Stephen Fry’s Idea of Greatness

Making others feel better, finer, and funnier—that’s the sign of “character and quality.”
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Who are your main influences?

Stephen Fry: Probably in terms of writing and linguistic awareness there were a combination, firstly of W’s, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist. That’s a male Evelyn, by the way. And I would add to that Arthur Chonan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes. When I was between the ages of about seven and twelve I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and I would read and reread and re, re, reread all those, so the rhythms and tones of the English language as exemplified by that kind of grand perfect Victorian manner and then Dickens, but it was really Oscar Wilde who awoke language in my head in a way like nobody else and I think also discovering the kind of man Oscar Wilde was, was an enormous influence as well. The fact that you could be such a towering intellect, such a lord of language and be charming and graceful, kind, good natured, but also unhappy and unlucky was a great discovery for an adolescent because one of the traps of adolescence is the sort of paranoid resentment that somehow you’re never going to match up and that everybody else’s life is going to be better and finer and fuller. That everyone else attended some secret lesson in which how to live was taught and you had a dental appointment that day or you were somehow not invited and the point of great writers like Wilde is that they make that invitation to you. They welcome it. Perhaps the greatest definition I think of character and quality is people who when they’re truly great rather than making you feel that tall they make you feel that tall, that they’re greatness as it were improves you. They used to say of Oscar Wilde that when you got done from a dinner table you felt funnier and wittier and cleverer. Now a lot of Brilliant people make you feel less funny, less clever, less witty because they’re so clever, witty and funny, but he had the opposite effect. A bit like what Shakespeare said about Falstaff, not just a wit, but a cause of wit in others.

Recorded December 8, 2009