Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser / A perfect match

Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser
In 1980, Pinter married his second wife, the historian Lady Antonia Fraser, at Kensington registry office. "He was a great man, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years," said Fraser in a statement to the Guardian on Christmas day. "He will never be forgotten."

Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser: a perfect match

Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter reveals the warmth, passion and romance in their marriage. And, says his biographer Michael Billington, it shows he was not always in a bad temper

Do revelations about Pinter's private life shed light on his work?
Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser
Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser photographed in 1985. Photograph: David Montgomery/Getty Images
Diaries and journals are ­always compulsive affairs. I defy anyone to open Pepys, Boswell or the Goncourts at any page and not carry on reading. And, on a theatrical level, Peter Hall's Diaries offer the best ever account of the hazards of running a theatre. But Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go?, is extraordinary by any standards. Based on the diaries she kept during her 33-year-long relationship with the dramatist, it is simultaneously a love story, an intimate portrait of a great writer and an exercise in self-revelation.

I should, from the outset, disclaim any objectivity. As Pinter's biographer, I was given rare access to the man ­himself and I'm happy to say remained on friendly terms with him right up to the end.
I was amused, however, to be told by Antonia, shortly after Harold's death, that my book was never expected to happen. In order to fend off another would-be biographer, Harold and ­Antonia concocted a plan whereby they told the persistent writer that I had been asked to do the authorised version. They both assumed I'd be far too busy to accept and were astonished when I said yes.
Reading Antonia's book, I was also intrigued to discover that as long ago as 1980 they had discussed a future ­biographer ("What a morbid subject," said Harold) and decided, very ­astutely, that Ronnie Harwood would be the man for the job.
Inevitably, my relationship with ­Harold was complex. I had to get close enough to him to write the book while remaining sufficiently detached to ­review his work. I can truly say that Harold and I hardly ever fell out: only once did he show irritation. That was when, on the opening day of a Pinter festival in New York in 2001, I pushed a note under his hotel door about criticism from Germany of his attack on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. That evening in the bar I asked whether he got my note. He simply growled in response.
But that was a rare event. During all my contact with Harold and Antonia, I was offered unwavering support. ­Antonia talked candidly about Harold for my book, gave me a mass of new ­information about his family's origins (revealing they were east European Ashkenazic rather than Portuguese Sephardic Jews) and has gone on being a good friend. I was more touched than she can have realised when she asked me to coach her granddaughter, Stella Powell-Jones, in reading one of Pinter's love poems for the family funeral. "Normally," said Stella, "I came to Grandad himself for this kind of help."
So reading Antonia's book puts me in a strange position. I learned much that was new and had other impressions confirmed. But the dominant feeling I got was that the love of Harold and Antonia, which was passionate and ­intense, was based on the mutual force of their characters. Early on, just after their affair had got under way in 1975, Antonia was warned by her brother, Thomas: "You have a special problem. You are a woman and a strong character­ yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem." Actually, Antonia concludes, "He's quite right in a maddening way."
What may, initially, have seemed a problem was, arguably, the key to the relationship. If Harold was an irresistible force, Antonia could also, on occasion, be an immovable object. And one of the delights of the book is reading about their sometimes tempestuous political disagreements. On the matter of Milosevic, Antonia argued, rightly in my view, that it was legitimate to try him as a war criminal even if others were not similarly arraigned. And, when ­Harold claimed that the US was the world's most barbarous empire, Antonia reasonably argued that the Nazis or Pol Pot might have superior claims.
But, although Harold and Antonia often had vehement political arguments, they vowed that they would not, as in the Bible, "let the sun go down upon our wrath".
I was not totally surprised by this. But the book dispels the popular myth that Harold was the eternal grump and Antonia always the soothing diplomat. Antonia, although she has a great ­capacity for outward calm, comes out of the book as an independently strong character and a fierce champion of women in public life: one that led her to vote, however madly, for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and to warm to Cherie Blair even when Harold was branding her husband a war criminal.
The book should also put to bed for ever the idea that Harold spent all his life in a towering temper. In matters of the heart, he was a total romantic: one who arranged for the first house he and Antonia shared, in Launceston Place, to be strewn with banks of flowers on the day they moved in. "August 17, 1975. He took my hand and led me into the drawing room. Lo! A vast arrangement of foxy lilies and other glories in the window and another on the mantelpiece, a huge arrangement of yellow flowers in the pink boudoir . . . I shall never forget them. Or Harold's expression. A mixture of excitement, triumph and laughter."
'I'm not just sitting here waiting to die'
He was also – and this really will shock some – capable of self-mockery. There's a vivid account of Harold exploding with laughter when he saw Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce. The reason? He saw in the frustrated rage and impotence of Derek Newark as a suburban husband an echo of himself.
If anything in the book surprised me, it was how accommodating Harold was towards Antonia's Catholicism: something I signally failed to take on board in my own book on Pinter. I knew – ­because he told me many times – that Harold had abandoned the Jewish faith after his barmitzvah at the age of 13. What I learned from Antonia's book is that in 1990, 10 years into their marriage, she persuaded him to have a ceremony of validation in an upstairs chapel at Farm Street. It helped that Father Michael Campbell Johnston, who conducted the ceremony, was a leading supporter of liberation ­theology in Latin America. But, when it came to the actual service, Harold joined in ­vocally and enthusiastically celebrated the idea of a fruitful life. This doesn't mean Pinter was innately religious. But it does prove, as Antonia claims, that "he had a deep sense of the spiritual".
Time and again, in fact, the book draws attention to the complexity, and even contradictoriness, of Pinter's ­nature. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read Antonia's comment, made in 1977, that Harold "resents any effort to link his plays closely to a particular ­incident in his past". It was certainly true that Harold, who was writing ­Betrayal at the time, was anxious that it should not be seen as a literal account of his affair with Joan Bakewell, the ­existence of which I revealed, nearly 20 years later, in my biography.
Yet while Harold was never a purely autobiographical writer, I found that his imagination was invariably triggered by a memory of some past event. The Caretaker was born out of an image that stuck in Harold's mind when he and his first wife, Vivien, were living in a modest flat in Chiswick High Road: one day he paused on the stairs and looked in a room to see the tramp who had taken up residence rifling through a bag, silently watched by his bene­factor. And, while The Home­coming is a universal play about family life, it had its origins in the story of one of ­Harold's Hackney friends who for years kept his marriage to a Gentile girl a ­secret from his Jewish family.
Even more surprising than Harold's disavowal of his work's personal origins is the record of an evening in 1977 spent with Samuel Beckett and his close friend, Barbara Bray. Since Beckett hardly ever went to the theatre, Harold acted out for him the Simon Gray piece, Close of Play, that he was directing at the time. This prompted a discussion in which Bray claimed that everything in art is political. To which Harold replied, ­vehemently, "Nothing I have written, Barbara, nothing, ever, is political."
This hardly squares with Pinter's later assertion that early plays such as The Birthday Party and The Hothouse were driven by a strong political motive. But, while Pinter-sceptics may seize on this as proof of his inconsistency, I suspect it simply proves Harold's dislike of aesthetic dogma. I can actually picture him bubbling with resentment at being told by Bray what art has to be.
But, if Antonia's book sometimes makes one's eyebrows start upwards in surprise, it also offers the most vividly intimate portrait we're ever likely to have of the real Harold Pinter. It records the energy and exuberance for living that burned off him and that made him so attractive to male and female friends alike. It describes his passionate love of England: its cricket, its countryside, its natural beauty and its historic regard for liberty. It was precisely because he saw that liberty being curtailed and eroded that he became such a ferocious opponent of successive governments. Indeed, the book pins down the ­embattled despair that Harold sometimes felt in later years as his sense of the world's injustice coincided with his own declining health. But he never gave up. As he said when about to perform at the National in his own sketch, Press Conference, while wrestling with chemotherapy for his cancer, "I'm not just sitting here waiting to die."
This for me sparks a memory of ­Harold in his later years when he was afflicted by cancer of the oesophagus and pemphigus: his consideration for others. It may seem a relatively trivial anecdote, but I rang Harold one day when I had been summoned to hospital for an endoscopy on account of sharp internal pains. The literature I got from the hospital implied that there was no need for an anaesthetic while a length of tube was stuck down your throat: real men, it suggested, didn't need such things. Seeking advice from ­Harold, I was instantly told, "Don't be such a bloody fool – of course you must have an anaesthetic." Not only that. At a time when Harold was weighed down by his own, far greater, medical problems, he rang up immediately ­after the endoscopy to ensure that all was well. That, for me, was a measure of the man's kindness and generosity.
That day, anyone who crossed his path was in danger
All this – and much more – comes out in Antonia's memoir. It is not the story of a saint. Everyone who knew Harold was aware that, on occasions, his anger was disproportionate to the event: I once heard him, at a Dublin dinner party, going hell for leather at some poor chap who had guilelessly ­suggested that Johnson was a greater figure than Swift. On another occasion in Leeds, admittedly when he was ­severely ill, he tore into some local ­academic whom he mistakenly thought had laughed at his reminder that the American president was, like many tinpot dictators, also the military commander-in-chief. That was an evening when anyone who crossed ­Harold's path was in danger.
But what you get from the book is a portrait both of an inordinately ­fascinating, richly complex man and writer ("the half of Harold which is not Beckett," says Antonia, "is Hemingway") and of a genuine "marriage of true minds".
Although the book is free from ­personal vanity, it also reminds one just how much Harold owed to Antonia. Even with her own career to pursue, she was always on hand to advise, ­support and encourage: it was Antonia who tentatively suggested – correctly as it turned out – that there was a scene missing in the first draft of Betrayal ("December 31, 1977: Harold very cross and went for a walk round Holland Park. Came back and wrote the scene. It was brilliant and not at all what I had asked for of course") and who ­recommended that Harold's last play, Celebration, should be paired with his first, The Room.
It's a testament to the resilience of Harold and Antonia's relationship that it overcame both the insane press hysteria that accompanied their affair and the initial doubts of Antonia's parents. I am hardly an impartial witness. But I would say that if this remarkable book proves anything, it is that marriage thrives when it is a partnership of equals and that Harold and Antonia, as a pair of strong-willed and ­impassioned romantics, were that rare thing: a perfect match.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Antonia Fraser / Harold Pinter's private life

Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser at their wedding
Wedded bliss ... Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser at their wedding in London. Photograph: PA
Does Harold Pinter's private life 
shed light on his plays?

Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter may focus on their marriage, but paints a revealing portrait of the dramatist too

Does knowledge of a writer's private life help to illuminate the work? It's an age-old question. But it's also one thrown into sharp relief by the publication of Antonia Fraser's book about her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go?, which I wrote about at length recently. The book is obviously a personal memoir rather than a study of the plays. All the same, I'd argue it sheds a good deal of light on Pinter the dramatist.
I start from the belief that all information about a writer is helpful. In fact, one of the pleasures of writing Pinter's biography was discovering that virtually all his plays were triggered by some strong personal memory. This got me into trouble with some critics. I recall the late Martin Esslin, himself a great Pinter scholar, arguing that I had trivialised Betrayal by linking it to the dramatist's seven-year-long affair with Joan Bakewell. But, as I saw it, that was simply the play's genesis. Pinter's imagination then took over to create a complex drama about the infinity of betrayal. All I had done, I hoped, was remind people that Pinter was not an impersonal writer who began with an abstract idea.
That point also emerges from Antonia's book, which is revealing in myriad ways. There's a fascinating account of a dinner with Tom Stoppard where Pinter says that he doesn't plan his characters' lives and then asks his fellow dramatist: "Don't you find they take you over sometimes?", to which Stoppard firmly replies: "No." That says a lot. One reason that The Homecoming is a great play is that Pinter allows the character of Ruth, almost unconsciously, to take over and at the end achieve an ambivalent dominance. For all Stoppard's many virtues – such as a formidable intellect and a coruscating wit – he tends to keep his characters on a much tighter, almost Shavian leash.
Again, there's an eye-opening passage in Antonia's book where she recalls a moment in 1983 when Pinter harks back to his relationship with his late wife, Vivien: "While she was alive, if you think about it, so much of my work was about unhappy frozen married relationships." Not all of it, of course: in some cases, such as The Lover, Vivien was a very productive muse. But plays such as Landscape and, most especially, No Man's Land strike me as the result of a sad, barren period when the marriage was clearly on the rocks. It no more trivialises Pinter to say this than it does to suggest that Eliot's The Waste Land was influenced not only by his despair at modern civilisation, but also by his fraught first marriage.
In short – as Stoppard once wrote – information, in itself, about anything, is light. And modern biography, particularly in the hands of masters such as Michael Holroyd and Peter Ackroyd, has done literature a service by opening writers' lives to public gaze. For that reason, among many others, I welcome Antonia Fraser's book. It gives us the most intimate portrait of a contemporary dramatist I have ever read.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Obituaries / Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

(1930 - 2008)

Harold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. Among the dramatists of the last century, Beckett is his only serious rival in terms of theatrical influence; and it is a measure of Pinter's power that early on in his career he spawned the adjective "Pinteresque" suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace.
Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents were Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. His father, Jack, was a hard-working tailor whose own family had artistic leanings: his mother, Frances, came from a convivial, extrovert and spiritually sceptical clan. And it was not difficult to trace in Pinter's own complex personality elements from both sides of the family. He balanced his father's faintly authoritarian nature with his mother's instinctive generosity.
Pinter was an only child: as a boy, he conducted conversations in the back garden with imaginary friends. But such circumstances conspired to give him a sense of solitude, separation and loss: the perfect breeding-ground for a dramatist. He was evacuated to Cornwall at the age of nine where he became aware of the cruelty of schoolboys in isolation. Back in London during the Blitz, he also absorbed the dramatic nature of wartime life: the palpable fear, the sexual desperation, the genuine sense that everything could end tomorrow. All this fed into his work as a writer: his memories of wartime London led to a particularly vivid 1989 screen adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day.
Always a wide reader, from his teens Pinter devoured Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Eliot, Lawrence, Woolf and Hemingway. He also had a gift for friendship: he became the centre of an itinerant, intellectually voracious Hackney clan - Henry Woolf, Mick Goldstein and Morris Wernick - who stayed in close touch for the rest of their lives. He also fell under the spell of a teacher, Joe Brearley, whose passion for poetry and drama fired his imagination. Under Brearley's direction, he played Romeo and Macbeth at Hackney Downs grammar school; and he was a good enough actor to get a grant to study at RADA which he detested and which, with characteristic independence, he soon left.
But Pinter's suspicion of authority was manifested in an even more famous incident in the autumn of 1948. Receiving his call-up papers for National Service, he registered as a conscientious objector, thereby risking imprisonment. He was summoned before a series of increasingly Kafkaesque military tribunals, in the end escaping with a fine. The whole incident epitomised Pinter's nonconformity, truculent independence and suspicion of the state.
Pinter's early determination, however, was to be an actor. After a second spell at drama school, he joined Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and later worked with Donald Wolfit's company in Hammersmith. From these two masters of the big effect, the young Pinter learned how to achieve maximum intensity through silence or gesture. But in the mid-1950s he found himself leading a strenuous double-life. On the one hand, there was the aspiring actor slogging round the weekly rep circuit and filling in with odd jobs as doorman, dishwasher, waiter and snow-shoveller. On the other hand, there was the closet writer penning poems, prose sketches and an autobiographical novel about Hackney life eventually published as The Dwarfs (1990). He was always hard up: the only consolation was that after 1956 his troubles were shared by his first wife, Vivien Merchant, a glamorous Manchester middle-class girl who was something of a star on the rep circuit.
The turning-point came in 1957 when one of Pinter's old Hackney friends, Henry Woolf, asked him to write a play for Bristol university's recently-established drama department. The result was The Room and it reveals Pinter, from the start, staking out his own particular territory: the play shows an anxious recluse reisisting the insidious pressures of the outside world and artfully blends comedy and menace.
It was a staggeringly confident debut which attracted the attention of a young producer, Michael Codron, who decided to present Pinter's next play, The Birthday Party, at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. The result was one of the most famous disasters in post-war British theatre. The play was roundly dismissed by the daily critics and taken off at the end of the week. Pinter's only consolation was that Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times wrote a glowing encomium claiming that Pinter possessed "the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London."
Pinter not only survived the disaster of The Birthday Party. He showed that he had immediately found his voice as a dramatist. Using many of the devices of the rep thriller, he had produced a work that was comic, disturbing, strangely unresolved and deeply political in its plea for resistance to social conformity and inherited ideas. Despite its initial failure, it also brought Pinter a whole series of new commissions: he wrote revue-sketches for West End shows, for A Slight Ache and A Night Out for BBC radio and The Dumb Waiter as an accompaniment to The Room.
Although often bracketed with Absurdists like Beckett and Ionesco, Pinter was an instinctively political writer. Proof came with a play written in 1958 but not actually produced until 1980, The Hothouse: a savage farce set in a state-run "rest-home" which aims to turn the dissident inmates into model citizens.
The play that finally secured Pinter's reputation was The Caretaker, first produced at the Arts Theatre in 1960 and eventually transferring to the West End. The same critics who had dismissed The Birthday Party as gibberish now found masterly technical skill and thunderstorm tension in The Caretaker. What was largely missed at the time, however, in all the tributes to his tape-recorder dialogue, was Pinter's ability to find the hidden poetry in everyday speech: arguably his greatest single contribution to modern drama. In all the games of hunt-the-symbol, people also overlooked the more obvious point. That this was both a deeply humane play about the universal need for pipe-dreams and a microcosmic study of power in which the tramp-hero, Davies, forms shifting alliances as part of his strategy for survival.
The Caretaker was a turning-point for Pinter in every way. It gave him fame and security. It prompted all sorts of exciting commissions. But it also, in time, led to the unravelling of his marriage. Like many of Pinter's plays, it was triggered by personal experience: in this case, that of living in a house in Chiswick owned by an absentee builder whose handyman brother one day brought back a vagrant who was eventually expelled. Vivien Merchant hated the play because she felt it was a betrayal of the brother who had shown the struggling Pinters a great kindness. She also realised that the success of The Caretaker meant a decisive shift in the balance of marital power. Nevertheless Vivien became, in the early 60s, the embodiment of a certain kind of Pinter woman, black-stockinged and high-heeled and combining external gentility and inner passion: a character seen, in various forms, in his Night School, The Collection, The Lover, Tea Party and reaching its fulfilment in Ruth in The Homecoming in 1965.
Pinter's attitude to women was always a source of debate. Some saw in his work a fetishistic exploitation of female sexuality: others regarded him a cryptic feminist who celebrated women's strength and resilience. Both arguments may be valid. Pinter certainly adored women and, as his marriage to Vivien declined, he engaged in a number of affairs. But Pinter's plays also constantly pit male weakness and insecurity against female strength and survival. No one can ever pin a decisive meaning on The Homecoming. But it seems clear that Ruth, in abandoning her husband to live with her in-laws and apparently work as a high-class prostitute, is making her own choice and feels personally empowered rather than enslaved.
Power and sex: these were always two of Pinter's classic themes. But in the sixties he explored them in cinema as much as theatre. Indeed, his greatness as a playwright has obscured his mastery of screenwriting; and just as in the theatre he had found the perfect interpreter in Peter Hall, so in the cinema he found a kindred spirit in director Joseph Losey who shared his appetite for economy and precision as well as a horrified fascination with the English class system.
The greatest of their collaborations remains The Servant (1963) in which Dirk Bogarde's working-class predator balefully exploits the infantile dependence and sexual ambivalence of James Fox's master. But in Accident (1967) Pinter explored a complex network of erotic relationships against the background of an Oxford summer. Sex and class again collide in The Go-Between (1968) in which Julie Christie's upper-class heroine pursues a clandestine affair with Alan Bates's tenant-farmer. All three films were based on novels; yet all three bear Pinter's unmistakeable imprint.
Pinter's immersion in cinema was one of several possible reasons for a major formal change that overtook his theatre work after The Homecoming: other reasons may have been the influence of Beckett and Pinter's growing sense of marital solitude. Whatever the cause, Pinter increasingly dispensed with the paraphernalia of realism: his plays became more distilled, direct and, in the case of Landscape and Silence in 1969, took the form of poetically interwoven monologues. The former, in particular, was a beautifully written play about the memory of past happiness in which a man vainly tries to communicate with a wife who has retreated into her own private world.
This was the start of Pinter's later period in which the plays not only became starker in setting and bleaker in tone but also more preoccupied with the theme of memory. Pinter had always been fascinated by the way we use an idealised past as a consolation for an unhappy present. But in Old Times (1971), memory became a weapon used by two competing characters to gain psychological dominance over a third. When Pinter came to adapt Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu for the cinema - published as The Proust Screenplay and never filmed although it was later staged - he was also to grapple with the greatest 20th-century treatment of memory. And in No Man's Land, premiered at the National Theatre in 1975 with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Pinter dramatised a collision between two desperate men: one haunted and cursed by past memories and the other constantly seeking to re-invent himself in the moment.
That same year Pinter's own life underwent an upheaval that was to have a profound effect on his work: his marriage broke up in a blaze of publicity and he went to live with the historian Antonia Fraser who in 1980 became his second wife. This wasn't, as many people assumed, the inspiration for his 1978 play, Betrayal, which dealt with the corrosive effect of infidelity: that was much more closely related to Pinter's earlier affair with the television presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell. But Pinter's new life with Antonia Fraser, the wife of a Tory MP and the daughter of a celebrated Labour peer, undoubtedly helped to sharpen and intensify his fascination with politics.
His plays had always dealt with the intricacies of domestic power. But now his more secure private life enabled him to turn his attention to power-games in the wider public arena. Pinter had long been exercised by politics: his closest friends included the Marxist playwright, David Mercer, and the campaigning actress, Peggy Ashcroft, who in 1973 encouraged him to voice his opposition to American involvement in the overthrow of Chile's President Allende. But it was only in the mid-1980s that he started to express his strong feelings about torture, human rights and the double-standards of the Western democracies in dramatic form.
First in 1984 came One For The Road: a psychologically complex play about the tortured nature of the torturer and his unresolved craving for respect, admiration and even love. Four years later he wrote Mountain Language: inspired by the Turkish suppression of the Kurdish language but also reflecting Pinter's concern with the restrictions on speech and thought in Thatcher's Britain. In 1991 Pinter pursued the theme in Party Time showing an affluent, smugly insular, high-bourgeois world indifferent to the erosion of civil liberties. But the best of all Pinter's late political plays is Ashes to Ashes (1996): a hauntingly elusive play that starts with a man's nagging enquiries about a woman's lover but that almost imperceptibly opens up to admit Auschwitz, Bosnia and the whole landscape of 20th-century atrocity.
In Britain Pinter's later political plays have generally been viewed with a bemused tolerance. When Pinter and Antonia Fraser hosted a series of private discussion groups in their Holland Park home in the late 1980s they were also subjected to a good deal of ridicule in the press: so much so that the group was eventually disbanded. But Pinter's political plays have enjoyed wide circulation around the globe, not least in countries like Russian or Spain that have emerged from Communist or Fascist rule.
Undeterred by mockery, Pinter in his later years also lost no opportunity, either in the press, on television or in public meetings, to attack what he saw as the cynicism and the double standards of the Western democracies and, in particular, the brutal pragmatism of US foreign policy. However unpopular his stance in Britain, Pinter lived up to the European idea of the writer as a committed figure free to speak out on public affairs and to express his moral repugnance at the conduct of government.
When he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2005, Pinter delivered his acceptance speech by video, sitting in a wheelchair, with a rug over his knees and framed by an image of his younger self. He made a passionate and astonishing speech attacking the United States - made all the more powerful because it was delivered in a husky, throat rasp. At one point, Pinter argued that "the United States supported and in many cases engendered every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the second world war". He then proceeded to reel off examples. But the clincher came when Pinter, with deadpan irony, said: "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest." In a few sharp sentences, Pinter pinned down the willed indifference of the media to publicly recorded events.
Creatively, however, his later years were not entirely taken up by politics. He continued to write plays such as Moonlight (1993), which movingly explored the brutal battleground of family life, and Celebration (2000), which sharply satirised the moral coarseness of the super-rich. Pinter also renewed his earlier career as an actor appearing on stage, with a brutal muscular authority, in revivals of No Man's Land, The Collection and One For The Road and performing on screen in a wide variety of movies from Mojo to Mansfield Park. He was also a lifelong director of his own and other people's plays: a task to which he brought absolute clarity of vision and a total respect for actors and text.
No other dramatist of his generation proved as durable as Pinter. But he was also one of those rare writers who helps to shape and influence the medium in which they work. For a start he banished the idea of the omniscient author: after plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, it was no longer de rigeur for dramatists to know the back-story or the future of their characters. As Pinter said in a much-quoted lecture to students in 1962: "My characters tell me so much and no more with reference to their experience, their aspirations, their motives, their history."
But, alongside that, Pinter showed that theatrical poetry is not some kind of ornate verbal appendage. He proved that it can be found in the banalities, the repetitions, the evasions and even the hiatuses of everyday speech. He became famous for his use of the pause: something he always claimed to have learned from the comedian Jack Benny. Yet for Pinter dramatic speech was also frequently a camouflage for the real, unexpressed, hidden emotion: "so often," as he said in Bristol, "below the word spoken is the thing known and unspoken."
As for the man himself, he was full of contradictions. He had a reputation for being short-tempered and angry; and it is perfectly true that he could flare up if he encountered some thoughtlessly expressed political opinion. But, in writing a critical biography of him, I was more struck by his iron loyalty, meticulous precision and innate capacity for friendship. Almost alone amongst famous dramatists, he remained close to the friends of his youth: in his case the Hackney gang.
He also listened to what other people said: the secret of his gift as a writer. And he had an immense zest for life: he loved poetry, wine, bridge-playing and just about every kind of sport, but most especially cricket. I often thought he was as proud of the cricket-team he first played for and then managed, the Gaieties, as of almost all his literary accomplishments.
His life had its tragedies: the chief amongst them was his estrangement from his son, Daniel, by his first marriage to Vivien Merchant. But his second marriage to Antonia Fraser, who survives him as do his son Daniel, six step-children and 16 grandchildren, was a source of great joy. It also, I believe, gave a new lease of his life to his writing and pricked and stimulated his passion for politics.
Pinter was an all-round man of the theatre of a kind we're unlikely to see again: a practical graduate of weekly rep and touring theatre who all the time nursed his own private vision of the universe. And that, in the end, was his great achievement.
Like all truly first-rate writers, he mapped out his own country with its own distinctive topography. It was a place haunted by the shifting ambivalence of memory, flecked by uncertainty, reeking of sex and echoing with strange, mordant laughter. It was, in short, Pinterland and it will induce recognition in audiences for as long as plays are still put on in theatres.
Harold Pinter, playwright, born 10 October 1930; died 24 December 2008

Harold Pinter, Britain's top contemporary dramatist, dies at 78

The Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, one of the greatest playwrights of his generation, has died. Pinter, who was suffering from cancer, died yesterday aged 78.
His second wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, said in a statement to the Guardian: "He was a great man, and it was a privilege to live with him for over 33 years. He will never be forgotten."
Pinter had a number of awards bestowed on him during a long and distinguished career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. In its citation, the Nobel academy said Pinter was "generally seen as the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century" and declared him to be an author "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms".
Pinter was best know for his plays, including his 1960 breakthrough production The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter and The Birthday Party. But he was also a screenwriter, actor and director and in recent years a vociferous campaigner against human rights abuses, including the occupation of Iraq by western armed forces. He joined other artists such as Blur and Ken Loach in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion.
In 2004 he received the Wilfred Owen award for poetry for a collection of work criticising the war in Iraq.
His screenplays for film and television, included the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant's Woman based on John Fowles' novel. He also wrote the screenplay for The Comfort of Strangers (1989), adapted from Ian McEwan's novel, and adapted many of his own stage plays for radio and television.
He was awarded a CBE in 1966, the German Shakespeare Prize in 1970, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973 and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995. He was also awarded a number of honorary degrees.
Pinter was born into a Jewish family in the London borough of Hackney. His grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. He was attracted to acting from an early age and his political activism was evident when in 1948 he refused, as a conscientious objector, to do National Service.
After two spells at drama school he joined he joined Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951 and wrote his first play, The Room, for Bristol University's recently established drama department in 1957. His agent said a private funeral would be held and a memorial service open to all.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Kevin Nance / The Eloquent Silence of Harold Pinter

The Eloquent Silence of Harold Pinter

by Kevin Nance
MARCH 22, 2008        

Harold Pinter's characters are most articulate when they say nothing at all. The English playwright and Nobel laureate, who died on December 24, 2008 at the age of 78, was famous, if not entirely understood, for his assiduous, consistently thoughtful and lifelong deployment of the pause. From his very first play, The Room, written half a century ago, Pinter insisted upon the meaning, in fact the pregnancy, of the lapse between one utterance and the next. His flat, often deliberately commonplace lines, spoken by equally commonplace characters, were turbo-charged by the pauses that often preceded and followed them. Far from dead spots in the conversation, the pauses were like furrows in which seeds of thought were planted, germinated, and produced a bumper crop of dramatic fruit.

Harold pinter

That fruit was almost universally seen to be of the poisoned variety, and often it was. The quality most commonly ascribed to the plays, and specifically to the silences — which came to be labeled “Pinteresque” — is “sinister.” But to pigeonhole Pinter as exclusively a connoisseur of menace, and his pauses as mere crucibles of dread, is to reduce this most influential and arguably the greatest playwright of the 20th century to a one-note purveyor of melodrama. 

In fact, Pinter used the pause in a multitude of ways, to denote the full range of human expression. Sometimes the pause is there to give a character a moment to mull over what has just been said, either by himself or someone else. More often, the pause expresses the act of cogitation, with the pauser puzzling through what’s to be said next, and how. Pinter's people, it's fair to say, tend to choose their words carefully, and lay full claim to the time and space in which to do it. 

These vocal time-outs can be simply ruminative, as a character works through some moment of confusion or indecision, or coolly adversarial, in the manner of a game of chess. This is Pinter’s signature edginess, of course, but it can also take on a cat-and-mouse quality, and it's this playful aspect of his work that has tended to receive short shrift by audiences and critics. In fact, the plays are frequently and absurdly comedic, with the pauses doubling as key components of a carefully constructed armature of comic timing. Pinter's Kafkaesque pairs of bad guys — Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party, for instance — often take on the rhythms of a circular, well-worn vaudeville act as they circle their prey.

Goldberg: Sit down.
Stanley: No.
Goldberg sighs, and sits at the table right.
Goldberg: McCann.
McCann: Nat?
Goldberg: Ask him to sit down.
McCann: Yes, Nat. (McCann moves to Stanley.) Do you mind sitting down?
Stanley: Yes, I do mind.
McCann: Yes now, but — it'd be better if you did.
Stanley: Why don't you sit down?
McCann: No, not me — you. 
Stanley. No thanks.
McCann. Nat.
Goldberg: What?
McCann: He won't sit down.
Goldberg: Well, ask him.
McCann. I've asked him.
Goldberg: Ask him again.
McCann (to Stanley): Sit down.
Stanley: Why?
McCann: You'd be more comfortable.
Stanley. So would you.
McCann: All right. If you will I will.
Stanley: You first.   

Why this extraordinary reliance, if not overdependence, on the pause? It has to do in part with Pinter's principled slipperiness as to content, theme, and in some cases even dramatic situation. It's always been extremely difficult to say what Pinter's plays are “about,” which is exactly as he intended. "I don't conceptualize in any way," he once told the Paris Review, and in fact most of the plays defy interpretation, easy or otherwise. Even his most accessible play, Betrayal, which was made into a film starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons and is usually played as a simple study of infidelity, has layers that elude most acting ensembles — especially, in my experience, those composed of Americans, who tend to plow through Pinter's indicated pauses as if they were affectations, and therefore optional, rather than the script's real treasure troves.

Which brings us somewhere close to the heart of what Pinter's pauses are: an expression and byproduct of his Englishness. The reason many American actors have so much trouble with Pinter's lines is that they, like us Yanks in general, distrust silence as a conveyor of meaning. When a typical American stage actor stops talking, communication is interrupted if not stopped altogether, or so he assumes. For his counterpart in Britain, especially in a Pinter play, the opposite is true. At the same time, somewhat counterintuitively, the American’s impulse is to say what's on his mind immediately, whether it’s fully formed there or not, whereas Pinter's Brits are by nature reticent, given to concision, and therefore to thinking before speaking. Actions may speak louder than words, but in Pinter's world, words are actions — as are the silences in which they grow, preparing to spring forth fully formed, armed and dangerous.

Read also

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Coetzee / Disgrace / Film



(director: Steve Jacobs; 2009)

BY The New yorker, SEPTEMBER 21, 2009

In adapting J. M. Coetzee’s celebrated 1999 novel, the screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli and the director Steve Jacobs (who are husband and wife) have tried to create a visual tone analogous to his extraordinary prose—dry, spare, abruptly violent. The movie, shot in South Africa and Australia, is skillful and tense, and the landscapes are magnificent, but the implacable rhythm of Coetzee’s sentences, which makes the book impossible to put down, escapes the filmmakers, and would probably escape any filmmakers. John Malkovich is the played-out literature professor who is fired from a Cape Town university for sleeping with an undergraduate; the wonderful South African actress Jessica Haines is his tough-souled daughter who lives deep in the country and takes him in. In the wake of the violence that ensues, the movie, like the book, poses several key questions: Who shall control the land of South Africa? Who will be the country’s children? With Eriq Ebouaney as the black South African who shares the daughter’s homestead.

Friday, October 26, 2012

John Updike / Coetzee




The second chapter in J. M. Coetzee’s autobiography.

BY JULY 15, 2002

The autobiographical impulse seizes some novelists, such as Henry James, at the end of their creative labors; they relax at last from the trouble of disguise and manipulation and tell it like it was, as it is remembered, much as the host of a generous feast avails himself of his guests’ garnered good will by sleepily rambling on about himself. Others, like Philip Roth in “The Facts,” take a mid-career opportunity to establish, amid a crowd of fictions, some baseline data. And an increasing number of writers begin, as did Frank Conroy in “Stop-Time,” with autobiography, as if to get themselves out of the way before they settle to business. J. M. Coetzee, the inventive, austere, and penetrating South African novelist and critic, has published, in his early sixties, the second installment of what seems to be an ongoing memoirist project: “Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II” (Viking; $22.95).
Its predecessor, “Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life,” appeared five years ago, and perhaps better earned its subtitle: the hero, named John (as in John Michael Coetzee) and rendered in the third person and the present tense, is indeed a provincial boy, living, until a move late in the book, in a bleak, new but dusty housing estate outside the town of Worcester, north of Cape Town. Dates and ages are left vague, but he seems about eight, and in what I took to be third grade, when we meet him, and is thirteen when we leave him, back in Cape Town, where he and his family—father, mother, younger brother—came from. “Scenes,” rather than a continuous history, are what we get, as the book’s partial publication in magazines like Granta and Artes suggests. The longest, least glum chapter depicts the family farm, which is run by John’s father’s brother Son and bears the pretty Afrikaans name Voëlfontein—”Bird-fountain.” Excellent and deeply felt as the evocation is, it is something of what we expect from a memoir of a white southern African’s childhood, as are Coetzee’s accounts of his rather brutal schooling and his intimations of a precarious and unfair racial situation. Less usual is the dour flavor of the child’s complex self-awareness. He has a “sense of himself as prince of the house” and dislikes both his parents for it—his father for failing to exert a father’s leadership in the household, and his mother for loving him too much, making him fight for independence from her and turning him into “an irascible despot” at home and a physically timid overachiever at school. Coetzee declares, “Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.”
As John turns thirteen, he becomes “surly, scowling, dark. He does not like this new, ugly self, he wants to be drawn out of it, but that is something he cannot do by himself.” His brilliance at school gives him little pleasure; it just breaks life into a relentless series of tests. (The test, which we pass or fail, is a recurring image in Coetzee.) John imagines no happy future that his cleverness may win for him, though he holds to “the idea of being a great man” and the conviction that “he is different, special.” His state of mind, young as he is, is wintry: “His heart is old, it is dark and hard, a heart of stone.” Writing tame exercises for English class, he thinks:
What he would write if he could . . . would be something darker, something that, once it began to flow from his pen, would spread across the page out of control, like spilt ink. Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightning crackling across the sky. 
This exactly captures the Gothic quality of an early Coetzee novel like “In the Heart of the Country,” but John has years to wait till the writing of books. “Boyhood” ends with him at the funeral of his Aunt Annie, a schoolteacher who once said to him, “So young and yet you know so much. How are you ever going to keep it all in your head?” Aunt Annie had devoted herself to translating and publishing a religious book by her missionary father, a book that winds up as copies, bound and unbound, stacked in a closet. When the boy asks where the books have gone, no one knows: “He alone is left to do the thinking. How will he keep them all in his head, all the books, all the people, all the stories?”
”Youth” picks up John’s story six years later, when he is nineteen and living alone in Cape Town, a university student surviving on academic odd jobs, and ends when he is twenty-four, residing in London as a friendless computer programmer and a frustrated poet. The second volume lacks the bucolic bright spots and familial furies of “Boyhood” but has an overriding, suspenseful issue: when and how will our hero find his vocation, evident to us readers if not yet to him, as a world-class novelist? In his account he is almost uniformly listless and miserable: “Misery is his element. He is at home in misery like a fish in water. If misery were to be abolished, he would not know what to do with himself.” To the consoling argument that “misery is a school for the soul” and a necessary immersion for the would-be artist he counters, “Misery does not feel like a purifying bath. On the contrary, it feels like a pool of dirty water. From each new bout of misery he emerges not brighter and stronger but duller and flabbier.”
At the age of twenty, in the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the formidable black reaction, as an increasingly repressive white government called for more conscripts in its National Defence Force, he leaves South Africa for London, without completing his university degree. In London, he feels unwelcome, “a graceless colonial . . . and a Boer to boot.” He is sex-starved. The beautiful English women he spies on the streets, not to mention the “tall, honey-skinned Swedes” and the “almond-eyed and petite” Italians, seem impossible to meet, let alone impress; the lower-class English women among whom he works, though they have “a cosy sensuality . . . the sensuality of animals brought up together in the same steamy den,” are even hard to understand, with their “triphthongs and glottal stops.” The few conquests he does make, including a plump seventeen-year-old au pair from Austria, feel like mistakes. His only comfortable liaison is with an old South African girlfriend who arrives in London, sets herself up as a night-club waitress, and with her fast and cheery ways has soon left him behind. Meanwhile, his literary aspirations dwindle to picking through the literary magazines at Foyles and Dillons, wondering whether he should switch from poetry to prose and whether he should imitate Henry James or D. H. Lawrence, and sitting in the Reading Room of the British Museum plowing through the many lesser novels of Ford Madox Ford, toward completion of a master’s degree in absentia from the University of Cape Town.
An optical defect, as it were, of autobiographical writing is that the narrator, relating the feelings and events that he has endured, appears more passive than he or she could have been; he is modestly blind to the impact he made on others, his own initiatives and aggression. Coetzee portrays himself as a lonely dunce at love, mooning over exotic movie stars like Monica Vitti and Anna Karina, yet by his own desultory count he was a considerable seducer. At the tender age of nineteen, in Cape Town, he acquired a thirty-year-old live-in mistress, an attractive and somewhat disturbed nurse who showed him how sex, for a man, brings with it the whole woman, with her possibly inconvenient troubles, agenda, and ego. He acquired skill at dodging the consequences of involvements: still in Cape Town, he got a girl pregnant and let her cope with all the details of the abortion, and in London he allowed his docile little Austrian, after their last night together, to ease herself out the door in demure silence while he feigned sleep.
Coetzee writes of “London, the city on whose grim cogs he is being broken,” while recording impressive survival skills. Jobless, he answers an I.B.M. ad for computer programmers (“He has heard of computer programming but has no clear idea of what it is”) and, after taking an I.Q. test (“He has always enjoyed IQ tests, always done well at them”), becomes a trainee and then a programmer. How many aspirants to literary greatness have enough incidental mathematical ability to succeed as computer programmers? True, Coetzee portrays the job as dreary, but he performs creditably; when he quits, after more than a year, to concentrate on becoming a poet, I.B.M. resists his departure. Later, when his work permit needs renewal, he lands another computer job, in the Berkshire offices of International Computers, and rises to the point of installing a program of his devising in the Atlas computer “housed at the Ministry of Defence’s atomic weapons research station outside Aldermaston.” Though his Cold War sympathies are pro-Russian, he finds himself part of the free-world military effort, and in that uncomfortable position—”a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer in a world in which there are no thirty-year-old computer programmers,” a would-be poet “well aware that his failure as a writer and his failure as a lover are so closely parallel that they might as well be the same thing”—his chronicler leaves him.
We know from other sources that Coetzee will go on to America, where he will earn a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas; the sequel concerning this step promises some relief from the climate of failure and balked ambition that pervades “Youth.” (This climate is transferred to the allegorical landscape of his early novel “Waiting for the Barbarians,” whose hero, the elderly Magistrate, has a young man’s air of being adrift, self-critical and self-indulgent in equal portions; the harrowing tortures that the shadowy Empire inflicts upon him might be construed as cousin to the torments of employment with the imperial International Business Machines.) Toward the memoir’s end, there are a few hopeful developments: the hero acquires spectacles for his deteriorating eyesight; he discovers the highly congenial novels of Samuel Beckett; he generates, in recreational computer time, out of words from Pablo Neruda, some “pseudo-poems” that are published in a Cape Town magazine and make a small local sensation. He begins to realize that South Africa, “a wound within him,” must be his subject. The eventual triple winner of the CNA Prize, South Africa’s premier literary award, and double winner of the Booker Prize is struggling to be born.
In the meantime, these recollections of a stymied, melancholy Afrikaner in London are more entertaining than is easily explained. We like the hero, for all his fecklessness and dogged self-denigration, much as we like the raving heroes of Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground”: naked honesty engages us. The brainy, taut prose speeds us along. True, vivifying details are sparse. A young colonial seeking a foothold in London is also the topic of V. S. Naipaul’s most recent novel, “Half a Life,” and fiction’s leeway allows him a satiric animation and a colorful particularity that are rare in “Youth.” There is nothing in Coetzee’s memoir, for example, like the comic dialogue of the West Indian hero’s affair with his Panamanian mentor’s coarse but luscious girlfriend, June, who works behind a perfume counter and exudes its aura along with blunt sexual advice, or of the lefter-than-thou snobbery of well-heeled bohemia. Coetzee’s project does not permit him to linger at such scenes of metropolitan life; his characters are all incidental to “the story of his life that he tells himself,” a concept expressed in “Boyhood” as “the only story he will admit, the story of himself.” His setbacks and humiliations merely graze the inner core of self-regard, where, in “depths of coldness, callousness, caddishness,” he circles the riddle of becoming an artist: “Does giving rein to his penchants, his vices, and then afterwards gnawing at himself, as he is doing now, help to qualify him as an artist? He cannot, at this moment, see how.”
It cannot be easy, decades later, to take an accurate but aloof view of the youth one was. Coetzee’s delicate self-mockery threatens to become condescending, and “Youth” ‘s repeated rhetorical questions verge on burlesque. “Will our solitariness lift, or is the life of the mind its own reward? . . . Does his first venture into prose herald a change of direction in his life? Is he about to renounce poetry? . . . Must he become miserable again in order to write?” Yet the suspense attached to this stalled life is real, at least for any reader who has himself sought to find his or her voice and material amid the crosscurrents of late modernism. Coetzee, with his unusual intelligence and deliberation, confronted problems many a writer, more ebulliently full of himself, rushes past without seeing. His eventual path, via Beckett and the purity of mathematics, was a kind of minimalism, a concision coaxed from what he felt as his innate coldness. “If he were a warmer person he would no doubt find it all easier: life, love, poetry. But warmth is not in his nature,” he concludes. While he was still in Cape Town, his taste moved from Hopkins and Keats and Shakespeare to Pope, “the cruel precision of his phrasing,” and, even better because wilder, Swift; he feels “fully in accord” with Pound and Eliot’s attempt to bring into English “the astringency of the French.” In one of his courteous, admirably thorough reviews, Coetzee remarks that Doris Lessing “prunes too lightly” to be a great stylist, and his own paragraphs and plots feel sharply pruned, at times as brutally disciplined as Parisian lime trees. The academic hero of his novel “Disgrace,” hearing an African talk orotundly, reflects:
The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them. 
A delectable tension exists in this writer between a youthful wariness of tired, termite-ridden words and a childish desire to spill ink, out of control, to unload what is in his head. Even the low-energy years described in “Youth” take on, in the clipped telling, a curious electricity; the astringent pages leave us keen to read on.