Methuen, £25

Double Act: a life of Tom Stoppard, by Ira Nadel

How Tomas turned into our wonderful Tom

Some writers refuse to sanction biographies. With typical one-upmanship, Tom Stoppard said of this first full-length account of his life: "I want it to be as inaccurate as possible." But if there's no evidence that Ira Nadel has obliged Sir Tom with deliberate mistakes, his biography at times conceals as much as it reveals.

The tone is set by the mirror image of his profile on the cover. Nadel's thesis is that the playwright has lived a double life (English/Czech, Gentile/Jew, insider/outsider). These "personal and theatrical contradictions" fuel each other as he "incorporates the strategies that address displacements he has encountered".

Certainly, displacement made Stoppard, who was born Tomas Straussler in Bohemia to Czech Jewish parents. The family left in 1939, bound for Nairobi, where his father's firm had an outpost. But he swapped papers with a neighbour who preferred Africa, and the family went to Singapore.

When Singapore fell in 1942, the Strausslers went to India. Tom's father was killed in the evacuation, and three years later his mother married an Englishman, Kenneth Stoppard. Plenty of dislocations here, but when Nadel, talking of Tom's life in England, says that nearby Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire, taught Stoppard "how to adapt the antithetical", you yearn to protest; the boy wasn't even 10 years old.

What the thesis-biography misses is the loose ends of a life. Thankfully, Nadel soon stops underlining the antitheses and oppositions of this "double life", and concentrates on a straightforward account, from beginnings in journalism to the award-laden career of the writer of classic plays such as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) and Arcadia (1993) and films such as Shakespeare in Love (1998).

The book's main strength is that it focuses on life rather than literature. Its accounts of Stoppard's plays, with brief plot summaries, concentrate on how they were conceived, produced and received. The book is clearly written, full of information, often engaging and thoroughly researched.

At its centre is the insecure child who threw his energies into embracing the language and culture – from cricket to country house – of his adopted England. Stoppard's plays, with their use of Shakespeare and Wilde, "taught the English something about England". Of course, his Englishness is his own invention. If his views have been condemned as reactionary, and his politics as conservative, it is apt that his theatrical vision of England is not only traditional, but also constantly unstable and subject to dramatic subversions.

The playwright, 65 this year, has fought shy of biographers. One interesting aspect of Nadel's book is that it shows Stoppard's recent efforts to find out about his childhood. There is an undercurrent of shock as he journeys to Czechoslovakia and discovers his painful Jewish past. Much was concealed by his mother, who was afraid of her son being too "foreign".

If calling Stoppard's career a double act overstates the case, Nadel's book does illuminate the relationship between life and work. This summer, Stoppard's most ambitious project, a trilogy of plays about Romantic Russian exiles, opens in London. It will be interesting to see whether they have anything to say about distrusting biography.

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