Later On

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Tom Stoppard’s Charmed and Haunted Life

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In the New Yorker Anthony Lane reviews a new biography of Tom Stoppard by Hermione Lee. His review begins:

In 2007, the playwright Tom Stoppard went to Moscow. He was there to watch over a production of his trilogy—“Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Salvage,” collectively known as “The Coast of Utopia.” The trilogy had opened in London in 2002, and transferred to Lincoln Center in 2006. Now, in a sense, it was coming home. The majority of the characters, though exiled, are from Russia (the most notable exception being a German guy named Karl Marx), and, for the first time, they would be talking in Russian, in a translation of Stoppard’s text. Ever courteous, he wanted to be present, during rehearsals, to offer notes of encouragement and advice. These were delivered through an interpreter, since Stoppard speaks no Russian. One day, at lunch, slices of an anonymous meat were produced, and Stoppard asked what it was. “That is,” somebody said, seeking the correct English word, “language.”

The meat, of course, was tongue, and the anecdote—one of hundreds that Hermione Lee passes on to us in her new biography, “Tom Stoppard: A Life” (Knopf)—is perfect to a fault. If any writer was going to be on the receiving end of so deliciously forgivable a mistake, it had to be Stoppard. Likewise, at a performance of his 1974 play, “Travesties,” how was he to know that the handsome fellow he was chatting with was not, as he believed, his French translator but was, in fact, Rudolf Nureyev? Is it somehow in Stoppard’s nature that Stoppardian events befall him, or is it only in his telling that they come to acquire that distinctive lustre? He emerges from Lee’s book as a magnetic figure to whom others cluster and swarm, and around whom happy accidents, chance encounters, new loves, and worldly goods are heaped like iron filings. According to one friend, he’s “good at being adored.” Stoppard’s fellow-playwright Simon Gray gave this assessment:

\It is actually one of Tom’s achievements that one envies him nothing, except possibly his looks, his talents, his money and his luck. To be so enviable without being envied is pretty enviable, when you think about it.

The placing of that “possibly” is unimprovable. Many folk, less deserving than Stoppard, and with scarcely a whit of his charm, are greeted with godsends. What marks him out is the unusual thoroughness with which he has probed the mechanism of fate, as if it were his moral duty—shaded, perhaps, with a touch of guilt—to understand why he, of all people, should have got the breaks.

What matters, for instance, is not just that Stoppard belonged to a bunch of English-speaking writers who were dispatched, in the summer of 1964, to live and (if possible) to fructify in West Berlin, on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation; not just that he used his time there to toil on something called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the Court of King Lear”; not just that a new and Lear-less version was staged, by the Oxford Theatre Group, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966; not just that an enraptured review of the production was read by Kenneth Tynan, one of Stoppard’s heroes, who was then a presiding demigod at the National Theatre; not just that, with the blessing and the exhaustive counsel of Tynan and Laurence Olivier, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” opened at the National Theatre in 1967; and not just that its author, three months shy of his thirtieth birthday, was immediately mantled with a fame that would never slide from his shoulders; but that the play itself begins with the toss of a coin, as if all too aware that, after so prolonged a birth, it was lucky to be alive. “Heads,” Rosencrantz announces, again and again. “Heads. Heads. Heads.” Thereby hangs a tale.

To say that Tom Stoppard was born in Zlín, in Moravia, is true, but it’s not the whole story. For Stoppard, stories are never whole. At his birth, on July 3, 1937, he was named Tomáš Sträussler—the second son of two Jewish Czechs, Eugen Sträussler and Marta Becková. Zlín is still Zlín, though from 1948 to 1990 it wasn’t; instead, it was graced with the name of Gottwaldov, in honor of Klement Gottwald, the drunken and syphilitic Communist who ruled the country from 1948 to 1953, purging undesirables in a bid to keep favor with Moscow. Then, there is Moravia, which began the twentieth century as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ended it as a region of the Czech Republic. As Lee says, “All the names have changed.”

Zlín was a company town, centered on the Bata shoe factory, and Eugen was a company doctor. In April, 1939, after the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the Sträusslers and other Jews departed in haste. For the Sträusslers and their neighbors the Gellerts, there was reportedly a choice of destination: Singapore or Kenya? Heads or tails? Tomáš and his family went to Singapore—“probably via Hungary and Yugoslavia and thence to Genoa,” Lee writes. As the Japanese advanced on Singapore, in early 1942, Marta and her two sons made their escape, on a crowded ship. At Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka, they were transferred to another vessel, which Marta thought was heading to Australia. But, no, it sailed to India. In the churnings of wartime (and not only then, the adult Stoppard might say), entire lives can change course in the wake of a simple misunderstanding. I would welcome a map in Lee’s book, to complement the family tree that she provides, yet maybe the lines of travel would be too faint. At a deep distance, one imagines, memories dim.

The Sträussler boys never saw their father again. Decades later, Stoppard learned that Eugen had probably been on a ship that was sunk near Sumatra. Marta—the definition of a strong and protective mother, her resilience rivalled only by her anxiety—disembarked, with her sons, in what was then Bombay. According to Lee, “In the next four years, the family would move across India six or seven times.” Anyone whose early years were nomadic, for whatever reason, will know that the spectre of peregrination never fades; if anything, it returns to haunt one’s middle age, as thrilling and as destabilizing as ever. Thus, Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” (1995) was set in both the nineteen-thirties and the present day. Time is a looking glass, through which we come and go.

Readers may be puzzled to discover that, for Stoppard, his spell in India offered “a lost domain of uninterrupted happiness.” The high point of that domain was Darjeeling, with a view of the Himalayas. The city was busily multinational, and he was struck by the glamour, as he recalls it, of passing American soldiers; does a flicker of that impression survive in “Empire of the Sun” (1987), which he adapted from the novel by J. G. Ballard for Steven Spielberg, and in which the youthful hero, meeting Americans in a prison camp, is seized with similar awe? Stoppard’s mother, meanwhile, was making plans for the security of her sons. Without telling them, “she got on the train from Darjeeling and travelled all day (a six-hundred-kilometre journey) to marry Major Stoppard in St. Andrew’s Church, Calcutta, on 25 November 1945.”

In its plain way, that is the most extraordinary sentence in Lee’s book, calmly illustrating the lengths to which people will go to put an end to chaos. The war was over; Major Stoppard was a British officer, to whom Marta had been introduced at the Mount Everest Hotel, when he was on leave in Darjeeling; he could supply her with peace. And so, on the last leg of their odyssey, the Sträusslers turned into the Stoppards, took ship to England, and set in motion the process by which Tomáš would become the very English Tom, with a lavish command of his adopted tongue.

No surprise, then, that to watch Stoppard’s work—or merely to inspect his titles, like “New-Found-Land” (1976) and “Rough Crossing” (1984), which is partly set on the tilting deck of a boat, not to mention “The Coast of Utopia”—is to be schooled in restlessness, and in the yearning to reach safe haven. “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), for which Stoppard, in league with Marc Norman, wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay, concluded with Gwyneth Paltrow, as the survivor of a shipwreck, striding up a beach into the New World. Even our ultimate journey gets the treatment; think of the sepulchral joke in “The Invention of Love,” Stoppard’s 1997 play about the poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman, which starts with our hero preparing to be rowed across the river Styx. He is delighted to be en voyage. “I’m dead, then,” he says. “Good.”

If childhood, as Graham Greene remarked to John le Carré (one peripatetic soul confiding in another), is the credit balance of the writer, then Stoppard was rich by the time he made landfall in England, as an eight-year-old. He was sent with his older brother, Peter, to boarding school and swiftly inculcated into the classic traditions of his new country: cricket, fly-fishing, and a diplomatic camouflage of what is most keenly felt. Chez Stoppard, “the past was not much spoken of,” Lee tells us. “Keeping things quiet was their habit: this family did not much communicate its emotions or share confidences.” For a writer, such secrecy need not be a hardship. Experiences of value can be safely stored, accruing interest, and awaiting retrieval in maturity.

Stoppard’s teen-age years, in Lee’s recounting,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 February 2021 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

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