Writers almost always are the worst readers of their own work. They plod along in their best untrained style, making mincemeat of the grace and beauty in their writing, adding leaden theatricality where it is unnecessary. By comparison, actors are among the worst of that class of famous-so-I-wrote-a-book category of writers. If an actor has starred in wonderfully intelligent and sensitive films, it is no guarantee of comparable skill at the word processor.
British comic actor, writer, and director Stephen Fry’s third novel, The Hippopotamus has the doubly enjoyable facet of being read by the author. Possibly more well known in America for his acting (Wilde perhaps getting the most attention) than his writing, Fry is perhaps one of the more talented comic writers in Britain’s lengthy history of comic writing. He is also one their more talented actors currently working. Many actors specialize in one type of roll, dramas or comedies; Fry has proven his adroitness at both, a not insignificant accomplishment.
His reading of his own work here is utterly fantastic. He brings a comic timing and rhythm perfectly matched to his words and he inflates his characters with easily pricked pomposity and self-satisfaction. Subtle shadings of tone and pitch lend to each personality a distinctness that easily captures your instant comprehension of what this man or woman is all about. Extra loving attention is paid to Ted’s verbal sparring partner, the flamboyantly gay and vocal Oliver.
The Hippopotamus is a hysterical account of disgraced critic Ted “The Hippopotamus” Wallace as he goes about investigating the mystery of his godson, David. He is put on the case by his goddaughter, Clara, who believes David has the miraculous ability to heal the sick. Clara, knowing what a cynical, bitter old skeptic her godfather is, explains none of this to him, merely counting on his family connections and his rapier intelligence to sort the truth from the Truth. Her exact motivation in doing so is never made entirely clear, but if that’s a flaw it is the novel’s only one.
Much of the novel is related to us from Ted’s letters to Clara within the framework of Ted’s mostly first person account. The few scenes told omnisciently help to move along plot elements otherwise obscured by this point of view. Those non-Ted portions of the novel aren’t entirely necessary to the story, though it does provide a rather all too vivid account of horse fucking perfectly in tune with the rest of The Hippopotamus’ bawdy tale.
The structure of the novel resembles nothing so much as a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery. There is the isolated country estate, scene of the crime; there is the cast of eccentric characters, brought together with agendas all their own, agendas Fry takes his slow, sweet time in unfolding; there is the constantly undervalued and underestimated portly detective figure, apparently bumbling through the story, all the while cataloging and observing all; and there is the denouement of the mystery in which all the characters are brought together to have everything explained to them over a meal. Does that at all sound familiar?
Of course, with a writer of Fry’s talents and comic resume, the plot itself is almost secondary at times to his shimmering writing. I include below, in no order of importance or hilarity, some of the lines that caught my ear while listening in:
"If you're a halfway decent human being, you've probably been sacked before."
"Christ, we live in ass-paralyzingly drear times."
"In a dungheap, even a plastic bead can gleam like a sapphire."
"Buggers can't be choosers."
"...bitterer than a forgotten poet."
"A best friend is a best friend no matter how many times he may... lie to you."
"Cynical is the name we give to people we fear are laughing at us."
"Nothing like the parted, admiring lips of a seminar of schoolgirls to make a man feel wanted. Why else would anyone try to become a poet?"
And, of course, how could I fault a book whose main character is an irascible, hard-drinking, cynical poet-turned-critic? I might just as well fault a wonderful book about my best friend or myself. Part of what makes this kind of a book such a treat is that in cynical books you can pile on the adjectives deliberately and it doesn't come off as trying too hard to be evocative, but adds to the general energy of frivolity. And so, when Ted goes off on one of his tirades, it is like tuning into to hear the epic poetry of critics everywhere, the barbaric yawp of an angry heart. And at those moments, this book, so fine simply leaves the earth to become transcendently divine.