Quoth Harold Pinter: “I have no idea why they gave me the award.” The award, of course, was the Nobel Prize for … well, supposedly for literature. In the case of Harold Pinter, however, literature had nothing do with the prize. How could it? By our reckoning, Pinter has done nothing notable in that direction since The Caretaker (1959). Even at his early best (The Birthday Party, say, or The Dumb Waiter, both 1957), Pinter’s was always a small and highly derivative literary gift—more of a handout, really. Indeed, we would suggest that his talent was not so much literary as histrionic, one of literature’s degeneracies. What Pinter dispensed was a certain tone—an atmospherics of menace, borrowed largely from Samuel Beckett. Its chief effect, when you first encountered it, was to make semi-articulate dissatisfaction seem like existential profundity.
Alas, it wasn’t long before the illusion of profundity evaporated, leaving only semi-articulate dissatisfaction. Hence Mark Steyn’s unsurpassable definition of the “Pinteresque”: “a pause followed by a non-sequitur.” Another name for “Pinteresque” is “theater of the absurd.” It tells us a lot that the phrase was—is it still?—taken as a compliment, an expression of praise, as if the absurd were something to be proud of. Pinter injected a certain senility into language and counted on a credulous public to mistake catalepsy for depth. It paid off. It paid off so well that Pinter’s admirers often sound a lot like the master. Witness the Swedish academy’s citation, which told us that the seventy-five-year-old playwright “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” Would anyone care to parse that paean to opacity? We’d suggest starting with the word “prattle.”
"I have no idea why they gave me the award.” We can help, Harold! Remember your speech before the House of Commons in October 2002? That was the one in which you suggested that Tony Blair was a “deluded idiot” and that “Mr. Bush and his gang … are determined, quite simply, to control the world and the world’s resources. And they don’t give a damn how many people they murder on the way.”
Or consider your remarks on being granted an honorary degree at Turin University later that year. The terrorist attack on New York in September 2001, you said, was “predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of the United States over many years, in all parts of the world.” And let’s not forget your poems—“God Bless America” (2003), for example, which begins:
Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.
There are other poems, little scatological ditties, that pursue the same theme. We won’t burden our readers with them. But here’s why you got the award, Harold: your politics. Not all of your politics, we hasten to add. Your support of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, for example, while not disqualifying, was probably not a strong positive recommendation. No, it was your virulent anti-Americanism that did the trick—more precisely, it was your ostentatious campaigns against George W. Bush and American military action to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq and confound the murderous plans of Islamic terrorists. That’s what set hearts in Stockholm beating a-pit-a-pat. It takes a special moral coarseness to believe (or at any rate to say) that President Bush and his “gang” set out, “quite simply, to control the world.”
Knut Ahnlund, a Swedish writer and long-time member of the Nobel Prize Committee, resigned from the prize committee a few days before Pinter’s award was announced. His public reason was last year’s literature prize, which went to the Austrian pornographer and anti-American fantasist Elfriede Jelinek. That award was certainly grounds for anyone’s resignation. As Mr. Ahnlund noted, it did “irreparable damage” to the reputation of an already tarnished prize. But why did Mr. Ahnlund wait nearly a year to act? Could it have been the prospect of the award going to Harold Pinter? Many people reacted to the Swedish Academy’s latest flirtation with absurdity by quoting the English wit who, writing about Harold Pinter’s plays, observed that Pinter was “a man of few words, most of them silly.” There was a lot of sniggering when Stockholm announced the winner of this year’s prize for literature. But there was also a certain anger, a certain outrage. If nothing else, Harold Pinter has done us the service of demonstrating that the silly is by no means at odds with the malevolently deranged.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 3, on page 1
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