An Autobiography

By Stephen Fry

Random House. 366 pp. $24

Reviewed by Laurent Cartayrade

It may not be overly humble for British comedian, actor and novelist Stephen Fry to claim, as King David once did, the kingdom of Moab for his washpot, but then, "to luxuriate in the bath of self-revelation, self-curiosity, apology, revenge, bafflement, vanity and egoism that goes under the name Autobiography" is of necessity a proud undertaking. Actually, Moab is not even a full-fledged autobiography. Rather, it is an amiable memoir of childhood and adolescence, of life and education in all-boys boarding schools, of being a budding intellectual and homosexual in a world that loathes both, of turning into a "cheeky, cocky little runt," of lying, stealing, falling madly in love, losing one's emotional bearings, being expelled from school, and ending up in jail for credit card fraud, before finally getting it together and heading for Cambridge and, eventually, "slebdom."

Fry's youth was, he says, "so common as to be unremarkable, and so strange as to be the human stuff of fiction." Good for us. To be readable, memoirs must either report very common experiences -- preferably of an intimate and rarely-spoken-of nature -- that will provoke in the reader a knowing nod of recognition, and reassure him that he isn't so weird after all. Or they must, to the contrary, relate experiences like nothing the reader has known. She will then enjoy them as she would enjoy a trip to some exotic country where, however, she might not necessarily want to live. Anything in between is bound to be as boring as your neighbor's baby pictures: at once too particular and too jejune to be of interest to anybody but the now grown-up infant.

There are such "baby pictures" in Moab -- reminiscing about his childhood home and his father's professional activities, or transcribing long excerpts from old school catalogues may have brought tears to Fry's eyes. These don't do much for the reader. Bad teenage poetry is a "baby picture" if there ever was one. Nobody, but nobody, wants to read it. Nonetheless, Fry foists on us long quotes from a mock-epic poem he once wrote. I suspect he doesn't find it as terribly disgraceful as he claims. Well, he is wrong. The rather unusual topic -- young Stephen's anal deflowering by a schoolmate -- is no excuse, especially since he deals with the incident much more effectively earlier in the main narrative.

Finally, we could also do without Fry's views on the monarchy, fox hunting, the comparative merits of music and literature, camp, homophobia, et cetera. Not everyone can be Montaigne, and Fry's mini-essays are not particularly profound or insightful. At best, they show him to be a sensible man. At worst, they're as ludicrous as anything his pompous adolescent self might have written: "Perhaps all adolescence is a dialogue between Faust and Christ," he states somewhere. Yeah, right. Whatever.

It's not all murky bath water and boring baby in this washpot, though. Fry's often forced witticisms and heavy name-dropping can't entirely mar a pleasantly patchy and meandering narrative that mimics the vagaries of live memory. His self-consciously rough prose style sometimes reaches a kind of quasi-Flaubertian simplicity. "And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again," he says of first seeing the great love of his teenage years. Typically, he then launches into some silly tirade about language and music, "Casablanca," Wagner, Lizt, and the Monkees! But what he says elsewhere about that life-altering crush is often truly beautiful.

Fry is at his best in conjuring up the most ordinary emotions and adventures of childhood and adolescence. A tale involving a dead mole, a live donkey and a thoughtful teacher is utterly delightful. The reader can happily or sadly reminisce with Fry the prankster, Fry the unrequited lover, or Fry the late bloomer whose memories of locker room humiliation still burn. But Moab also offers more exotic fare: an evocative, if not entirely unprecedented, account of life in a British single-sex boarding school, a strange world in which boys who routinely masturbated or even sodomized each other once ostracized Fry as "queer" for putting his arm around the shoulders of a friend in need of help to walk off a cramp.

It is about his schooling that Fry's most engaging quality best comes across: a total lack of bitterness and rancor, an adamant refusal to blame others for what he did wrong. He never denies that if he, a middle-class boy born to caring parents who gave him the best education available, ended up doing time for theft, it was nobody's fault but his own. In a book that still reeks of the self-indulgent adolescent, this introduces a welcome breath of fresh adult air.

Laurent Cartayrade is a historian living in Washington.