Author: Stephen Fry
Book title: The Hippopotamus
Release date: March 1994
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd.
Stephen Fry’s novels are that rare thing: clever, enjoyable and seamlessly funny. Very few works often manage to amalgamate said three qualities. Fry, however, has a stranglehold on them, able to bend them to his will in typically erudite fashion.
The Hippopotamus, the second of three stories by the ‘British Institution’ (though not in a series) sees Stephen return to the fruity, dazzling storytelling of The Liar. What’s more accomplished about The Hippopotamus than that debut title, however, is that its ending isn’t nearly as contrived or frustrating.
Fry brings us the archetypal anti-hero: Ted Wallace. Cynical, bloated, womanizing, brilliant. Wallace is a stubborn right-wing snob, a washed-up poet and recently sacked drama critic. One of Fry’s stand out descriptions in the book concerns Ted: “(he) resembles in sight and sound nothing so much as a bin-liner full of yoghurt.”
Fry’s customary wit pervades through the novel, cutting and hilarious. Moreover, his true storytelling nous comes out when he writes from the various perspectives of Davey (Ted’s godson) and recreates the history of Albert Bienenstock (father of Lord Logan, Ted’s old friend and Davey’s dad).
Drinking (obviously) in the local following his dismissal from the paper, Ted’s long-lost goddaughter Jane (Logan’s niece) offers him a chance for redemption - believing herself to have been healed from leukemia by some miracle at Swafford Hall (Logan’s country mansion), she offers him the opportunity to make himself useful and travel there to uncover what exactly has been going on at Logan’s place. It’s typical of Fry’s protagonist to only be swayed by the juicy cheque Jane offers him in return.
Once ensconced at Swafford, Ted proceeds to engage in regular letter correspondence with Jane, with most of the novel actually being written in that form. Logan is Ted’s old army buddy, a millionaire Jew with four children. The two older sons, Davey and Simon, are the ones who feature prominently in the novel.
Ted spends a lot of time over the next few days and weeks with Davey, his other Godchild and begins to uncover the mysteries and phenomena surrounding the little boy…
This novel is absolutely delightful not only for Fry’s trademark erudition but also because it is so, as I said, seamless. There is no contrivance here, no strained development of plot or character as there seems to be with the finale of The Liar. Each event compels the story and fleshes out its colourful inhabitants perfectly, with Fry chucking in a few of his own theories and allusions along the way, such is his stamp.
The novel’s self-awareness of such graceless and, at times, pretentious characters prevents it from becoming arrogant and annoying. This is, as anyone who has read Fry in the past will know, one of his major strengths, making him charming instead of supercilious. The same can be said of this novel, which is a great exploration of the accidental and the intentional and how they can often intertwine. It also takes time out for some spiritual themes too and how beliefs can be encouraged by seemingly fantastical occurences.
Ted eventually unfolds the mystery of the ‘healings’ at Swafford and the novel winds down to a surprising yet satisfactory close. There isn’t a dull moment in this book: it’s intelligent, cynical and energetic, with all the trademarks of Fry’s original style present and correct. A furiously entertaining read, from bonce to toe.