By CATHARINE MORRIS
“Biography adds a new terror to death.” It was Oscar Wilde’s line that sprang to Tom Stoppard’s mind when he was asked by Hermione Lee about his own “suspicions about biography” at the London Library’s recent Words in the Square festival. We were in a marquee holding our champagne flutes: their talk – an amiable conversation between a biographer and her subject – was part of the celebrations for the Library’s 175th birthday. Stoppard is the Library’s President, and has been a devoted member for some forty years.
Lee gave as evidence of Stoppard’s “suspicions” the “ruthless and ridiculous questing biographer” Bernard in Arcadia. “You have been quoting my characters rather than me,” Stoppard replied, “which is not entirely unfair.” He told us that he had that morning started reading a book by David Kynaston which features an “abject, furious” letter written by Kenneth Tynan “when he was seventeen”. It had brought to mind “every kind of consideration to do with things you’d forgotten yourself being disinterred. But I think it’s all fair, and I would like to be the kind of person who is completely indifferent to such things”. When Lee suggested that there might be more to his scepticism than that, he conceded that he had a lively sense of perspectives differing from one another – a “famous if not notorious” aspect of police witness statements that has also provided what is “almost a sub-genre” in fiction and in film.