On television and in the movies, Stephen Fry projects a reticent diffidence, a reluctance to go for the obvious laugh, that makes his delivery all the funnier. His portrayal of the peerless manservant Jeeves in the TV series "Jeeves & Wooster" (with his sometime writing and performing partner Hugh Laurie co-starring as Bertie Wooster) adds something warmblooded and corporeal to the shimmering mirage of sangfroid that the character is in the original P.G. Wodehouse stories and novels. As Fry plays him, there's a held-in-check affection beneath the character's almost weary surface.
What's beneath the surface of "Moab Is My Washpot," Fry's account of the first 20 years of his life, is, I'm sorry to say, the tone of a born schoolteacher -- or perhaps "an inveterate schoolteacher" would be nearer the mark. It's not the digressive manner that's so irritating (although anecdotes do stretch on for pages); it's the insistence that every story holds a life lesson. The paradox of a decided lefty's regarding people who decry the practice of sending children off to boarding school at an early age as bleeding hearts would be an interesting one -- if only Fry didn't make his perfectly reasonable defense in the manner of a man holding forth at a dinner party.
An almost desperate determination to amuse runs through the book, at times suggesting a conviction that for writing to be comic each and every line must be funny. Anyone who's read that sort of writing knows that nothing grows more wearisome more quickly. In telling the story of his progress through various British public schools -- a journey that, among other milestones, included his coming out and his discovery of a taste for thieving (which got him arrested shortly after his 18th birthday) -- Fry seems to be adopting the tone of the classic English school-days memoir. But it's hard to tell whether he's being self-mocking or self-aggrandizing. And if you excise the references to the pop culture of the '60s and '70s, "Moab Is My Washpot" might be taking place in the '10s or '20s. Is this his point -- the intransigence of the system he was in? It's not clear.
Fry both takes himself too seriously and views himself at a remove. His account of his first schoolboy crush alternately gushes in the way we might expect of an adolescent recounting first love and backs up far enough for us to find it all slightly ridiculous; what's missing is even the quiver of emotion you can often sense behind British reserve. When Fry speaks of the parents or the siblings or the teachers who have made a difference in his life, his gratitude is unmistakable. But this is an autobiography written by a man who, on some level, wishes for nothing so much as to remain private.