring as he gently leads viewers through the important stories he's telling.
I'm sure I could continue to list things to gush about - I haven't even begun to talk about his writing - but I'm going to want to change gears and talk more about the areas of personal resonance my recent exploration of his work has had. I have certainly enjoyed everything described above. On their basis alone I could call myself a Stephen Fry fan and be interested in seeing anything else he does along those lines. I probably have been ever since first seeing him on screen years ago. But in the last month or so, as I've enjoyed diving into his incredibly deep body of work more particularly, certain qualities to it, and by proxy him, have inspired a much more significant appreciation than mere admiration for the product would necessarily explain.
I wrote a post some weeks ago talking about a trip to the library and rediscovering what fun it was to check out books for pleasure reading. What I didn't say was that I was checking out his books. To be fair, this wasn't my first trip to the local library. I'd already checked out Hugh Laurie's book a few weeks earlier and about a year before a different book altogether. But I remember as I walked among the shelves of the Mill Valley library with a long list of Stephen Fry's titles to find feeling this long-forgotten feeling of excited (and, oddly, illicitly-tinged) anticipation: I was going to get to read a book!
I ended up with three of his many books, which for lack of a better plan I read in the order they were published. The first was a novel, The Hippopotamus. I did have a slightly hard time getting into it as he does sometimes tend to dawdle in exposition, and I was trying to read it while commuting on a bus, which is a difficult (and jolting) environment for enjoying his always-apt yet loquacious digressions. Not that "bus commuting-worthiness" should be a metric by which to judge literature, but I figure anyone who might be inclined to read it too should be advised in advance on what might or might not be an appropriate environment in which to do so... It had at first appeared to take a while for the plot to unfold, but on retrospect I can see that it had been unfolding all the time as he wove together all his characters into a unified and satisfying story.
The third book - more on the second one later - was another novel, Revenge. (I think it may also have been published under the title The Stars' Tennis Balls.) This novel improved upon The Hippopotamus in a key way - shorter chapters! Lots of good places to put the book down when real life beckoned... Still, I can't quite recommend it as good bus reading either... In the latter case it was partly because, again, there was a lot of exposition, covering maybe as much as the first third of the book. And the role of the protagonist kept shifting from one character to another - although I don't mention this as a criticism. I actually thought it was an interesting approach, but it did mean that it was slightly hard to penetrate the book since it took a while to figure out what was really going on. But then once it settled on a clear direction it became an engrossing read.
It's only quite recently that I finished it, and I'm still left considering how I feel about it. At first I thought it was his answer to Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller novel, but then I realized that Stephen Fry's was much scarier. He did a really excellent job, writing this book around the turn of the millennium, in creating setting, summing up the modern progress of the 20th century and intimating toward the apocalyptic post-modern horror that would soon be the 21st, but I sometimes found it too hard to contemplate the reality he was explaining. Sure, this was fiction, but like Hugh Laurie's book its satirical humor has diminished where reality has caught up with it. I realize I'm being frustratingly vague because I'm trying not to give away any spoilers, but let's just say that the technological civil libertarian in me frequently wanted to cry, not because the book was wrong in what it described but because I fear it was right. Way too much of this fiction was way too plausible to be able to sleep comfortably at night.
And then there was the second book, the memoir. A quick search on my blog reveals that, before now, I've used the word "memoir" only twice before in 1100+ posts - once alluding to the legalities surrounding James Frey's apparently fictional one, and once just a few weeks ago in my series of posts about "The Great Change considered." Which, as it happens, were written immediately after finishing Stephen's book.
His Moab is My Washpot memoir has been widely hailed because of two topics he candidly confronted: his homosexuality and bipolar disorder. I'm neither homosexual nor bipolar, but I still felt his book speak to me because of how it was written. Stephen's voice sounds an awful lot like my own, and for that alone I read it with immensely relieved gratitude.
I'll try to explain, because I don't mean to be so arrogant as to try to pass myself off as his literary equal. There are two major points of connection: his use of words themselves, and his transparency. With regards to the latter, his memoir was a profoundly personal document that he shared publicly anyway. I obviously don't know exactly what he was thinking when he decided to do so, but from reading other interviews and such I gather that doing so probably made perfect sense to him. And I understand that. Maybe there are some brains out there whose mental calculations always equate "personal" with "private," but mine has never really been wired that way. It's not that I lack a sense of discretion, or any sort of sense period. There's obviously consequences to letting people see your wrinkles, including that people now know you are wrinkled. But there's consequences to not sharing too, and, on the heels of reading Stephen's book, I explored them in my first "Great Change considered" post:
[It regularly raises] the hackles of those more risk-averse that I should be so candid in my posts, but surely they wouldn't want the alternative, a world where no one shared anything that's personal. This is what writers are for, to share bits of themselves so that others may discover they are not alone. Without people brave enough to share their lives publicly - think novels, memoirs, or newspaper columns, if the idea of blogs frightens you - everyone else would be islands adrift, never knowing how common their own experiences were since they would have nothing to connect them to. Writing exists to unite readers. I'm not saying that I deserve a parade for being willing to put myself out there, but my point is that excoriation is hardly an appropriate response either.
I suspect he might ratify this sentiment. There are so many who have found his candor so commendable, including me. My issues are not the same as his issues, but I can't overstate how reassuring it was to read his recounting of his path back from a difficult place just as I was trying to find my way back from mine.
The other point of connection to note is his use of words themselves. It's really not a question of him writing in a way I liked or found amusing. I liked Hugh Laurie's writing, for instance, but I can't generally replicate it. Well, occasionally and with practice I can sometimes come close, but the natural tides of my personality tend to pull me towards much more verbose articulation than Hugh's succinct pithiness. Whereas the tides of Stephen's personality seem much more like my own. While his love affair with words is longer and deeper than mine, he pushes and pulls and dances across their syllabic delicacy in ways I often tend to. True, he's been criticized for it. Like me he's been criticized for it. Even by me he's been criticized for it, above, for potentially meandering too long on digressions in his novels. But I think we would tend to share the thought that with so much in the world to express it's hard to bring oneself to skimp on vocabulary. There's so many things to say, and so many great words with which to do it.
Reading through those Great Change posts, written so soon after finishing his book, you could probably hear some of Stephen Fry's voice echoed in them. But it's only a slight affectation. Emerging through my Great Change my muse had gotten confused and muddled and sometimes no writing occurred because I'd lost connection with any sort of instinctive vocabulary to do it with. Discovering his writing was tremendously helpful because I could key what I wanted to say to his tone, almost imaging him narrating what I had to say. And in doing so find my way back to my own voice.
Of course, I'm hardly his twin. A published author, playwright, actor, comedian, raconteur, television presenter, amateur academic, etc. he's already distinguished himself in numerous fields. Far more than I can claim, although I'm working on it... He's a perfect example of a modern Renaissance Man, the kind of self-actualizing person I've always admired. There's so much in the world that's interesting - how can anyone pick just one thing to indulge in? I'm often amazed that more people are not so diversified, but maybe it takes a certain kind of personality to find so much so fascinating that they just can't keep themselves from exploring it.
The word I've seen used to describe him, as someone like this, is "polymath". I think it can generally be used as a synonym for "Renaissance Man," which pleases me since it means I can aspire to be a polymath without running into the gender-bending issues I would with the alternative... (However I think the strict definition of the term may technically be slightly different.) I've also seen him regarded as pedantic, although I think the pejorative is a little unfair. He's someone who clearly takes pride in knowing things and isn't selfish with that knowledge. What could possibly be wrong with that? I've noted before about how strange it is that people keep approaching me for the time and/or directions. But the truth is that I find it immensely flattering (if not also a little terrifying as I've become quite unsure lately that I will not get people hopelessly lost...) to be regarded as someone who knows stuff. I like knowing stuff. I wish I knew more stuff. And I love sharing what I know. Yes, perhaps I'm a pedant too - it's certainly seems a worthy goal.
There's also the word, "opsimath," which I first saw in the book he wrote on poetry, The Ode Less Traveled. (Yes, the actor/comedian/playwright/etc. has also done that too...) An opsimath is someone who continues to learn throughout life. It seems like a good thing to be. He certainly seems to answer to that description, enthusiastically diving into whatever subject captures his imagination. And maybe with my new career, new languages, new skills, new talents... maybe so do I.
The effect of him being an opsimathic polymath is that he has been extremely prolific. For weeks now I've been working my way through what he's produced and I still feel like I've only barely scratched the surface. His work ranges from the silly to the serious, which itself I find heartening, particularly as I am increasingly spreading my creative wings while simultaneously entering a very serious profession. It's good to see that one doesn't have to preclude the other. But what currently excites me, and is another area of connection between us, is that he blogs! A kindred spirit, I always knew... It's such a convenient proclivity for him to have, too, as it requires no trips to the library or book store to get to enjoy a potentially bottomless supply of fresh writing...
Which leads me to one final point of connection and full circle to why I said above our paths might one day legitimately cross: he's a geek! Or, as they apparently say in England, a "dork." An unabashed, experienced, and extremely knowledgeable technophile he even now regularly writes a column for the Guardian about the subject. It's because of this interest that we are only two degrees away in various dimensions and why, if I continue to hew the professional path to which I've aspired, he might someday find himself blogging about wanting to meet me...
Edited slightly 2/5/08.