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):
We blew the s–t out of them.
We blew the s–t right back up their own ass
And out their f—ing ears.
We blew the s–t out of them,
They suffocated in their own s–t!
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew them into f—ing s–t.
They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of f—ing dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.
Okay, it doesn’t rhyme, but it is not without (flawed) reason. You can see what he is driving at, you get his drift. America goes to war, he is saying, with murder in its bowels, gum in its brain, and a copy of Hustler in its back pocket.
Pinter would of course hotly and loudly deny that he had any affinity with the far right — he might indeed create a scene if any such thing were suggested — but he voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, in protest against the strikes that had shut down the National Theater for weeks on end. He must therefore take his share of the blame for the Thatcher Terror. “I look back on that vote with disbelief,” he now says. “I in fact realized within weeks that it was a stupid, totally irresponsible and shameful act.”
He was having an affair with the gifted historian Lady Antonia Fraser at the time of this shameful act. In 1975 he left Vivien Merchant, whom he had married in 1956, and in 1980 married Antonia. Vivien went into an alcoholic decline, and died two years later, aged 53. These things happen. The press salivated. Antonia was a Catholic, the daughter of Lord Longford, the Labour politician and sometime friend of Evelyn Waugh (and irrepressible romantic: in the 1970’s he earned the nickname “Lord Porn” for his crusade against pornography, in the course of which he sat solemnly in sex clubs and watched acts of unspeakable depravity). Before her divorce Antonia was married to the respected Tory MP Hugh Fraser, and they had six children. Perhaps there was an element of snobbery as well as salaciousness in the newspapers’ interest. Looked at from an American perspective, it was as though Pat Buckley had left William and run off with Philip Roth.
There is added piquancy in this tale of infidelity now that we learn (from Billington) that between 1962 and 1969 Pinter was having an affair with a television personality called Joan Bakewell, who, because she was sexy and bright, was known as the “thinking man’s crumpet” — as though a thinking man’s taste in babes is any different from those of a truck driver or a President of the United States. She and Pinter still have what she describes as “great lunches.”
Harold and Antonia were, and are, charming, witty, and generous hosts, and their Holland Park home has been the scene of many memorable parties. On June 20, 1988, however, they made what turned out to be a public relations mistake. They invited a group of worthy lefties — among them the playwright and author John Mortimer — to their home for what became the first of a series of meetings to find ways of fighting the threat to Britain’s traditional freedoms from the Thatcher regime. Photographers and reporters were stationed outside the Pinter home to harry and snap members of the “June 20” encounter group. Pinter reacted farcically. “We have a precise agenda,” he declared, “and we are going to meet again and again until they break the windows and drag us out.”
Poor Harold: he has spent much of the past twenty years waiting for a squadron of Cossacks to charge him, but no one will even break his windows and drag him out of his house. The ubiquitous “they” will not jail him, they will not wiretap him, they will not rape his wife or kidnap his children. “They” are right sods. True, the press has mocked him, traduced him, misrepresented him, and misreported him; but that’s freedom for you.
Still, no man can be wrong, or absurd, all the time. Pinter’s friendship with Vaclav Havel speaks well of both men, and his work on behalf of the Kurds and Turkish dissidents is not to be dismissed simply because he overlooked the plight of, for example, contra dissidents under Ortega. During the Gulf War he was on the side of the angels (and Martin Amis) when he campaigned successfully to prevent Abbas Cheblak, a Palestinian enemy of Saddam who had lived in Britain for sixteen years, from being deported as a security risk. His heart is often in the right place, even if he wears his spleen on his sleeve. He would be taken more seriously, however, if he took himself less seriously; if he were less morally indignant. The trouble with Pinter is not that he is entirely wrong but that he is entirely righteous.
Meanwhile, there are the plays.