Hermione Lee’s masterly biography of the playwright argues that emotion is as vital to his writing as ‘mental acrobatics’
“I simply don’t like revealing myself,” Tom Stoppard once said. “I am a very private sort of person.” It takes a persistent, unflappable and penetrating biographer to take him on. Hermione Lee is perfect casting and Stoppard himself was, it turns out, casting director, inviting her to write this biography in what was, presumably, a judiciously pre-emptive strike to see off less capable contenders. Lee is celebrated for her biographies of Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf (a writer Stoppard thought overrated). But her task is daunting because it is not only about his life that Stoppard has been retiring. He has tended to see scrutiny of his work as futile. His image has been of the critic as customs officer and himself as “duped” smuggler: “I have to admit the stuff is there but I can’t for the life of me remember packing it.” Lee is calm, unofficious and benign in her scrutiny of the contraband. But will she let Stoppard, one of our greatest contemporary playwrights, through?
He was born Tomáš Straüssler, in 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia – and Lee traces an arc to his narrative: beginning with his detachment from his Czech roots and incomplete awareness of his Jewishness – he did not know, until 1993, that his three aunts, four grandparents and great grandmother had died in concentration camps – to the eventual embracing of both (which led to his magnificent play Leopoldstadt at the beginning of this year). Stoppard’s father, Eugen, was doctor for the Bata shoe company, a man with a “first-class brain, great modesty and total integrity”. Like father, like son, one thinks (though he appears too early for Lee to make the point herself).
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