Harold Pinter, this year’s just-announced Nobel Laureate for literature, loves the stage and hates America. The article below is taken from April 1997 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
If Harold Pinter had not been such an accomplished womanizer, you might think he was an angry old queen. Say a forgiving word about a fascist thug — a Somoza, say, or a Ronald Reagan, or even a Charlton Heston — and he loses it. In a fit of left-wing fury he can be a disturbing sight. His eyes blaze, he goes crimson; people look the other way or stare earnestly at their place settings. Sometimes he stomps out of parties in a huff. Once at a distinguished gathering in London he burst into tears when someone mentioned a less than unctuous profile of him in Vanity Fair.
There is paranoia at work here, or maybe at play. In spite of being married to the shimmeringly beautiful — but big — Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter apparently suffers delusions of inferiority. He has not, at any rate, been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead he has had to make do with being made a Commander of the British Empire. A knighthood can’t be far off.
Still, any man who provides such good knocking copy is a person to be treasured, and Pinter is enjoying — if that’s the word — one of his regular revivals. His play The Homecoming (1965) is doing brisk business at the National Theater in London, and in the United States the first full biography, by the Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, has just been published (The Life and Work of Harold Pinter, Faber & Faber, $24.95). Love is in the air. John Casey, a conservative don at Cambridge, has said that Pinter is not just the greatest living English playwright but one of the greatest since Shakespeare. In Billington’s view he is not just a literary genius but a cross between St. Francis of Assisi and the Lion King. Thus: “What Pinter hates, above all, is hypocrisy; what he values is truth.”…”In his mid-sixties…he seems to feel that pain of the world more acutely than ever.”…”With Pinter in particular there is a detestation of cant, of sloppy thinking, of unprincipled assertion.” Hang down your head, Joe Sixpack.
At 66, Pinter gives us pause; indeed, as someone tasteless remarked the other day, he gives good pause. The meaningful silence is pure Pinter; it is “Pinteresque.” Chambers 20th Century Dictionary defines Pinteresque as a writing style “marked by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity and air of menace.” Pinter learned his craft in the streets of London’s East End, where he grew up the only and much loved son of a Jewish couple (papa was a tailor). He has an unerring ear, but it is not the case that he writes the way people talk. What he does is to take the banal phrase, the apparent non sequitur, the awkward (or sinister) repetition and create a world that is by turn fantastical , terrifying, and darkly funny. In his plays (though not in his poems) he is a poet. His genius is hard to isolate; but try this, from The Caretaker (1960):
You remind me of my uncle’s brother. He was always on the move, that man. Never without his passport. Had an eye for the girls. Very much your build [this to a sick old tramp]. Bit of an athlete. Long-jump specialist. He had a habit of demonstrating different run-ups in the drawing-room round about Christmas time. Had a penchant for nuts. That’s what it was. Nothing else but a penchant. Couldn’t eat enough of them. Peanuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, monkey nuts, wouldn’t touch a piece of fruit cake. Had a marvellous stop-watch. Picked it up in Hong Kong. The day after they chucked him out of the Salvation Army…
Since the success of The Caretaker Pinter has not looked back; but many of his admirers have. The late Pinter, while retaining much of his poetry, has been overtly, tiresomely, naively political, and at times is a pastiche of his former self. He is in danger of becoming ridiculous. His friends are expected to read everything he writes, and pass intelligent (but favorable) judgment on it. Not long ago he produced a poem that (in its entirety) went like this: I saw Len Hutton in his prime;/ Another time, another time. Len Hutton was a cricketing hero of the 1940’s and 1950’s — equivalent of Babe Ruth, perhaps. Pinter duly distributed the poem. Hearing nothing from his fellow-playwright Simon Gray, he rang him to ask what he thought of the poem. Gray said: “I haven’t finished reading it yet, Harold.”
In fact, Pinter tells this much-quoted story against himself. He has a loyal circle of friends and he is in turn a loyal and generous friend. He is also courteous and considerate in his dealings with strangers, even when they are Americans. But he has a problem with the Great Republic. What Billington describes as Pinter’s acute sense of the pain of the world expresses itself in virulent anti-Americanism. In the 1980’s he made the Sandinistas his pet project, and America his pet hate. Sometimes this hatred expresses itself comically, as when he told the Independent in 1988: “There are emergency plans for America to take over this country. I am not talking wildly.” At other times it is not funny, or not very. His view of America’s place in the halls of evil found perhaps its best expression in his letter to the New York Review of Books in June 1994: “Of course there is a difference. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, in one way or another, intended the death of millions. The U.S. has, I suggest, accepted that the death of millions is inevitable if its ‘national interests’ are to be protected…”
This sounds very much like the old doctrine of moral equivalency. What Pinter is suggesting here (I suggest) is that the great dictators are somehow to be preferred to America’s leaders, because at least they were not humbugs, at least they had the courage to do their own killing. There seems to be something almost clerico-fascist in his contempt for America’s bourgeois liberal values, and by extension Great Britain’s. In the Gulf war he condemned American action in a poem which, although not exactly clerical, sums up a view of the United States found in the darker corners of reactionary Europe. It goes like this (send the children from the room):blockquote>Hallelullah! br> It works. br> We blew the s—t out of them. br> We blew the s—t right back up their own ass br> And out their f—-ing ears. br> It works.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online