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This review is from: The Hippopotamus (Paperback)
This novel, published in 1994, has reminded the critics of certain other writers. I can myself see a resemblance to the narrator of Kingsley Amis's The Green Man in this story told by an ageing, bibulous, randy has-been putting up a show of curmudgeonliness much as Amis himself liked to do. I suppose there are distant echoes of Waugh too, the Waugh of the Diaries and Brideshead Revisited. On the other hand, readers of the Guardian newspaper around 1994 will remember a character created by the clever and wicked cartoonist Posy Simmons who is very similar indeed to Fry's Ted Wallace (the hippo in person) - struggling writer and schoolmasterish spelling pedant in addition to the characteristics already mentioned. That resemblance, whichever way the influence worked, is altogether too close to be coincidence. I sensed another possible influence too, from 25 years earlier. There is an odd film by Pasolini 'Theorem' about a young man who exerts untoward sexual influence over all around him, and for all the countless differences of tone and style from this book I can't help suspecting a kinship with that too.
The theorem here is one that perms situations of, shall we say, a kind we don't much encounter in our humdrum daily lives. It is not about characterisation at all. The characters are a harlequinade of weirdos, meant as vivid and not as realistic. The revelations they seem to take in their stride without missing a step are surreal, but I actually think I'm even more amazed by the mental agility, not to say the emotional pliancy, that they display at the end when Ted himself (either stepping out of character or reverting to his earlier persona briefly mentioned in a previous chapter) explains all. What it all seems to me to come down to is this - if someone is as brilliantly witty and ingenious as Stephen Fry is, then his novels will be more about a peacock display of the wit and ingenuity than about anything else. The phrase-making is coruscating, the eye for people and the ear for the way they talk are acute, and the repressed but desperate sense of how ridiculous everyone and everything are pervades chapter after chapter. As you might expect, there is a darker side to a personality like this, and that comes through explicitly in the scene in nazi Germany. It also comes through in the incident of the boy and the horse, but if that stops you in your tracks I urge you to continue, because you will get not one subsequent surprise but two.
The final surprises come, hardly surprisingly, at the end. You would never guess the real situation, but there is no inevitability to it. It is just dam' ingenious, and it's about being ingenious and nothing else, not even about being convincing. A hundred other endings would have done just as well, provided they were clever enough. It's not hard to hear the black dog of depression baying through the music of this elegant masked ball, but if you have a good ear for overtones I believe you ought to hear something else as well. There is a real tone of human sympathy and downright kindness in Fry. It's something I sense in his public persona as an actor and entertainer, and something I sense in at least some of his novels. I won't say that it's what I read them for, because I read them for the brilliant chatter more than anything else, but there is an odd but agreeable aftertaste to it all, strange as it may be at times and of course strictly not for the Moral Majority, at least not when they are in full moral mode. I have a hunch that the poet (whom I adapt with apologies) spoke for Fry before Fry was born
The stars did not deal him the worst they could do:
His pleasures are plenty, his troubles are two.
But O, his two troubles, they reave him of rest,
The brains in his head and the heart in his breast.