Tom Stoppard: A Life

Knopf. Feb. 2021. 896p. ISBN 9780451493224. $35. LIT
In 1946, Jewish playwright Tom Stoppard (b. 1938) landed in England after having fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and spending years as a refugee in Singapore and India. With an English stepfather and a Czech mother determined to make her children 100 percent English, Stoppard started out as a reporter for a newspaper in Bristol, moved to writing columns and freelancing, and burst onto the arts scene with the comedy Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead (1966), about two throwaway characters in Hamlet who don’t know if they exist at all outside a play in which they’re decidedly peripheral. James Tait Black Prize winner Lee (emerita, English Literature, Oxford Univ.; Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life) is the perfect choice to write about Stoppard’s riveting life. She explores how his talky plays are filled with ideas, made human in the characters who give voice to them—Stoppard read Wittgenstein during the creation of Jumpers (1972); 2015’s The Hard Problem centers on the nature of consciousness. In the 1980s, Stoppard rediscovered his roots as a Czech and later a Jew—but he remains in his life and writing a committed, contented Englishman. Lee’s knowledge of all the key players and discussions of Stoppard’s writings are models of exposition, capturing a personality that is generous, supportive, and, well, fun.
VERDICT A major biography of a major, and appealing, literary figure, this study will jump off the shelves.
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