Those of us who have already discovered Stephen Fry know him as the brilliant British comedian behind TV series such as Jeeves & Wooster and Blackadder, and the author of two enormously funny novels, The Liar and The Hippopotamus. But his new film (in which he plays Oscar Wilde) and his new novel (this one) represent a somewhat alarming departure from his previous work: They're more serious. Though humor is still an essential ingredient of both, Fry's fans are finally getting to witness the emotional depth that this brilliant polymath usually keeps hidden.
In Making History, Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason--and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf's conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours--but in most ways even worse. Fry's experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind's darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.
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As well as being the bestselling author of four novels, The Stars' Tennis Balls, Making History, The Hippopotamus and The Liar, and the first volume of his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, STEPHEN FRY has played Peter in Peter's Friends, Wilde in the film Wilde, Jeeves in the television series Jeeves & Wooster and (a closely guarded show-business secret, this) Laurie in the television series Fry & Laurie.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It starts with a dream . . .
It starts with a dream. This story, which can start everywhere and nowhere like a circle, starts, for me—and it is, after all, my story and no one else’s, never could be anyone else’s but mine—it starts with a dream I dreamed one night in May.
The wildest kind of dream. Jane was in it, stiff and starchy as a hotel napkin. He was there too. I didn’t recognize him of course. I hardly knew him then. Just an old man to nod to in the street or smile through a politely held library door. The dream rejuvenated him, transformed him from boneless, liverspotted old beardy into Mack Sennett barman with drooping black mustache tacked to a face hangdog long and white with undernourishment.
His face, for all that. Not that I knew it then.
In this dream he was in the lab with Jane: Jane’s lab, of course—the dream was not prophetic enough to foretell the dimensions of his lab, which I only got to know later—that is if the dream was prophetic at all, which it may well not have been. If you get me.
This is going to be hard.
Anyway, she was peering into a microscope and he was feeling her up from behind. He stroked between her thighs inside the long white coat. She was taking no notice, but I was outraged, outraged when the soft veef of hands rubbing nylon stopped and I knew that his fingers had reached the uppermost part of her long legs, the place where stocking ended and soft hot private flesh—hot private flesh belonging to me—began.
“Leave her alone!” I called from some unseen director’s corner, behind, as it were, the dream’s camera.
He gazed up at me with sad eyes that held me, as they always do, in the bright beam of their blue. Or always subsequently did, because I had, in my real waking life at that point, never so much as exchanged a single word with him.
“Wachet auf,” he says.
And I obey.
Strong light of a May morning whitening the dirty cream of cruddy curtains that we meant to change months ago.
“Morning, babe,” I murmur. “Double Gloucester . . . my mother always said cheese dreams.”
But she’s not there. Jane, that is, not my mother. My mother isn’t there either as a matter of fact. Certainly not. It absolutely isn’t that kind of story.
Jane’s half of the bed is cold. I strain my ears for the hissing of the shower or the crack of teacups banged clumsily on the draining board. Everything Jane does, outside of work, she does clumsily. She has this habit of turning her head away from her hands, like a squeamish student nurse picking up a raw appendix. The hand holding a cigarette end, for instance, might stretch leftwards to an ashtray, while she will look off to the right, grinding the butt into a saucer, a book, a tablecloth, a plate of food. I have always found uncoordinated women, nearsighted women, long, gawky, awkward women, powerfully attractive.
I have started to wake up now. The last granules of the dream fizz away and I am ready for the morning puzzle of self-reinvention. I stare at the ceiling and remember what there is to remember.
We will leave me lying there for the moment, reassembling myself. I am not entirely sure that I am telling this story the right way round. I have said that it is like a circle, approachable from any point. It is also, like a circle, unapproachable from any point.
History is my business.
What a way to start . . . history isn’t my business at all. I managed, at least, to stop myself from describing history as my “trade,” for which I reckon I can award myself some points. History is my passion, my calling. Or, to be more painfully truthful, it is my field of least incompetence. It is what, for the time being, I do. Had I the patience and the discipline I should have chosen literature. But, while I can read Middlemarch and The Dunciad or, I don’t know, Julian Barnes or Jay McInerney say, as happily as anyone, I have this little region missing in my brain, that extra lobe that literature students possess as a matter of course, the lobe that allows them the detachment and the nerve to talk about books (texts they will say) as others might talk about the composition of a treaty or the structure of a cell. I can remember at school how we would read together in class an ode by Keats, a Shakespeare sonnet or a chapter of Animal Farm. I would tingle inside and want to sob, just at the words, at nothing more than the simple progression of sounds. But when it came to writing that thing called an essay, I flubbed and floundered. I could never discover where to start. How do you find the distance and the cool to write in an academically approved style about something that makes you spin, wobble and weep?
I remember that child in the Dickens novel, Hard Times I think it is, the girl who had grown up with carnival people, spending her days with horses, tending them, feeding them, training them and loving them. There’s a scene where Gradgrind (it is Hard Times, I’ve just looked it up) is showing off his school to a visitor and asks this girl to define “horse” and of course the poor scrap dries up completely, just stutters and fumbles and stares hopelessly in front of her like a moron.
“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” Gradgrind says and turns with a great sneer to the smart little weasel, Bitzer, a cocksure street kid who’s probably never dared so much as pat a horse in his life, gets a kick out of throwing stones at them I expect. This little runt stands up with a smirk and comes out pat with “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth . . .” and so on, to wild applause and admiration.
“Now girl number twenty you know what a horse is,” says Gradgrind.
Well, each time I was asked to write an essay at school, with a title like “Wordsworth’s Prelude is the Egotism without the Sublime: Discuss,” I felt, when I got back my paper marked E or F or whatever, as if I were the stuttering horse lover and the rest of the class, with their As and Bs, were the smart-arsed parroting runts who had lost their souls. You could only write successfully about books and poems and plays if you didn’t care, really care, about them. Hysterical schoolboy wank, for sure, an attitude compounded of nothing but egotism, vanity and cowardice. But how deeply felt. I went through all my school days convinced of this, that “literary studies” were no more than a series of autopsies performed by heartless technicians. Worse than autopsies: biopsies. Vivisection. Even movies, which I love more than anything, more than life itself, they even do it with movies these days. You can’t talk about movies now without a methodology. Once they start offering courses, you know the field is dead. History, I found, was safer ground for me: I didn’t love Rasputin or Talleyrand or Charles the Fifth or Kaiser Bill. Who could? A historian has the pleasant luxury of being able to point out, from the safety of his desk, where Napoleon ballsed up, how this revolution might have been avoided, that dictator toppled or those battles won. I found I could be most marvelously dispassionate with history, where everyone, by definition, is truly dead. Up to a point. Which brings us round to the telling of this tale.
As a historian I should be able to offer a good plain account of the events that took place on the . . . well, when did they take place? It is all highly debatable. When you become more familiar with the story you will understand the huge problems that confront me. A historian, someone said—Burke, I think, if not Burke then Carlyle—is a prophet looking backward. I cannot approach my story in that fashion. The puzzle that besets me is best expressed by the following statements.
a: None of what follows ever happened
b: All of what follows is entirely true
Get your head round that one. It means that it is my job to tell you the true story of what never happened. Perhaps that’s a definition of fiction.
I admit that this preamble must look rather tricksy: I get as snortingly impatient as the next man when authors draw attention to their writerly techniques, and this sentence itself disappears even more deeply than most into the filthy elastic of its own narrative rectum, but there’s nothing I can do about that.
I saw a play the other week (plays are nothing to films, nothing. Theater is dead but sometimes I like to go and watch the corpse decompose) in which one of the characters said something like this, she said that the truth about things was like a bowl of fishhooks: you try to examine one little truth and the whole lot comes out in a black and vicious bunch. I can’t allow that to happen here. I have to do some unfastening and untangling, so that if the hooks do all come out in one go, they might at least emerge neatly linked, like a chain of paper clips.
I feel then that I can confidently enough begin with this little series of connections: if it weren’t for a rotted clasp, an alphabetical adjacency and the predictably vile, thirst-making hangovers to which Alois was subject, then I would have nothing to tell you. So we may as well start at the point I have already claimed (and disclaimed) to be the beginning.
There I lie, wondering like Keats, Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music, do I wake or sleep? Wondering too, why the Christ Jane isn’t coiled warmly beside me.
The clock tells me why.
It’s a quarter to nine.
She’s never done this to me before. Never.
I rush to the bathroom and rush out again, toothpaste dribbling down the corners of my mouth.
“Jane!” I bubble. “Jane, what the pants is going on? It’s half-past nine!”
In the kitchen I snap on the kettle and frenzy around for coffee, sucking my peppermint fluoride lips in panic. An empty bag of Kenco and boxes and boxes and boxes of teas.
Raspberry Rendezvous for God’s sake. Rendezvous? Orange Dazzler. Banana and Liquorice Dream. Nighttime Delight.
Jesus, what is it with her? Every tea but tea tea. And not a bean or bag of coffee to be had.
At the back of the cupboard . . . triumph, glory. Mwah! A big Aquafresh kiss for you, my darling.
“Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters.”
Back to the bedroom, hopping into cutoff denim. No time for boxers, no time for socks. Bare feet jammed into boat shoes, laces later.
Into the kitchen again just as the kettle thumps itself off, bit of a hiss from so little water, but enough for a cup, easily enough for a cup.
Oh damn it, no!
No, no, no, no, no!
Bitch. Sow. Cow. Angel. Double-bitch. Sweetness. Slag.
“Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters: Naturally Decaffeinated.”
Calm, Michael. Calm. Bleib ruhig, mein Sohn.
I can keep it together. I’m a graduate. A soon-to-be-doctored graduate. I won’t be beaten by this. Not a little nonsense like this.
Ha! Gotcha! Lightbulb-over-the-head, finger-snapping eureka, who’s a clever boy? Yes . . .
Those pills, those pep pills. Pro-Doz? No-Doz? Something like that.
Skidding into the bathroom, my brain half registers something. An important fact. Something amiss. Put it to one side. Time enough later.
Where they go? Where they go?
Here you are, you little buggers . . . yes, come to Mama . . .
“No-Doz. Stay alert. Ideal for exam revision, late nights, driving, etc. Each pill contains 50 mg caffeine.”
At the kitchen sideboard, like a London cokehead giggling in a nightclub toilet, I crush and grind and chop.
The chunks of white pop and wink in the coffee mud as I pour the boiling water on.
“Safeway Colombian Coffee, Fine Ground for Filters: Unnaturally Recaffeinated.”
Now that’s coffee. A tad bitter perhaps, but real coffee, not Strawberry Soother or Nettle ’n’ Chamomile tisane. And you say I have no gumption, Jane hun? Ha! Wait till I tell you about this tonight. I outdid Paul Newman in Harper. All he did was recycle an old filter paper, yeah?
A quarter to ten. Teaching at eleven. No panic. I stalk comfortably now, mug in hand into the spare room, quite in charge. Bloody showed her.
The Apple is cold. A nannying humming nag no more. Who knows when I may condescend to turn you on again, Maccie Thatcher? And there, on the desk, neatly squared, magnificently, obscenely thick, Das Meisterwerk itself.
I keep my distance, just craning forward; we cannot allow even the tiniest drop of recaf to stain the glorious title page.
FROM BRUNAU TO VIENNA:
THE ROOTS OF POWER
MICHAEL YOUNG, MA, M PHIL
Way-hey! Four years. Four years and two hundred thousand words. There’s that bastard keyboard, so plastically dumb, so comically vacuous.
Nothing else to choose from. Just those ten numbers and twenty-six letters permuted into two hundred thousand words, a comma here and a semicolon there. Yet for a sixth of my life, a whole sixth of my life, by big beautiful Buddha, that keyboard clawed at me like cancer.
Fiff-ha-hoo! Bit of a stretch and there’s the morning workout.
I sigh with pleasure and drift back to the kitchen. The 150 mg of caffeine has hit the ground running and breasted the blood-brain barrier with arms upraised. I am now awake. Pumpingly A-wake.
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