The self-described “bounced Czech” of playwrights and screenwriters, Tom Stoppard has long believed that biographies are impossibilities. He contends that “the past could not be reproduced, only invented,” to quote Canadian critic and biographer Ira Nadel’s introduction to his invaluable “Tom Stoppard: A Life.” Erudite, thoroughly researched and vigorously written, it demands a reader’s undivided concentration, rewarding it generously.
Stoppard has led a remarkable life, during which he has absorbed many influences. Born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia in 1937, he left his home with his family when he was two, fleeing the Nazis. His doctor father worked for the Bat’a Shoe Company which helped the Strausslers move to Singapore (it was not until 1993 that Stoppard fully learned of his Jewish origins and that many members of his Czech extended family had died in concentration camps).
Stoppard today is in many respects a quintessential Englishman (English, not Czech, he points out, was his first not his second language). Over the years, Stoppard has gained a reputation as an intellectual, even academic playwright, dauntingly so for some theatergoers. Yet he’s anything but an Oxbridge man. In fact, he never went to university, having given up schooling as boring when he was 16. He began his writing career as a journalist in Bristol, his years on newspapers including stints as a theater critic.