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Hermione Lee’s ‘Tom Stoppard: A Life’ a perfect meeting of artist and biographer

Hermione Lee’s ‘Tom Stoppard: A Life’ a perfect meeting of artist and biographer
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When Tom Stoppard asked Hermione Lee, the distinguished Oxford literary critic, to write his biography, he gave her access to a wealth of materials and permission to quote from them; he also put her in touch with his collaborators, colleagues, friends, lovers and family. The resulting “Tom Stoppard: A Life,” is a comprehensive and endlessly fascinating biography of one of the major figures of contemporary film and theatre.

Born Tomás Sträussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia in 1937, he was eighteen months old when he and his family fled their home as Hitler invaded. They travelled to Singapore where his father would resume his medical practice. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, the family moved to India, his father intending to follow later; the Japanese then sunk the ship he was on. Tom and his older brother stayed in India with their mother until she married Major Kenneth Stoppard and uprooted her family to England at the beginning of 1946.

Stoppard’s childhood and his English adoption mean that he always cares for the country that accepted him, and idealizes its traditional values. His gratitude as an immigrant to Britain parallels his lifelong awareness that he could have easily grown up under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, had fate been otherwise.

As a teenager, Stoppard worked as a journalist in Bristol, doing film reviews, gossip columns, and some social coverage. He admired Ernest Hemingway and was inspired by his prose style. “I don’t get emotional about any other writer,” he observed. And he was consumed, as Lee points out, by his self-taught curiosity and his insatiable appetite for knowledge.

“I have a romantic idea about the University I never attended,” he later recollected. “Oh to be twenty-one, reading Greats at Oxford!” He never did go to university.

From writing journalism, he turned to theatre, writing his first commercial success, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” at the age of twenty-nine. Arising from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” buoyed by Stoppard’s deep reverence for Samuel Beckett (Vladimir and Estragon pave the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and utilizing popular comedy which he loved, the witty play was also a dark study of mortality.

He was accused in this early period of his career of being a frivolous reactionary, but he is profoundly interested in the political choices and decisions of individuals at historical moments.

His many letters to his mother, which Stoppard authorized Lee to read and quote from, reveal his deep indebtedness to and love of her, despite his problems with her husband Kenneth’s anti-Semitism and xenophobia. When he comes to learn in 1993 that he is Jewish, a fact his mother concealed from her children, he reaches out to relatives he did not know existed.

“I’m quite pleased to have Jewish blood. To my mind it’s a little bit of a distinction … a charmed life, when you thought about it,” Stoppard’s partial surrogate, Leonard Chamberlain, né Leopold Rosenbaum, states at the end of “Leopoldstadt.”

As his plays progressed, Stoppard was less and less a guarded writer, Lee observes, his later plays including “The Real Thing,” “Arcadia,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and embracing self-revelations in his latest, “Leopoldstadt,” not possible in his earlier writings.

What emerges from Lee’s biography is the portrait of a singularly gifted artist and human being.

The people in Stoppard’s life reads like a cast of 20th century culture and thinking: he knew Peter O’Toole from his journalistic days in Bristol; Harold Pinter, his illustrious contemporary; Václav Havel, whose literary works he translated; the actors and the directors of his plays, many of them interviewed tellingly by Lee. Yet, Lee notes, he behaved the same with everyone, regardless of their status or fame.

The director Mike Nichols, whom he met later in life, for example, “admired Stoppard’s metaphysical, intellectual intelligence. And he liked the fact that in spite of that intellect, Stoppard didn’t judge people. He was a curious, adventurous, gregarious, much-travelled person.” And when any one of his many friends passed away, he stopped everything to attend the funeral (wherever it was).

There is also the feeling of Stoppard being a fan when in the presence of a great dramatist or luminary, reflecting his role as an outsider who finds himself accepted as being inside. “(H)umility,” as Eliot, one of Stoppard’s literary heroes, once wrote, “is endless.”

“All you’ve got is the beat of your own drum, you’ve got to march to that,” Stoppard often reflects in his career. He is always a faithful friend to those close to him, and faithful to his own past, never trying to be anything other than himself.

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At her book’s end, Lee acknowledges that Stoppard “responded to my questions, undertook long conversations about his life and work over several years, read the typescript for factual errors.”
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