I was once taken to an event at the New School by Barbara Epstein and she introduced me to Janet Malcolm at the drinks party afterward. “I’ll never forget what you said about Anne Stevenson’s lasagne,” I said to Malcolm.
“I’m not sure I said much,” she replied.
“Oh, you did,” I said, with a friendly smile. “You said the worst thing anybody can say about a lasagne. I think you used the word ‘curly.’”
Malcolm looked bemused and we moved on to other things. The exchange stuck in my mind, though, because in a tiny way it encapsulates one of the problems of biography. When I got home, I checked my copy of The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s excellent book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, in which she explores with a glinting scalpel the often unconscious motives of those who delve into other people’s lives. Yet I looked in vain for the word “curly.” There’s a rather tender scene where Malcolm goes to the north of England to visit Stevenson, an accomplished poet who had written a biography of Plath called Bitter Fame. The two of them are standing in the kitchen of Stevenson’s house in Durham.
For the reader, or perhaps just for the reader who writes novels, there’s a certain drama as Stevenson prepares their supper—it turns out that she can’t talk about Plath and assemble the lasagne at the same time. She asks Malcolm to go and read in the parlor, and Malcolm does so, leafing through a pile of letters Stevenson had gathered for her, letters she hoped might add to Malcolm’s understanding of what occurred while she was writing the Plath biography.
Later, “having put the lasagne in the oven,” she joins Malcolm, and they discuss the complications involving Olwyn Hughes, Plath’s sister-in-law and Stevenson’s sometime collaborator and full-time nemesis. The hostess’s husband comes in and joins the conversation. He opens some wine, and at that point Stevenson realizes something: she has left the white sauce out of the lasagne, which must continue in the oven without it. “As with the publication of Bitter Fame,” Malcolm writes, “she had no choice but to serve it, but she felt it to be an imperfect, compromised thing. I understood her anguish and felt for her.”
I’d forgotten about the white sauce and replaced it with “curly.” But did I forget, or was I reaching for a truth that I felt lay concealed within what Malcolm had written? With my remark to her at the party, I’d somehow altered her account of a mishap with the insertion of an insult, betraying both my original worry about the dinner—the lasagne went into the oven before what seemed like a long conversation about truth-telling—and my sense that Malcolm’s text showed something pitiable and dried up about Stevenson, as well as something pitiable and dried up about Britain and its sad dinners.
This is what happens with memory, and what happens, only more so, with biography. One inserts one’s wishes, one’s suspicions, one’s determinations, and calls them facts. “I hope each one of us owns the facts of his or her own life,” Ted Hughes told The Independent, in a moment of despair about the freedoms people took with the story of his life. “No,” responds Hermione Lee, in her book Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography:
For the biographised and for their friends and family, there is a fight from the death over facts, between the participants in a life and the writers of it. And even if, unusually, no such tug-of-war takes place, the biographer still has to have the internal tussle between “making up” and “fact,” or “making over” and “likeness.”
“One doesn’t defend one’s god,” says the would-be biographer in The Aspern Papers, speaking of the author who is his subject. “One’s god is in himself a defense.” The narrator of that novella comes to regret his “extravagant curiosity” and ends the tale owning a small painting of the author instead of his invaluable letters. Yet the seasoned life-writer, using words to conjure these magicians of words, must leave the reader with both the representation and the original, and will, in the process, prove to be more than a shadow on the canvas. The best ones leave the lineaments of their own portrait, a sometimes hidden sketch, deep down in the design or mysteriously merged with the paint. “I think Sylvia took up suicide the way I took up drink,” Stevenson said to Malcolm. And that was the raw pigment she mixed into her entire understanding of Plath and the poet’s life. Some biographers reveal nothing so much as they reveal themselves while gaining on their subjects, discovering just why they chose to write about such a person in the first place. The crime writer Julian Symons once said that the art of biography relies on a kind of homing instinct: “A good biography is prompted not by the inherent qualities of its subject, but by the biographer’s unconsciously realised opportunity for self-expression.”
Hermione Lee might not dismiss these complications, though her personality dwells far beneath the surface of her books, more hidden than many. Her biographies are not about her in any obvious way, but every good biographer, to some extent, must swim in the same sea as her subject, and it is the degree of osmosis that might interest any true fan of the form. Does she take on the qualities (and vices) of her subject as she discovers them, or does the subject, dead or alive, become slowly infused with hers?
Lee has long since shown herself to be among the most penetrating literary biographers in English, and has been content, before now, to write only the lives of dead authors whose reputations are secure. She is unbuttoned in her scholarship, driven more to fresh thoughts than to footnotes, and has a contemporary tendency to catch her subjects in the act of living. The data is in place, but we also see the dance of morality, the implicit motions of social existence and how they relate to the solitary life of the mind. Not all biographers truly consort with creativity, but Lee does, so her books have a creativity of their own, deepening and sometimes altering one’s sense of the individual talent. One feels, for example, that she renovated Virginia Woolf; she made us see Edith Wharton as something much more than Henry James in a dress or as a decently delineated character in one of her own novels; and more recently, Lee built a classical arch out of Penelope Fitzgerald’s delicacies. Yet none of these authors was around to question what she made of them. Great biographers are stewards of the land they describe, they are overlords of the life contained, but what effect does it have on their vision when the subject is looking over their shoulder?
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play, Guildenstern asks his companion, “What’s the first thing you remember?” After a certain rigmarole, Rosencrantz gives his answer: “I’ve forgotten the question.” Fifty-three years later, at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, the month before the first lockdown, I heard the character Rosa, in Leopoldstadt, say to her cousin Leo, a Stoppard-like figure (a writer who left for England and forgot his origins), “So what’s the first thing you can remember?” The two questions, the same question, might enlist us into Stoppard’s dazzling quest, as a playwright, for meaning, consciousness, history, and goodness. It was a quest he experienced in real time and we experienced with him.
But one might argue that it is his biographer who has given the journey a shape. Interestingly, Stoppard appears never to have had much faith in biography as a means of elucidating human truth. “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong,” a character says in Indian Ink (1995). “He often mentioned,” Lee writes, “his dread at the thought of having his letters published or his biography written.” But he did not hinder Lee, in fact he chose her, and in doing so he has stimulated a rare supply of grace notes to his own concerto. Here at last is the galvanizing theme of his life’s work—the theme of human thinking and its place in history—reduced to the burgeoning conscience of a single artist.
Kenneth Tynan once asked Stoppard why his mother didn’t clear up the questions of his past. “Rightly or wrongly,” he replied, “we’ve always felt that she might want to keep the past under a protective covering so we’ve never delved into it.” Such delving, of course, is a biographer’s remit, yet the novelty of this case is that Lee’s investigations have been carried out while Stoppard has been engaged in a parallel search of his own. It comes in the altered rooms and the deepening ruminations of Leopoldstadt, a new sort of play for Stoppard, where he has opened up his origins, and Lee, like Alfred Russel Wallace, has been coming at the truth in her own way, but more or less from the same direction as his Darwin.
Stoppard’s life, it seems, can be imagined as something not quite operating in a straight line. We know he was born Tomáš Sträussler in Zlín, a Moravian town about 150 miles southeast of Prague, a place once known for plum brandy and later for the shoe-making company Bata. It is a world of borders and lost names, of laughter and forgetting. With his brother, mother, and father, Tomáš got to Singapore in 1939. “I wouldn’t have known the word ‘refugee’ when I was one,” Stoppard said. “It was just my childhood.” When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942, the family escaped to Bombay—minus Eugen, the father, who sent the others ahead and was killed when the ship carrying him was sunk in the South China Sea—and then to Darjeeling, where Marta, Tomáš’s mother, in time met Major Kenneth Stoppard.
Writers’ lives are like other people’s: we live with the stories left behind, and it can take the rest of our lives to know them. Reliving it, in a sense, for the page only, the biographer can show us what dropped away or was repressed. “While Eugen and Marta were together in Singapore,” Lee writes,
Eugen’s parents, Julian and Hildegard Sträussler, both in their sixties, were evicted from their house in Brno and, early in 1941, were put on the transport of Moravian Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp at Terezin. On 9 January 1942, a month before their son Eugen’s death, they were transported to the ghetto in Riga, in Latvia, where they died. The following year, Eugen’s grandmother, Hildegard’s mother, Hermine Bechynski, died at Terezin, aged eighty-two. Eugen’s married sister, Edit, was transported to Terezin in 1945, but survived and returned to Brno. In 1944, Marta’s parents, Rudolf Beck, aged seventy, and Regina, a chronic invalid at sixty-nine, died at Auschwitz. So did two of her four sisters, Wilma and Berta…. It is not certain when Marta learned of the fate of her parents, her three sisters and her in-laws. She was certainly told at some time…. But Marta never told her sons, either that she was Jewish or that most of her family had perished in the Holocaust.
The Stoppards came to England when Tom was eight. He said he fell in love with the nation itself and “put on Englishness like a coat.” It was a rather “tongue-tied, strait-laced” environment, Lee writes, and the boys were neither encouraged to question their background nor to dwell on the gaps in the family story. The grown-up Stoppard appeared initially to draw his linguistic energy from journalism, working as a reporter on a Bristol newspaper, then spending two years as a film critic. He had another job as a theater critic for the London magazine Scene. In one of his reviews published there, he noticed how Beckett’s characters had “a look of pity and ironic amusement, the exact opposite of laughing till one cries—crying till one laughs.”
Stoppard once indicated that he spent 80 percent of his time looking for something to write about, but you could argue that his subject was always before him, in the mental space that lies between writing about what you know and about what you can’t bear to know. He wrote a novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966), in which the latter character makes his living as a “Boswell,” a hireling “in the posterity business.” A while later, in one of The New Yorker’s more languid exhibitions of the pot calling the kettle black, Tynan chided Stoppard for aestheticizing, but it is perhaps more appropriate to see the playwright as having created, early on, a foil to the chaos of reality, a comic universe in which mortality is the one steady thing we all know, or come to know. It’s the distinguished thing, as Henry James would have it, and our mutual friend.
Only a fool would turn Stoppard into a one-note fugitive from the hauntings of his past. He is not that, and Lee is spirited at catching the unpredictable nature of his talent and the sonorous charm of his ideas. Who knows, he may have been detained all along by the invisible truths of his being, but to view that as his essence, or the essence of his writing, is to ignore all the happy accidents of his art, as well as the complexities of survival. He is chiefly a master of language, and many of his plays grow out of images, notions, half-arguments, wordplay: the deep experience of a working conscience, as well as its defenses. He may have his reasons, or no reasons at all, for building plays that are more of a game than a lesson, more of an escape than a dwelling, but it is certainly possible, the world will tell you, to be fascinated by the work of Tom Stoppard without having the least interest in his political convictions or his core beliefs. Like Whitman or Nabokov, he is at his most interesting (and most natural) when not convinced about anything.
The chief source of his eloquence is contradiction, and very few of the optimists who criticize his political positions are quite as human as he is. The “hard problem,” the one that overarches all those he animates in his plays, is how to be a good and a free person in a world that seems not to know the true meaning of either. Lee, in effect, makes an elegant argument for uncertainty, the true Chekhovian principle of the creative life. “The truth about anything is probably ‘a compound of two opposite half-truths,’” he says in the proto-mockumentary “Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know.” Such words might be manna in the era of correctness.
Some biographers draw strength from their own clarity, seeing through their subject’s act and identifying the elements concealed by instinct. Robert Caro, to take one example, made a wonderful and terrifying portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson by sucking out all the oily charm and replacing it with embalming fluid. Caro’s empathy appears to lie with all the people who ever met LBJ, rather than with the man himself. But in literary biography the judgment of human character must consort with the values operating in the work, and this is where Lee is better than most: she gets Stoppard’s foibles and his deeds, his domestic flair and his culpable charisma, but she is forever heading back into the fabulous terrain of the plays. I maintain that it sometimes takes a writer to know what a writer is doing. Stoppard’s play Jumpers (1972), she writes,
is showbiz incarnate: tricksy, hilarious, flamboyant, startling. It does as many things at once as it can: slapstick bedroom farce with a flash of naked bottom, situational comedy of errors, split-screen double-act, musical, circus, murder-mystery, domestic marital drama, dream sequence, futuristic fantasy, surrealistic nonsense play.
But this is immediately preceded by the oxygenated thinking that comes from the book’s critical heart:
What is the relation between belief and morality? In a context of cultural instability and scepticism, can the existence of God be proved, and a claim be made for universal moral values? For a writer who was not conspicuously religious or moralising, whose default position was uncertainty and ambivalence, and who wanted above all to entertain his audience, putting these questions on stage was a major, self-made, intellectual challenge. And, once aired, these questions never went away. His characters were still arguing over them, thirty years later, in The Hard Problem.
As a playwright who has often dealt in borrowed characters—borrowed, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from other plays, or from history, such as Lenin in Travesties (1974), or literary history, as was A.E. Housman in The Invention of Love (1997)—Stoppard has shown a rather detailed interest in the vagaries of life-writing, life-inventing, and life-leaving. He “would call Invention ‘a memory play in which the protagonist has an unreliable memory,’” Lee writes, and there is colorful support, all over his work, for the truth of a remark he made at the time of Travesties: “I was writing the play to make the kind of exhibition of myself I was too shy to make in real life.”
Now and again, Stoppard is accused of being cold, intellectual, or somehow lacking in feeling. Yet to accuse him of being unemotional is like accusing a magician of being insufficiently realistic. It is simply not his habit to provide occasions for the exhibition of reassuring emotions, but there is plenty of feeling in his plays, even, here and there, a little sentiment. The Real Thing (1982), his “love play,” is an intellectual self-portrait, and the character of Henry, a playwright, is a sublime compendium of Stoppovian manners. But its author said something that might be noted by writing students the world over:
Because The Real Thing had an English playwright editorialising about writing and love and marriage and all that, it was perfectly obvious that when he was waving his prejudices around, he was pretty much speaking for me. But then so are the other people (in the play) who contradict him. That’s what playmaking is; you have to take everybody’s side.
Lee picks up the point:
It had taken a long time to shake off the “bottled-up” legacy of the family and school he had come from. And he continued to be quite in favour of bottling up. But The Real Thing, he agreed, did let more of himself out. But…it is a mistake to think there was no emotion in the early plays, no longing and tenderness, no sense of loss and grief, and no autobiographical content.
He had always been fond of a line from James Saunders’s 1962 play, Next Time I’ll Sing to You: “There lies behind everything…a certainly quality which we may call grief.”
We hear of the growth of a poet’s mind, but with some writers we see a steady ingrowth, a coalescing of ghosts and questions at the interior, and this has made the latter part of Stoppard’s career as flowering as the first. (He’s a luckier writer than, say, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, who had very sticky second halves.) His themes got darker and closer to home—closer, in a way, to the matter of England and himself. In The Invention of Love we still hear the echoing music-hall repartee—“I had that Dionysus in the back of my boat,” says a taxi driver–like Charon, crossing the River Styx—but one feels the presence, increasingly, of the celebrated writer as a thinking and forgetting entity. “In England it wasn’t something you had to know,” says Leo in Leopoldstadt, about being Jewish, “or something people had to know about other people.” For years, Stoppard had been forging new paths into his personal history, into the subject of his family, and in his eighties the time was right to address them directly. Thus Leopoldstadt, which he has suggested could be his last play. “Art cannot be subordinate to its subject,” he had Oscar Wilde say in The Invention of Love, “otherwise it is not art but biography, and biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes.”
A mesh, perhaps, but also, as Lee demonstrates, it may be the crucible in which a life’s elements are seen to be broken down. Few good writers, and even fewer living ones, get the biographer they deserve—one energized by his fables, while doubting them, and liking them still—and you begin to see in this book two authors sympathetic to the idea of sympathy itself. Lee’s life of life-writing is in itself an argument for a way of seeing, a way of wanting to see, placing a value on vivacity and complexity above any expectation of human perfection. In an essay on endings, “How to End It All,” Lee reminds us that Freud destroyed his papers, “and (like Proust) he was extremely hostile to the idea of any biography…with its attempt to tell the conclusive truth about a life—particularly the life of an artist—[which] seemed to Freud like a travesty or parody of psychoanalysis.”
But it might be considered grand, if done well, to write biographies that serve as a lasting tribute to the real quarrels of the living and the dead, to all the uncertainties, including the uncertainty of who the subject has been all along. Psychoanalysts are no better placed than biographers to judge a life’s reality, but they must both—in England as elsewhere—allow for the possibility that truth and imagination are bound together.
“Without meaning to, without having any secret agenda, one is constantly obscuring the tracks of one’s own life,” Stoppard has said. But life obscures itself also, and we are all propelled by decisions not faced, roads not taken, into pasts we didn’t want or into futures we couldn’t contemplate. We are sometimes at our most resourceful when we are putting things out of our minds. Stoppard didn’t forget his past, he ignored it, as his mother always wished that they could. But her death in 1996 may have given him the permission he needed to begin making something of his origins. The past was always there, and, like many an obscurity, time slowly made it visible. Leopoldstadt, when it appeared in 2020, was all the better for its contradictions, all the richer for appearing so late. Many of the questions Stoppard could never ask, many of a biographical nature, it seemed, were now asked in the play, and all his doubts came echoing into the dark, where we sat.