Tom Stoppard: A Life review – smuggling heart into a scholar's story

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).

At only 17 pages in, Stoppard’s existence seems a miraculous fluke. In April 1939, after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, his family fled to Singapore. When Singapore was bombed by the Japanese, in 1942, they fled again. Stoppard escaped with his mother and brother to India. His father fled separately and died when his boat was bombed (Stoppard has no memory of him at all). His bereft mother became manager of Bata’s Darjeeling store and was courted by Major Kenneth Stoppard, who would turn out to be an antisemite (partly explaining Marta’s reticence about her Jewishness). But it was thanks to this match that Stoppard left India, in 1946, to become an Englishman.

“He put on Englishness like a coat,” Lee writes – and one imagines a particularly dashing coat because Stoppard compensated for his reserve by being an unretiring dresser (a recent photograph shows him, in his 80s, still modishly draped). But the English coat was possibly over-buttoned. Stoppard had an exile’s gratitude to England. He found his boarding school in 18th-century Okeover Hall “paradise”. Yet Lee qualifies the received idea – an oversimplified, dismissive slur – of Stoppard as unswervingly conservative. For a start, he is too entertaining to be stuffy. There is amusing coverage of his journalism and film-reviewing in Bristol 1954-62 (his report on a local fire too metaphorically flighty to get past his editor). Over time, he would become less reactionary. He had been an 1980s Thatcherite but voted New Labour in 1997, Green in 2005, Lib Dem in 2010. His championing of political causes is shown to have stemmed more from empathy with individuals than from abstract ideals. His support for Belarus Free Theatre makes particularly fascinating reading, as does the account of his friendship with Václav Havel, Czech playwright and president. Havel is presented as the person Stoppard might have been had he not become an Englishman.

Stoppard and his second wife, Miriam, at the Phoenix theatre, London, 1979
Stoppard and his second wife, Miriam, at the Phoenix theatre, London, 1979. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

Lee’s studies of the plays are masterly – especially of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Arcadia (1993) – and her book will be a formidable resource for Stoppard enthusiasts. She makes a persuasive case for the importance of emotion, challenging – even in the early work – the old complaint that Stoppard is all head and no heart. Jumpers is “a sensational exercise in mental acrobatics” but also “a play of grief and love. It carries the sadness and the guilt of living in a malfunctioning marriage with a wife who is having a breakdown and it opened two days after his divorce.”

She writes tactfully about the women in Stoppard’s life: Jose, his first wife and mother of his two elder sons, swiftly becomes a fragile off-stage presence. The portrait of his second wife, Miriam Stoppard, with whom he also has two sons, makes gripping reading, especially for those of us who studied her books on child-rearing. Stoppard has reflected that a drawback to fame is that, one day, someone will read your love letters. We will have to wait for that pleasure, but can meanwhile enjoy a mild trespass on a Stoppard family breakfast with high-achieving Miriam (“the more you take on, the more you are capable of doing”) stirring the porridge. Her bourgeois standards were not always easy for her husband to meet: “The boys remembered a shattered figure appearing at the head of the table in pyjamas and an ivory silk dressing gown.” The description of subsequent lovers – married actresses Felicity Kendal and Sinéad Cusack – are understandably less relaxed. Lee writes most freely about his present wife, Sabrina Guinness (who worried she might be too “dim” for Tom).

The biography celebrates the talent of a self-taught man (the voraciously scholarly Stoppard never went to university) but is, above all, about a triumph of temperament. Stoppard sails through customs: his charm – not the calculated sort – fuels his success. Friends and acquaintances are almost comically diverse: Harold Pinter, Mick Jagger, Samuel Beckett, Princess Margaret, Kenneth Tynan, Steven Spielberg … No one is charm-proof (including Lee), although the charm is impermeable, making her task harder. The great man continues not to see himself as one. He is happiest drifting into a writing day. And once a play goes into rehearsal, he is not stuck up about practical details: “I’ve added a couple of words to an exit speech,” he once admitted, “because the door was too far away.”

Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee is published by Faber & Faber (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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