In Brief

Books of the Week: Tom Stoppard: A Life, Munkey Diaries: 1957-1982, Trio

New releases by Hermione Lee, Jane Birkin and William Boyd

Hermione Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard is an “astute and unfailingly clear” commentary on the playwright’s life and work. Jane Birkin’s diaries, addressed to her toy “Munkey”, reveal a troubled icon given to “self-loathing”. And William Boyd’s new novel set in Brighton in 1968 has a mood that’s a “mix of frolicsome and melancholy”.

Book of the week  Tom Stoppard: A Life by Hermione Lee 

Despite being our most famous living playwright, Tom Stoppard is a writer who divides opinion, said Stefan Collini in The Guardian. His plays make you think and laugh, but there’s often that “lingering reservation”. People say: “it’s all very clever, but...”. Yet whatever your view, Hermione Lee’s “perceptive, knowledgeable, stylish and very long” biography is unlikely to be bettered, either as a chronicle of an eventful life or as an “astute and unfailingly clear” commentary on his plays. Having disdained previous attempts to tell his life story, Stoppard handed Lee a “backstage” pass, granting her access to his letters, diaries and friends. With this “sympathetic” portrait, full of “unmatchable detail”, she has repaid him handsomely. 

Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in 1937, in the Czech town of Zlín, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. His parents, Marta and Eugen, who were Jewish, fled to Singapore when the Nazis invaded. His mother took them to Darjeeling before the Japanese invasion; Eugen was killed trying to escape. In 1945, Marta married an English army major named Kenneth Stoppard: the family moved to England, and Stoppard was sent to boarding school. “He was keen on cricket, joined the Boy Scouts and read voraciously.” After leaving school at 17, he worked in journalism before, aged 23, deciding to become a playwright. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an absurdist fantasy about two minor characters from Hamlet, was accepted by Kenneth Tynan at the National Theatre and premiered in 1967 to “ecstatic” reviews. At its equally successful New York premiere, when asked what it was “about”, Stoppard reportedly replied: “It is about to make me a lot of money.” 

It certainly did, said Clive Davis in The Times: Stoppard’s wealth is truly awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, Lee dwells rather too much on it, offering “endless” descriptions of his country houses and the seven-figure sums he earned for script-doctoring Steven Spielberg movies. It rather overwhelms the more interesting story of how a “Jewish boy escaped the Holocaust and adopted a new, very English identity”. I disagree, said Jeremy Treglown in the Literary Review. This is a superbly rounded book, “wonderful” on people and places, and good, too, on Stoppard’s “half-dozen most important love affairs” (including one with Sinéad Cusack, Jeremy Irons’s wife). As if being “handsome, funny and a dazzling writer” weren’t enough, Stoppard, now 83, has the “good luck” of being alive to enjoy this “terrific” biography.

Faber 992pp £30; The Week Bookshop £23.99 (incl. p&p)

Munkey Diaries: 1957-1982 by Jane Birkin 

With her “long, choppy fringe” and gap-toothed smile, Jane Birkin was regarded as the epitome of 1960s chic, said Katie Rosseinsky in the London Evening Standard. Yet the figure who emerges from these diaries is “strikingly at odds” with that playful image: she is introspective and given to “self-loathing”. This “icon of French style” was in fact raised in a patrician English family and attended a “Blyton-esque boarding school”, where she was teased for being flat-chested (“I must, I must improve my bust,” she would chant). Leaving school, she became an actress, and met her first husband, “Bond maestro” John Barry, in a London nightclub. But the marriage with the composer was a disaster, and when it broke down, she moved to Paris. 

There, on a film set, she met her “Svengali”, the French singer and actor Serge Gainsbourg, said Melanie Reid in The Times. Together, they recorded the “orgasmic” Je t’aime... moi non plus, and she was showered with film offers. The couple lived a lifestyle “straight out of the Peter Sarstedt song Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? even down to being friends with Zizi Jeanmaire”. But beneath the gloss, it was “sordid”: they “got horribly drunk, slapped and punched each other in nightclubs, vomited in bed”. Gainsbourg emerges as a “breathtaking pig”, who showered rarely – “his feet stank” – and was horribly “coercive”. But Birkin herself elicits scant sympathy, such is her solipsism and lack of self-awareness. That’s unfair, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday: I found these diaries – addressed to her toy “Munkey” – “wonderfully funny and poignant”. While the journey they chart is rather sad – from innocent schoolgirl lamenting her “disobedience marks” to exploited global sex icon – she remains delightful company throughout, and never loses her “endearing” quality.

W&N 320pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Novel of the week  Trio by William Boyd 

William Boyd’s “immensely readable” new novel is set in Brighton in 1968, said Francesca Carington in The Daily Telegraph. Three characters are involved in making a film, the “jauntily titled” Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon. Producer Talbot Kydd is “buffeted” with professional problems while struggling to keep his homosexuality in the closet. Elfrida Wing, the director’s wife, is a once-famous novelist, now blocked and alcoholic. The third is the glamorous but “world-weary” lead actress, Anny Viklund. The mood is a “mix of frolicsome and melancholy” – just the thing for “troubling times”. 

When Boyd is good, he is very, very good, but when he’s bad, he’s “downright dispiriting”, said Claire Allfree in the London Evening Standard. And here, sadly, it’s the latter: this novel is “scrappy, unsatisfactory” and “un-atmospheric” for one set in the 1960s. Yes, some of the characters may be a bit stereotyped, said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times, but this is still an entertaining book. Full of neat phrases and quirkily funny scenes, Trio is a jaunty, “elating read”.

Viking 352pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

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