The Cult of Celebrity Biography

A person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it”, wrote Marisha Pessl in her Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Current bestseller lists seem to provide countless counterexamples to this statement, with the autobiographical efforts of celebrities such as Katie Price and Wayne Rooney frequently outselling novels shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Fortunately, every so often an autobiography comes along that is entertaining and has something worthwhile to say: such is the case with the second instalment of Stephen Fry’s autobiographical oeuvre, The Fry Chronicles.
The first instalment, Moab is my Washpot, was published in 1997 and recounted his childhood, up to his admission to Cambridge. The Fry Chronicles starts with a few anecdotes from his earlier years, and then picks up where Moab left off. With this book, Stephen Fry—comedian, actor, journalist, director, presenter—once again proves that he is also a competent and entertaining writer.
Fry’s early life is typically middle-class, and, in itself, neither very extraordinary nor particularly interesting. The book chronicles his time at Cambridge—acting with the Footlights and meeting friends such as Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson—and the first few years of his professional life.
Fry quickly gets to grips with the demons that plague him, such as his addictions to everything from sugar to cocaine, and his homosexuality. He discusses and analyses his problems and insecurities in detail, and it is the insight that this probing provides that constitutes the main appeal of the book. The pages are permeated with characteristic humour and intelligence, but he thankfully does manage to avoid sounding overly pompous or self-satisfied. Instead, his tone is self-deprecating and infused with wit.
Despite the book’s definite pertinence, Fry’s ego does shine through the pages and pure self-indulgence is never far away. His mild self-obsession shows in the form and content; one can see him posing on the front cover, a smug smile on his face. The pages are punctuated by sets of slightly incongruous photographs showing him and his equally famous friends prancing around in fancy dress and black tie, and others, such as those of his parents and grandfather, whose relevance is even more dubious. For all his problems, it can be difficult to sympathise with Fry. He is an adored or even idolised celebrity that has had a varied career and achieved a level of public renown that few can equal. Because of this, some passages may grate on less sympathetic ears, but his life does contain elements of genuine emotional turmoil, such as his suicide attempts, years of celibacy, and heavy addiction to cocaine.
The book’s structure is nonlinear; the entertaining anecdotes oscillate backwards and forwards through time, and Fry often digresses within them. The result is a narrative that feels somewhat disjointed and chronologically hazy, but authentic. Many of us should be able to find something to relate to in the situations and problems he describes, and hopefully share some of his insight and humour.
The Fry Chronicles is an autobiography, as narcissistic as any other, but one that manages to probe some difficult and interesting issues whilst remaining entertaining and funny. At least, unlike the majority of celebrity ‘autobiographies’, one can be sure that he at least wrote it himself.


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