Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Moab is my Washpot
Our book today is Stephen Fry's 1997 memoir Moab is my Washpot, and it can serve as a kind of breather from that last triptych of sci-fi pulps. In order for something to be a really good breather, it must itself be a restoring breath of fresh air, and in this regard Moab is My Washpot succeeds wonderfully. The 20th century was positively rife with memoirs, but even so, this is one of the best.
One of the best, despite the fact that it stops after only the first twenty years of Fry's life, that is, before all the acting and comedy work that made him famous and brought him to the public's attention in the first place. This is a memoir about the awkwardness of growing up in provincial working-class Britain, the awkwardness of being gay in such a setting, and above all, gloriously above all, the awkwardness of being Stephen Fry.
Reading this breathtakingly honest book, grappling with the author's unabashed sentimentality and unapologetic romanticism, the reader in astonishment begins to wonder if Fry's impeccable acting abilities and perfect comic timing (so marvelously on display in Blackadder and Jeeves & Wooster) might just be his backups, coming in second to a literary ability that at times reads like the best possible combination of Samuel Pepys and the Bronte sisters:
Looking at it coolly one can say that anyone might be drawn to such a fine head [as seen on the head of a fellow male classmate] of fair hair, seen from behind. One might say that anyone could see that this was a classy, peachy, and supreme set of buttocks confronting us.
One might add too, in cynical tones, "You say, 'you knew,' but just suppose he had turned his head and revealed the face of a pig with a harelip, a twisted nose and a squint, would you now be writing this?"
Did I really, really know?
Yes, reader, I did. I swear I did.
Of course, this grossly emotional openness can lead the impressionable memoirist astray, and occasionally this happens to Fry, most notably in his recollection of a pivotal TV scene that moved him quite a bit:
I remember an episode of Star Trek that ends with Jim turning to McCoy and saying, "Out there, Bones, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in the galaxy." I fully expected the nauseous obviousness of "I love you." But Kirk turned to the screen, gazed at the stars and whispered:
"Please, help me."
Star Trek fans will need no assistance - and, alas, no prompting - to point out all that's wrong with that heartfelt memory of Fry's, even if the thought's in the right place.
And that's the way with all of Moab is My Washpot: it's so immediate and frank that it wins over its readers almost immediately and has them rooting for the author on every page, through every broken heart and thought (and more) of suicide, through all the turmoil and upheavals that are inextricably linked with being a teenager. And sometimes, at odd intervals, the hard-won wisdom to which those upheavals lead is glimpsed in the narrative. They're almost always its best moments:
Only one thing counted for me then, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, and I suspected, quite rightly, that one day love would count for less. I did not suspect, however, that one further, finer day far, far forward, love would come round to counting for everything again. A lot of salt water was to flow down the bridge, the bent bridge of my nose, before that day would come.