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In ‘Tom Stoppard,’ Hermione Lee Takes On a New Challenge: a Living Subject

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Lee’s 97-year-old father read that part of the book before he died and told her that it wasn’t written in her usual style. “He was always my sternest critic,” she said, and added, laughing, “I could never work out whether this was a compliment or a criticism. The plan, anyway, was that I really wanted this part to come along and whoosh. You get on the journey and away you go.”

The rest of the book describes a life of extraordinary busyness, with Stoppard not just writing (and rewriting and rewriting) his plays but serving on committees, plunging himself into the politics of Eastern Europe, working for Hollywood — and not just on the movies we know as his, like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Empire of the Sun.” He also did work — uncredited but handsomely paid — on such unlikely projects as “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “102 Dalmatians.” There are stretches in the book when he takes the Concorde back and forth across the Atlantic as if it were a cab.

To judge from the British reviews, some readers picked up “Tom Stoppard: A Life” just for the gossip: the parties; the friends; the hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Mick Jagger and David Bowie; the three marriages; the love affairs, including a not-so-secret one with Sinead Cusack, the wife of Jeremy Irons. There were others who skipped that stuff and wanted to read instead all about the influence of Isaiah Berlin on “The Coast of Utopia.”

“I suppose I always felt it was a sort of double narrative,” Lee said. “I’d rather be boring than faulty. I could well imagine people saying, ‘Do you really have to go on about the plays at such length?’ I wanted to make people feel they were reading the plays as they were reading the book, as it were, or watching them again. I was also trying to do a service to myself, getting these plays clear in my head and trying to understand how they worked in his life at the time.”

Over the years, Lee has thought a lot about biography, and even about how much, paradoxically, she would resist the idea of anyone writing her life. In her brief book “Biography: A Very Short Introduction,” a sort of biography of biography, she argues that in some ways the form has evolved less than we think, and that the same questions keep coming up about the responsibilities and limitations of the form. “I’m perfectly aware that there are many things we can’t know,” she said. “I’m sure in Tom’s case there are one or two affairs that I don’t know about, that nobody knows about. And maybe nobody ever will know. I like that, actually.”

She added that she already had a new subject in mind — “just a glint in my eye, though, and too soon to be talking about it.” But she did volunteer three clues. Not a man. Not a playwright. And, yes, dead.



www.nytimes.com 2021-02-13 10:00:06

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