Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
(Random House, 1997, 336 pages)
I love Stephen Fry as an actor, comedian, and a TV host. But most of all, I love him as an autobiographer. This is his first of two memoirs, which I have read in backwards order. While his more recent book The Fry Chronicles deals mainly with his time at Cambridge, the early part of his career in television, and his friendship with actors like Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, Moab Is My Washpot chronicles Fry’s childhood and experience in boarding schools. The more dramatic elements involve petty thievery, expulsion from school, a suicide attempt, credit card fraud, and imprisonment. These elements make for an entertaining story, and Fry tells that story with remarkable recall and dramatic flair.
As interesting as it is to read about the troubled past of a now famous and successful celebrity, it is the description and examination of the more universal aspects of the adolescent experience that make Fry’s book so engaging. He gives expression to feelings of alienation, awkwardness, anger, and passion that are the common stuff of every teenage life. However, Fry writes about these things with an eloquence and humor that few others can match.
One of the things that makes Fry such a great actor and comedian is the eloquence of his speech, and that eloquence translates directly to the written word. He makes you feel as if you had been drawn into a conversation where you are simply listening to him give an impromptu remembrance of his childhood, complete with rambling asides and angry outbursts. It seems to me that Fry really understands the pitfalls and possibilities of autobiography. He articulates the contradictions of emotional life and the inherent conflicts between honesty, discretion, and gratitude when recounting a personal history that inevitably involves the lives of many other people. He does this effortlessly and with the same humor and fluency that characterizes his speech – no easy thing to do.