The Hippopotamus, by Stephen Fry. Publisher: Arrow (Sept. 28, 2004); 416 pages paperback. Kindle ed. publisher: Cornerstone Digital (Aug. 17, 2010); 418 pp.

I did not think that I would get tired of reading the heavily stylized and very British English of Stephen Fry, but I have to say, this time, in The Hippopotamus, it was a Witticism Too Far. The film version of Fry’s black comedy, The Hippopotamus, premiered in the USA in June 2017, and on Netflix Canada in August 2017 – with the grumpy-looking but craggily handsome Roger Allam (from the TV series Endeavour) playing the lead, as the aforementioned hippopotamus. Though the book came out in 2004, I only read it now, after I saw the film and quite enjoyed it.

The Hippopotamus is about a disgraced newspaper writer, “Ted Wallace”, who wrote very good poetry in his youth but no longer does, preferring long baths (like a hippo) and lots of whisky. He goes to stay at a country estate, “Swafford Hall”, a setting à la Agatha Christie, to investigate the miracles apparently being performed by his godson, “David Logan”.

Let’s not confuse Fry the man with Fry the author, or Fry the actor. Fry the author created the old grouch, Ted Wallace, drinker, heckler, womanizer, skeptic, and atheist. But despite all his atheism, Ted spends a long time indulging in the possibilities of the miracles being real, and doing an awful lot of verbal sword-fighting about it with the other people involved. The catch is that the miracles are not what you would expect. They have something to do with sex – and I’ll leave you with that.

Lots and lots of words

The film had an internet/streaming release in the USA on Aug. 1, 2017, and was released in a few European countries as of June 2017. It premiered in the UK on May 28, 2017.

I enjoyed Roger Allam’s interpretation of Ted in the film, which had been toned down in the script to have a kind of loneliness and weltschmerz, and featured sharp ripostes, rather than verbosity. The Ted of the book, along with the other characters, are all fearfully garrulous.

In fact, though the novel starts with Ted laboriously sending off detailed reports to his “client” about his investigation, it becomes bogged down in lengthy diatribes within diatribes amongst the characters. (In fact, this required the film to have an extensive voiceover by Ted. Fortunately, Roger Allam has a deep, plummy voice which made it bearable.)

I lost patience with it after not very long and wanted to plot to move along swiftly. Knowing how the film ended did not help – I should probably have read the book first. And because the  main character is a poet, if only in name, there are even a few poems and limericks – most heavy with sexual innuendo:

There was a young man named Simon [David’s non-poetical brother]
Who hated the art of rhyming
He thought it a shame
That his very own name
Could only be mated with hymen. (p.99)

There was an old lecher named Ted
Who was known to be useless in bed
When parting a bush
He’d fumble and push
And screw the poor mattress instead. (p.99)

Apparently, there are many interesting ideas and arguments in the novel, but I found they were submerged in elaborate discussions and rants between the characters. There simply are no straight sentences. Everything is…baroque. The other features of the novel, plot, setting, characterization, and so on, are overshadowed by Fry’s writing style. Here is a typical example, with the rarefied English in bold (not to mention the fact that it is also a rarefied idea):

“The problem with clothing oneself when not fully dry is that one’s shirt and especially one’ socks will frot and rub frictively against the skin. They won’t slide easily on: a man can pull a shoulder muscle or crick a neck trying to wrestle with clothes in a damp post-balneal state. My discovery is that the use of a good old-fashioned bath-oil will solve this problem. It leaves the skin smooth and sleek as a seal’s and sir’s shirtings and half-hosements will practically leap from the floor and wrap themselves around him in a gladsome twinkling.” (p.233/261)

Rather a lot of bitching going on

And so on. Apart from that problem, there is not one character that is remotely likeable. They are all stuck in their nasty little habits and denials and desperate need for miraculous solutions and easy ways out. The gay theatre director is as flamboyant as the drag queens in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (it’s all “my dear” and “my heart” and “daaahling” and flouncing about and going on about sex), the teenagers are horrid, the owner of the mansion is a caricature of a pompous, nouveau-riche industrialist, the ex-wife is a bitch from hell, and so forth. One of the women, “Rebecca”, describes Ted as a “cynical, evil-minded old turd”. I’d agree.

The plot is not forensic – if you were expecting a mystery to be solved or a religious investigation into miracles, this is not it. The plot, even with flashbacks to the family’s history, is very much secondary to the long conversations about the finer points of all sorts of subjects, from poetry to religion, and the general bitching going on.

The truth is revealed at the big get-together at the dinner table, again, very like an Agatha Christie novel where “Poirot” gathers the potential guilty parties and explains what had happened. But, as in real life, no-one likes a myth to be busted: “‘Why Ted? Why did you have to spoil it all?’” they moan. People need hope to cling to, they need stuff that will help them get through whatever difficulties they have – whether it’s alcohol, or opiates, or beliefs in miracles or fairies or Father Christmas or whatever it takes. That’s the human conundrum.

Debunking and other unpopular activities

Fry tackled a contentious subject here – the debunking of miracles, and the ridicule of “blind faith”. As I mentioned, one must not confuse the author with the narrator they create, nor the actor with the character they portray. In this instance, it is interesting to note that Fry is an outspoken atheist and so is Ted, one of the narrators he created. A work of fiction requires a reader to give it meaning, in as much as a painting requires a viewer. So how much of this novel is the voice of Stephen Fry? The answer is that any autobiographical element or degree of authorial presence is on a sliding scale.

“The fiction tag allows […] any writer, to play both hands: he can utilize a fictional narrator, which allows the reader more leeway to see herself in the character, and he can titillate with suggestions of autobiography, which allows the reader to form empathy with the writer. Somehow these two readerly perspectives aren’t contradictory. […] But what if a writer doesn’t want this blurred line between writer and narrator? What if she wants to remove herself entirely from the narrative, keeping as much attention on the characters as possible? Many have tried. Gustave Flaubert was famous for his attempts to remove his authorial presence.”

(Art Edwards, Writing in Plain Sight: The Author, the Narrator and the Difference (if any), May 12, 2014, htmlgiant.com, rtrvd. 2017-12-29)

In The Hippopotamus, I think there is quite a lot of Stephen Fry. The film is so close to the novel, with much of the exact language retained, that there is a lot of him in the film as well. Readers who are religious will probably find the novel offensive – but then they don’t have to read it, do they? But, regardless of how many people the book has infuriated or disappointed, the film version of The Hippopotamus has made a healthy profit so far. On a reported budget of only about £5-million, it has made about $240-million at the box office and with rentals to date.

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