On October 13, the Swedish Academy awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature to Harold Pinter — a writer who, in the words of the official citation, “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”
Until that day, the only closed room to which many in the literary world wanted entry was that of the academy itself, the secretive enclave of Swedish critics, culture-mavens and diplomatic functionaries who meet every year in early fall to determine whom to award with their imprimatur. Last year’s laureate, Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, was something of a scandal. Her militant feminism and books of violence and sex riled many observers. This year, many had identified Turkish author Orhan Pamuk as a probable winner, especially since he is facing a prison sentence for “defaming” his country by discussing the Armenian genocide.
In this charged context, Pinter seems a safe choice — and a brilliant one. Playwright, poet, writer of lucid prose and, especially of late, a political activist, Pinter is one of the precious few social critics ever to express a good message that was also good art.
Born in 1930 in Hackney, East London, to tailor Jack Pinter and Frances Moskowitz, Pinter grew up in a home suffused with Jewish identity. His family all worked in the garment industry. Before and after the blitzkrieg, antisemitism hung in the air like smoke and smog. London might have opposed Hitler, but many in the working class East End shared the man’s views, donning the infamous “black shirts” and declaring their allegiance to Oswald Mosley: member of Parliament and founder of the British Union of Fascists. Beginning in 1950, Pinter wrote undistinguished verse under the name of Harold Pinta; he acted in Shakespearean theater under the name of David Baron. Frustrated with repertory and with the itinerant life of an actor, Pinter began writing plays in 1957; despite the silences suffered by many of his characters onstage, he hasn’t yet stopped.
Like those characters, Pinter is too much of a Modern to define himself as a Jew. Though Pinter has downplayed his Judaism many times in conversation, and has consciously ignored it in his
characterizations, his heritage infuses his work with a style that sets it apart from most English-language contemporaries and certainly from the stultifying ranks of recent British dramatists.
This identity is most evident in his debt to Kafka, his notion of the absurd not as a francophone school but as an ingrained aspect of Jewish consciousness. This feel for the absurd, combined with a innate knack for the vaudevillian and a grasp of the structure of jokes that allows him to stretch a “set up” into a play, allies him with a fellow British Jew whose comedy always was tragic, and unstintingly deeper than any of his contemporaries ever expected; this was a man who shared Pinter’s fascination with silence: Charlie Chaplin.
Consider these lines, from Pinter’s “The Dwarfs” (1960):
PETE: Well, what have you been doing with yourself?
PETE: Since I saw you?
MARK: This and that.
PETE: This and what?
It’s updated shtick — proto-Seinfeld but with a minimalist, existential streak. And while each line on its own seems negligible (Pinter never will be quoted by lovers as is his countryman from Stratford-on-Avon), with Pinter it’s all about momentum and the page-resistant estrangement of the silences between scenes — his overarching concern with the verbal detritus that pollutes relationships both personal and political.
Later in his career, the purity of these extended jokes and speculative forays into the absurd gave way to plays that sought less to define or extend the future of modernity than to confront the present in all its immediate harmful madness. Revues and routines were toned down and realism was exaggerated — not anymore for the sake of art, but because the times demanded it. The plight of the Turkish Kurds was Pinter’s cause; he opposed the NATO strike on Yugoslavia and the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians. In the past few years, he had been in increasingly poor health. His greatest targets were the Bush administration’s campaigns in Afghanistan and in Iraq: “A bandit act,” he wrote, “an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. An arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public.” On home soil, he has attacked the support of Tony Blair with an astute viciousness.
When he arrives in Stockholm in December to formally accept the award, we might expect anything. His address (to his largest audience yet) is sure to be political, and might do much to further the eternal question of what art means in troubled times. But while politics flare all around, Pinter can be expected to shine brightly. “No candle I know holds a candle to your candles,” he once wrote. Like one of his characters, he could have been talking to himself.