Life & Culture

The refugee who looked back at last

John Nathan reviews a new biography of Tom Stoppard


Tom Stoppard, A Life

By Hermione Lee

Published by Faber & Faber £30

Reviewed by John Nathan

Hermione Lee’s biographies of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton have brought this now retired professor of English literature much acclaim. But who knew she did requests?

Lee was one of hundreds of guests at a lavish all-day party at Chelsea’s Physic Garden in 2013 when she was asked by the host Tom Stoppard -—now 83 and for many the world’s greatest living playwright — if she would like to write his biography. The result of her on-the-spot answer is a dauntingly detailed biography of 865 pages, not including the chronology, bibliography, notes and index which amount to another hundred pages or more.

It all begins speedily enough with an account of the subject’s early idyllic life in Czechoslovakia when Tomik Straussler and his older brother Petr lived comfortably as the sons of Marta their mother and Eugen, one of many Jewish doctors who worked for the giant Bata shoe company.

Lee’s account of the family’s escape from the Nazis to Singapore, one of the company’s many outposts, has an urgency that conveys just how close the Strausslers came to being consumed by the Holocaust. And again Tomas, Petr and their mother Marta escaped by the skin of their teeth just before the Japanese onslaught on their adoptive home. But the boys’ father Eugen stayed on for a few days and never made it. Marta did not yet know she was a widow when she and her sons landed in India, eventually settling in Darjeeling overlooked by the Himalayas.

This is the history that Stoppard never expressly hid, but which few who met him as a dashing young journalist and then playwright had much inkling of, despite the slight foreign lilt.

Tomas became Tom and Straussler became Stoppard, the surname of the boys’ English stepfather Ken who courted Marta in India when he was stationed there as a British Army officer. They moved to England when Tom was eight.

Ken is rarely mentioned without reference to his antisemitism, largely because of Tom’s Jewish heritage which was suppressed by his mother. But Lee puts it in context. The prejudices were “against foreigners, non-whites, Jews, Irish, Yanks, homosexuals, the urban working class and ‘arty’ types”. Yet none of this prevents Tom from growing into, and being seen as a quintessentially English man of letters, a lover of cricket since prep school – he later played it with Harold Pinter.

Although Ken gave his stepson his name, it was Tom who turned it into an adjective. Stoppardian became a byword for wit, linguistic elegance and the collision of ideas, themes and even different centuries. Modern classics such as Arcadia, Jumpers, The Real Thing and The Invention of Love all have more than one of these virtues, as does the work that launched him as an all-conquering theatrical force in 1966, the Hamlet-inspired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Not that Ken thanked him for it. When Marta died in 1996 Ken wrote to Tom instructing him to stop using the Stoppard surname, which Lee says is probably the only antisemitic letter Stoppard ever received. (There is still time.)

Lee meticulously fleshes out the life that Stoppard himself describes as lucky. From hanging out with Peter O’Toole in his early days as a journalist in Bristol where his love of the theatre blossomed, to the Concorde trips to attend American rehearsals and premières of his plays. Also captured is the madness that goes with writing for Hollywood and winning an Oscar (for Shakespeare in Love). Lee’s access to his letters reveal Stoppard’s inner life and private relationships, the marriages to Jose Ingle, Miriam Stoppard (nee Stern) and now Sabrina Guinness. Also here are the (known) affairs with actresses Felicity Kendal and Sinead Cusack, Jeremy Irons’s wife. His first love, Isobel Dunjohn, was not his first wife nor even his girlfriend.

But the disconnect between the playwright’s success and family history hovers over this biography just as it did over Stoppard’s life. That is until he — and so also Lee — can ignore it no more.

What triggered his late reassessment was a book by the Croatian writer Dasa Drndic in which the author witheringly takes Stoppard to task for failing to adequately acknowledge the fate of his fellow Jews, both in his work and his life.

It is testament to Stoppard’s moral compass that his response was not to defend himself, but to accept the criticism and respond by writing his most personal (though not autobiographical) work Leopoldstadt. The play is set mainly in the first half of the last century and follows the fate of the fictional Merz family, well to do assimilated Viennese Jews. Yet by the time he started writing it he had long been processing the revelation from his cousin Sarka, the granddaughter of one of his hitherto unheard of aunts, that both his mother and father were Jewish (a condition in the play described as “the full catastrophe”). Also that he had not one maternal aunt, but four, three of whom had been murdered in the camps, as had all his grandparents on both sides.

Like the programme for Leopoldstadt, which returns to the West End in August after a pandemic-enforced shutdown, this biography has a family tree. Both have branches cut short by the Nazis.

Though Stoppard is still going strong, the play serves as a satisfying final chapter to Lee’s book, drawing together as it does the frightening first section of Stoppard’s life and his most recent.

Some of the descriptions of theatre productions are gushing, deserved in the case of Patrick Marber’s stunning revival of Travesties, less so for his handling of Leopoldstadt. This general tone is characteristic of Lee’s uncritical eye. But then, unlike her previous subjects , this one is very much alive and few who have met and written about Stoppard do not want to be liked by him, and want him to like what they have written. I know this. After an interview we did, I think of the thanks and praise he texted more often than is healthy for a journalist. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Referring to his time as a theatre critic he once said, “I never had the moral character to pan a friend. I’ll rephrase that. I had the moral character never to pan a friend,” and Lee, one feels, is a bit like that too.

Still, as a guide to understanding one of the greatest dramatists of this or any other time, the book is indispensable. It is difficult to imagine that a life could be better known and understood.

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