In the astute and authoritative new biography, Tom Stoppard: A Life, Hermione Lee wrestles it all onto the page. At times you sense she is chasing a fox through a forest. Stoppard is constantly in motion — jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, looking after the many revivals of his plays, keeping the plates spinning, agitating on behalf of dissidents, artists and political prisoners in Eastern Europe, delivering lectures, accepting awards, touching up scripts, giving lavish parties, maintaining friendships with Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Steven Spielberg, Mick Jagger and others. It’s been a charmed life, lived by a charming man. Tall, dashing, large-eyed, shaggy-haired; to women Stoppard’s been a walking stimulus package ... Her Stoppard book is estimable but wincingly long; it sometimes rides low in the water. The sections that detail Stoppard’s research for his plays can seem endless, as if Lee has dragged us into the library with him and given us a stubby pencil. Like a lot of us during the pandemic, Tom Stoppard: A Life” could stand to lose 15 percent of its body weight.
... empathetic, meticulous ... Ms. Lee, a formidable literary scholar, discusses the plays at length but warily. Not every line her subject wrote is golden, but she seems chary about delivering negative criticism. And it seems clear that the two of them agreed that certain personal subjects should be off-limits ... One feels that Ms. Lee, like Boswell writing about Johnson, might have stashed away a sizable file marked Tacenda—'things to be silent about.' But there honestly doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dirt to dig up. Mr. Stoppard’s romantic breakups have been amicable, and friends and colleagues speak of him in the highest terms. He appears to be genuinely kind, as well as self-controlled and well-behaved.
Lee...builds an ever richer, circular understanding of his abiding themes and concerns, of his personal and artistic life, and of his many other passionate engagements ... Lee’s biography is unusual in that it was commissioned, and published while its subject is still alive. Lee is a highly acclaimed biographer whose rigor and integrity make her decision to write under such conditions surprising ... Lee is frank and thoughtful about the challenges of writing about a living subject. She is aware, as the reader will be, that her interview subjects do not want to speak ill of a friend and colleague who is still among them. In addition to the almost unrelievedly positive portrayal of Stoppard, the seven-hundred-fifty-plus pages of this volume might have been somewhat condensed, were its subject no longer living, thereby rendering the biography easier to wield and to read. In spite of these quibbles, this is an extraordinary record of a vital and evolving artistic life, replete with textured illuminations of the plays and their performances, and shaped by the arc of Stoppard’s exhilarating engagement with the world around him, and of his eventual awakening to his own past.
Lee does her best to scour Stoppard’s life and 50-year career for that human fallibility, and while at 750 pages (plus notes) Tom Stoppard can feel as daunting as one of the master’s more vexing theatrical works, it never treats (as so many biographies do) the fame and accomplishment of its subject as foregone conclusions. Instead, Tom Stoppard remains alive to the unlikeliness of Tom Stoppard’s career from the very beginning ... [Tom Stoppard] encourages the reader to return to Stoppard’s work in ways that are richly rewarding. Lee gives wise, learned readings to each major play (and a number of minor ones), teasing apart their themes, interpreting their theatrical gestures, and placing them cleverly in the context of their author’s life and work.
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 ... It is tempting to see 'Hermione Lee' as one of his greatest creations—a professor who knows more about a playwright who writes about professors than he knows about himself, a narrator who understands about unreliable narrators and isn’t fazed by them, a reader who always gets the joke. And she appreciates the theatre and its lore without being a luvvie ... It seems unfair that a man of such outrageous gifts should also have been allowed to magic up the perfect biographer to write his life ... Lee’s biography is perceptive, knowledgeable, stylish and very long. The only times I found my mind wandering to the prospect of interval drinks were during the slightly breathless (and hugely detailed) descriptions of Stoppard’s social life once he became a celebrity ... Readers who, by contrast, like their biographies to romp along from lunch party to lunch party may find that Lee’s long analyses of the plays clog the action, but for my money her astute and unfailingly clear accounts of Stoppard’s complex creations are among the great strengths of this exceptional biography. Her attentive exposition of the themes and intricate plot of Arcadia is almost worth the price of admission by itself; Stoppard has often been criticised for being 'heartless' or too purely 'cerebral', but it is one of Lee’s several literary-critical triumphs to identify the emotions that drive so much of his work[.]
This is a hugely impressive work. Lee’s book has the scope of a novel; it is superbly researched and written with a rare empathy and understanding of human nature ... Hermione Lee has done as well anybody could to bring this fundamentally private man to light. But the core of Tom Stoppard remains hermetic, sealed. His biographer clearly shows he is fundamentally happiest when he is on his own, working through the night on his latest play ... He is a great playwright, and this is a great biography.
Lee's tome immediately announces itself as the life of Tom Stoppard, and one trawl through it really isn't sufficient to absorb fully all the information and exegesis contained therein ... You want romance or the whiff of scandal? Lee doesn't disappoint ... Lee tracks with remarkable ease both the life and the art of a man resistant to undue examination who has submitted here to one of the fullest biographical excavations of recent times. And if you sometimes need to put the book to one side simply to absorb the density of material, you return to it as you might to a fresh Stoppard opening with unbridled avidity[.]
When Tom Stoppard asked Hermione Lee, the distinguished Oxford literary critic, to write his biography, he gave her access to a wealth of materials and permission to quote from them; he also put her in touch with his collaborators, colleagues, friends, lovers and family. The resulting Tom Stoppard: A Life, is a comprehensive and endlessly fascinating biography of one of the major figures of contemporary film and theatre ... A perfect meeting of the artist and Lee’s inestimable diligence.
Domestic arrangements are usually treated with great tact in Tom Stoppard: A Life, a biography which, although immodestly long and massively detailed, manages to avoid tabloid speculation. That it succeeds in establishing a relation between the man who sat down to breakfast and the formal completion of his ideas is all the more remarkable given Stoppard’s publicly avowed hostility to the genre ... [the] biography becomes theatre history, invaluable to the expert, potentially gruelling to the amateur. Either way, it takes up space. At the same time, Lee’s academic skill in tracing sources pays off with a writer who is so very frank about his inspirations ... In the immediate context, there is a fascinating instance of 'doubling' as it operates between playwright and biographer, who mirror one another in their concern with 'the relation of the written to the lived life'. Of course, in many ways the task of the biographer has been unlike that of the playwright as she searches for an almost therapeutic continuity in the factual life of someone notorious in his own narratives for jaw-dropping jolts ... The biographer is most present and even more impressive in her transparent understanding of the frustrations of her lot. Reservations come together, in a quietly moving, semi-resigned coda in which she acknowledges the power of Stoppard’s own beliefs ... 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?
In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait ... Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject [...] and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf ... His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken ... In writing about Stoppard while he’s alive, Lee is not just keeping up with new output. She’s conveying the ways in which his past work remains potentially in progress—and the ways in which his own life, as becomes clear in his latest play, is a window onto the vagaries of history. Lee has said more than once that there is no such thing as a 'definitive' biography. In Tom Stoppard: A Life, she proves that in the extreme ... When Stoppard read this biography, he told Lee that 'he is good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think.' For all Lee’s evident affection, she leaves that unwritten self just visible at the perimeter, living its part of the undefinitive life.
Lee is no real intruder. For seven years she has shadowed Stoppard’s life, and the result is a scrupulously authorised biography. It suffers from the usual drawbacks that come with such access: Lee minimises Stoppard’s flaws, raves over his literary work and obsesses about his 'gorgeous-looking' youthful appearance. In return she gets to reveal a cornucopia of personal notebooks, literary letters, and even early love poems, shedding unprecedented light on one of the great names of a generation ... There is little scandalous here. As literary history, Lee’s biography never disappoints ... As literary criticism, it is frustrating ... Lee gives her own interpretations, but barely acknowledges the vast body of work by other scholars. She has scant time for professional theatre critics and rarely references any by name, unless those names are Tynan or Billington ... sensitivity to political and historical context that elevates Lee’s biography above any lapses ... She highlights potentially racist or sexist jokes, then shrugs at each as 'of its time' ... Yet her research is encyclopedic, her hero charismatic, her scope expansive ... Hers is an essential contribution to theatre history.
About Shakespeare we famously possess a small, precious handful of facts. In her encyclopedic new biography Hermione Lee seems to provide several million about Tom Stoppard. She greets us, rather forebodingly, with a genealogical tree, as if the extended Stoppard family were a medieval royal house. The book’s chapter heads tease us with delicious epigraphs, but to find the sources of those quotes you have to flip to the back and ransack the microscopic endnotes. These are quibbles. The lack of an editor’s blue pencil is not. In the course of 750 pages of text we get not only detailed play sources, production histories and migraine-inducing plot summaries (one of them eight pages long), but seemingly everything Stoppard ever wore and every room in every house he ever bought and every 'posh' friend he ever made ... Tom Stoppard is every bit as informed and intelligent as any Stoppard play. If only it were as pointed or as agile. Stoppard himself, dodging puckishly, seems to get lost amid the facts.
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.
I don’t think that Lee gets him wrong at all ... This is a biography that charts not just physical journeys but also the journey from blindness to self-knowledge ... While Lee’s book offers few new revelations, its achievement is the rounded portrait that emerges, that of an artist whose work has become ever more interesting the more he has been present in it ... While sometimes the meticulousness feels like the mere accumulation of trivia, on occasion it is illuminating ... As you might expect from an authorised biographer, Lee is sometimes a little breathless—it seems like she has fallen for Stoppard’s legendary charm ... Lee’s accomplished biography suggests that while the playwright who understands his own mystery and his own history is no less alone, he is a much more potent artist than the one who refuses to reflect upon the self.
... an authoritative biography of this celebrated writer may seem premature. But the highly accomplished biographer Hermione Lee, at Stoppard’s behest, has produced just that. Tom Stoppard: A Life is a capacious and exhaustive book that attempts to infiltrate his art while chronicling his life’s journey—and what a journey it has been ... The most absorbing parts of Stoppard’s story involve his rediscovery of his Jewish roots and the ways he has indirectly mined his own family’s experiences in his work ... While Stoppard has often been accused of being an overly clever or cerebral playwright who avoids the personal and the emotional in his work, Lee makes a solid case for the true depth, as well as the surface brilliance, of his enduring plays. Mike Nichols, another émigré genius of the theatre, called Stoppard 'the most expressive playwright of our time . . . the only writer I know who is completely happy.' Tom Stoppard: A Life affirms that appraisal.
Lee...is the perfect choice to write about Stoppard's riveting life ... 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 ... A major biography of a major, and appealing, literary figure, this study will jump off the shelves.
Playwright Tom Stoppard’s brilliant career gets the treatment it deserves in this authoritative (if overlong) biography ... her finest achievement is her analysis of his plays’ interconnections with philosophy, history, politics, and science. Missing is an in-depth account of Stoppard’s inner struggles ... Lee brings her readers as close to a literary genius as most of us will ever get.
... [a] thorough, sympathetic, and eminently readable text ... Lee carefully unwinds autobiographical links between her subject’s life and works ... As Lee masterfully explores both her subject’s life and work, she portrays a uniquely talented writer fully in tune with a wide variety of influences ... a biographical masterpiece ... Authoritative and exhaustive—another jewel in Lee’s literary crown.