Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 166-168
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Tom Stoppard: A Life
Morton P. Levitt
English literature, like the English language, is the most inclusive of all literatures. It might not even be a major literature were it not for its Irish component from the eighteenth century onwards. How highly would we value English Modernist poetry without Yeats, or English Modernist drama without Shaw and O'Casey? And then there are those seminal Modernist novelists: Conrad, the most distinguished of stylists in English, who nonetheless spoke the language with a thick Polish accent, and, of course, James, who even though he became an English citizen before his death (in order to show solidarity with his neighbors in the depths of the First World War) remained, in every significant respect as a novelist, recognizably American. Even the nationalist F.R. Leavis places both these figures at the heart of the English literary tradition.
At the same time, however, modern English literature is the most exclusive of all modern literatures: so chauvinistic that even today it has difficulty accepting the Irishmen Joyce and Beckett as part of its tradition. For an entire post-World War II generation (guided by Leavis and his enemy, C.P. Snow), the British critical and novelistic Establishment derided Modernism as an alien implant (no critical pejorative more telling than "French") and, as a result, produced the most minor fiction of any major modern culture. How fitting it is, then, that the English novel today is being restored with the aid of such prototypically English writers as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Hanif Kureishi (not to mention William Trevor, John Banville, Eva Figes, and Dan Jacobson).
Tom Stoppard, who might well have remained a novelist had it not been for the mid-century English hostility to the sort of novels that he was inclined to write, is regarded by all—himself included—as another prototypical Englishman. Yet, Ira Nadel reminds us forcefully in this first biography of Stoppard, he did not see England until he was almost nine. Born in Prague near the end of Czechoslovakia's brief independence (a country with its own distinguished modern literature), Tomá Straüssler lived in Singapore and Darjeeling, in northern India, before setting eyes on London. It was at the Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling that Tommy Straüssler began his journey to become an Englishman. [End Page 166]
"The first eight and a half years of Stoppard's life are a story of twentieth-century displacement and loss. Before he moved to England with a British stepfather, he had inhabited three countries; he had been a refugee thrown into at least three different cultures and four different languages. ... Not surprisingly, each element of this past found its way into his work, much as Stoppard might deny it" (36). Another possibility that the biographer raises—and that his subject denies—is the significance of Stoppard's discovery that he is not simply Czech but also Jewish.
Nadel begins, in fact, with Stoppard's recent trip to Czechoslovakia and his first encounter there with his surviving Jewish relatives. How much Stoppard suspected about his past before this trip is not clear; there is considerable evidence here to suggest that he had more than a hint of his Jewish birth well before he decided to return to Prague. (His mother evidently thought that being a refugee and a Jew would be too great a burden for her two young sons. Her younger son may have agreed with her, so determined was he to be English.)
Judiciously, Nadel does not push the point, leaving it to us to determine—if we must—how relevant the issue may be for the man and the playwright. But he does offer a telling possibility: "Other British dramatists of Stoppard's generation, notably Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter, both Jewish, took a less adaptable view of British life: they maintained the rigid stance of an outsider in their work" (42). As inventive and varied...