Surprised I managed to finish it, what with juggling work and writing and some time for relaxation and mental health, but this month I read the above novel. And I am struck by the characterisation of The hippopotamus, and thus delved deeper into Stephen Fry’s writing psyche. But not that deepily; at least, not to the depths of a hippo with a cocktail on its nose.

The main character of the book is poet and newspaper columnist (and hippo), Ted Wallace. It’s clear from the initial scene that he’s got an inflated sense of self importance as he gets fired and goes to stay with relatives.

I had just been sacked from my paper, some frantic piffle about shouting insults from the stalls at first night.
I love these creative descriptions of his editor, that, note, also describe his contempt:

my wet turd of an editor had shrilled
the kind of anile little runt who, in foyers and theatre bars the West End over, can be heard bleating into their gin and tonics
I pause to laugh. Possibly on my own?
Fry’s prose is full of such well-chosen details I’m envious. This is the advantage of first-person narrative. However, the book also switches into third person at stages with clever references to random things like sex with horses and yogic meditation that keep me thinking long after I read the last page. Notably, in third person Fry’s characterisation shifts to inner dialogue:

The absolute rightness and holiness and perfection and beauty of life charged through him. In this position he could stay for ever, he and the whole kingdom of life
He thought of a circle and within that circle, another circle […] The technique came from a book on yogic mediation he had bought last holidays
Layers of believable details flow on the page due to Fry’s use of sentence construction. After reading his book about poetry construction (The Ode Less Travelled) his writing style doesn’t surprise me.
Writing is a lengthy process the reader is usually unaware of: first draft (inspiration), second draft (restructuring and details); third draft (editing errors, inconsistencies, wondering if you can write at all); forth draft (polishing), then often going back to the beginning and starting again.
For my current book (working title: Fran) I’m constructing the details at the moment: those of her life, her children’s and husband’s life and the people she comes into contact with. Then I will be looking into sentence construction in more depth.
I have a book to read on grammar and style that may provide further insights: Grammar as Style by Virginia Tufte. Anyone else read it?

Emma Parfitt

Proofreader for business and academic documents, translations, and English writing.


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