Lee’s book has the scope of a novel; it is superbly researched and written with a rare empathy and understanding of human nature. Tom Stoppard has written some of the most important plays of the past 50 years. These challenging works each receive detailed analysis here. It helps that its subject is still alive and professionally active: Leopoldstadt was premiered in London’s West End in January, enjoying six weeks of success before being prematurely closed by the pandemic lockdown.
Fictional truths may indeed be “unchallengeable”, but they still amount to more than mere chance. “I’ve been lucky all my life, it almost makes me believe in the stars”, he wrote to his mother in 1986, testifying to the wondering sense of self that had become more complicated with his awareness of the terrible ill luck that had befallen others, above all their Jewish relatives. In the end, though, the luck you take may be equal to the luck you make. Tom Stoppard has always made the most of his fate and taken imaginative advantage of it. At just under 1,000 pages, this biography is an alloy ingot. Much of what it contains is gold-dust – bright, airy, precious – but there are particles of considerably darker material. The contrast is optical, theatrical. All those marvellous plays and now this prodigious book – how lucky can you get?
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.”
Stoppard asked her to write the book and fact-checked it, but perhaps didn’t remark on its swollen length. But so compellingly does Lee convey the exuberance and unpredictability of both his plays and his life that I’m now yearning to see a Stoppard play in a theatre again. Leopoldstadt opened on February 12 and closed, as did so much else, on March 14.
‘Life is a gamble at terrible odds. If it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,’ is a line from Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. Indeed you wouldn’t. Stoppard’s life could have taken a very different turn in the cataclysms of the 20th century — not only the Holocaust but the brutal Communist crackdowns in Prague in 1968. He has forever been grateful for his astounding luck.
Hermione Lee’s Tom Stoppard is a prodigious achievement. It is also a challenging read, partly because of its excessive length and partly because it bulges with often needless detail. In a sense, though, those are its strengths. Stoppard’s life will not need writing again. Lee thanks him for inviting her to take it on; for having long conversations over several years about his life and work; for giving her access to a mass of private documents; for putting her in touch with colleagues, friends and family; and for reading and correcting the typescript.
What’s strangely missing is the forceful communication of the dazzling wonder of a Stoppard play in action, the disruptive spirit of his mental gymnastics, the exhilarating (or bamboozling) feeling of being in the stalls. Or what it’s like for the actors. Lee could have done more on that score. But the hard problem, to borrow a phrase, of a sober-minded, literary appraisal of a playwright is that the play remains the thing. Stoppard’s life can be assembled on the page, just. Elucidating what the fuss is all about can only really happen on the stage.
Lee’s biography captures Stoppard’s humour and kindness, his voracity for knowledge and his sociability. It throws light on his early life in London and his taste. When analysing the work Lee can get bogged down: the list of influences on Jumpers takes up most of page 236. And the writing could do with a bit more zest and brio. But anyone who wants to know about Stoppard will find most of the answers here. He’s succumbed to biography at last.
What we get in this book, then, is a trawl through the archives that comes up with far too much material. Lee has had access to the many self-deprecating letters that Stoppard wrote to his mother over the decades, yet even if they give us a glimpse of the dutiful son hiding behind the dandy’s mask, they aren’t enough to compensate for the longueurs. Nor does it help that the biographer’s prose is workmanlike and anonymous. She dutifully chronicles year after year.
Stoppard emerges from this deeply sympathetic, even forgiving, biography as a shy man who has found a way to show off; a man who can’t quite believe his luck but can’t quite believe anything else, either. Simon Gray nicely caught this when he wrote: “It is actually one of Tom’s achievements that one envies him nothing, except possibly his looks, his talents, his money and his luck. To be so enviable without being envied is pretty enviable, when you think about it.”
Among the myriad fascinations of Tom Stoppard: A Life is that it suggests ways in which his work has been affected by criticism. Stoppard can’t write women? He gives us Night and Day. Emotion? The Real Thing. Competitiveness is evidently one of the many sources of his creativity, albeit competitiveness of a patient, five-day-test-match kind. He worries quite a lot about the amount of time he spends writing and revising a play. ‘If the next gap is as long as the last one,’ he said in 2017, ‘I will be 103 and no doubt ready with blue pencil and blue-black ink as usual.’ Let’s hope so.
It is this sensitivity to political and historical context that elevates Lee’s biography above any lapses. We watch Stoppard develop his disgust for closed-shop unions during the 1970s; he falls in step with Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s, then out of step during the Leveson Inquiry. It helps that Stoppard knows almost everybody in British letters and Lee has interviewed them all: Antonia Fraser, David Hare, Richard Eyre, the late Diana Rigg. To name a few. Lee avoids taking stands. She highlights potentially racist or sexist jokes, then shrugs at each as “of its time”.
She is better on the life than on the plays. Her criticism is a matter of inviting every possible interpretation to the party, and, increasingly, summarising the (not particularly enlightening) first-night critics. But her biography is long enough to include some wonderful marginalia. One example from many: Stoppard’s first son Oliver is monitored at night by a two-way intercom. The babysitter tries, from afar, unsuccessfully, several times, to get him to sleep, finally bidding him a disguised imperative: ‘Good night, Oliver.’ To which he replies: ‘Good night, wall.’