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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 this part of the book before he died and told her it was not written in her usual style. “He’s always been my toughest critic,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I never could figure out whether this was a compliment or a criticism. Anyway, the plan was that I really wanted this part to come along and rustle. You get on your way and go away. “

The rest of the book describes a life of extraordinary busyness, in which Stoppard not only writes (and rewrites and rewrites) his plays, but also works on committees, immersed himself in the politics of Eastern Europe, works for Hollywood – and not just for the films, which we shoot known as his, like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Empire of the Sun”. He also worked – uncredited but well paid – on such unlikely projects as “The Bourne Ultimatum”, “Sleepy Hollow” and “102 Dalmatians”. There are sections in the book where he drives the Concorde back and forth across the Atlantic as if it were a taxi.

Judging by the UK reviews, some readers have picked up Tom Stoppard: A Life just for the gossip: the parties; the friends; 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 one not so secret with Sinead Cusack, wife of Jeremy Irons. There were others who skipped this stuff and instead wanted to read all about Isaiah Berlin’s influence on The Coast of Utopia.

“I think I always felt like it was kind of a double narration,” Lee said. “I’d rather be boring than flawed. I could well imagine people saying, “Do you really have to go on with the pieces that long?” I wanted to make people feel like they were reading the pieces while they were reading the book or seeing them again. I also tried to do myself a service, getting these pieces clear in my head and understanding how they worked in his life at that time. “

Over the years, Lee has thought a lot about biography and even how much she would paradoxically oppose the idea of ​​someone writing her life. In her short book Biography: A Very Brief Introduction, a kind of biography of biography, she argues that the form has in some ways evolved less than we think, and that the same questions about the responsibilities and limits of biography keep coming up form. “I am fully aware that there are many things that we cannot know,” she said. “I’m sure that in Tom’s case there will be an issue or two that I don’t know and no one knows about. And maybe no one will ever know. I actually like that. “

She added that she already had a new topic in mind – “just a glimmer in my eyes and too early to talk about.” But she gave three pointers voluntarily. No man. Not a playwright. And yes, dead.

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Robert Dunfee