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.

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk