Commentary
 
from The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington Faber and Faber 1996
 

 

Kullus
 

G.K.Chesterton once wrote, 'There is at the back of every artist's mind something like a pattern or type of architecture. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would wish to make or in which he would wish to wander; the strange flora and fauna of his own secret planet' That makes it sound romantic-idealist, but Pinter's own secret planet turned out to be a cratered paradise destroyed by the serpent of sexuality and the desire for domination. What is staggering is that that dream landscape makes such a sharply defined appearance in his earliest surviving piece - a prose-poem called Kullus written at home in 1949 - and continues, in some shape or form, in much of his succeeding work. Kullus immediately ushers us into a Pinter world that now seems eerily familiar: a room, a space, a territorial battle, a triangular encounter between two men and a woman, a reversal of power. Where on earth does this image come from? The easy answer is that Pinter's acute sense of territory stems from the threat posed by the Fascist thugs in post-war Hackney. I suspect it has much more to do with the fact that Pinter and his friends all had rooms in their parents' houses which were simultaneously private sanctuaries, debating chambers and arenas of conflict; in particular, places where the claims of friendship come into head-on collision with external emotional ties. You don't live at home till your early twenties without developing an awareness of private space or a fear on unwanted invasion. One story Michael Goldstein told me illustrated just how territorially conscious they all were at that time. Goldstein was working at home one evening when Pinter, who had recently fallen in love, burst into his room and began to read a speech from Troilus and Cressida, in which the hero moans on about his emotional inadequacy. Goldstein, who had himself just embarked on a love affair, felt he was being lectured on his own shortcomings, and was hurt and angry enough to ask Pinter to leave. A tiny incident; and the breach was quickly healed. But it reminds us of the way the occupant regards a room as a private bolt-hole, of how the new entrant often seeks to impose his or her will upon the space, and of how friendship is sometimes jeopardised by sexuality. All were to become classic Pinter themes.
These ideas hover around Kullus: a remarkably subtle, suggestive poetic dialogue which deals not just with territorial displacement but with control of a room and its owner expressed through images of cold and heat. It is written in three perfectly balanced sections. In the first, the narrator - secure in the dignity of solitude - admits a friend, Kullus, into his room. He invites him over to the fire. Instantly not just the room's chill, but by implication his whole life, is subjected to harsh criticism by Kullus: 'This can on no account be named a fire. IT is merely another aspect of light and shade in this room. It is not committed to its ordained activity. IT does not move from itself, for want of attention and discernment necessary to its growth. You live an avoidance of both elements.' Having swiftly demolished the room's occupant, Kullus the seeks his permission to introduce a shawled girl with whom he proceeds to climb into his bed. The host is left as a passive and impotent voyeur: 'I placed a coat over the lamp, and watched the ceiling hustle to the floor. Then the room moved to the flame in the grate. I shifted my stool and sat by the flame in the grate.' By the second section, Kullus has taken over the room completely and exercises complete domination. The window was closed, if it was warm, and open, if it was cold. The curtains were open, if it was night, a
nd closed, it it was day. Why closed? Why open?

I have my night
said Kullus
I have my day

Kullus controls not just the room and its owner but seeks to impose himself on the natural world: to determine day and night, heat and cold. At which point the first visitor starts to seize the initiative, presumptuously inciting the host to move into his own room and enlisting his help in closing the curtains in defiance of Kullus's orders. By the third section, Kullus 'has changed', the shawled host crouches far from the fire, the girl is in complete command of the room and the men in it, closing and opening the curtains at will. Everything has come full circle except that the power situation has been totally altered. Stripped on his identity and his cherished solitude, the host now surveys the girl close the the grate. 'The ceiling hustled to the floor. You have not shifted the coat from the lamp, I said.'
You could place several interpretations on this. The action could, just possibly, be taking place in three different rooms: the narrator's Kullus's, the girl's. It could also all be a dream in which a man fantasises about a nightmare occupation. But it makes most sense if read as a mini-drama about territorial displacement and psychological defeat. The amazing thing is that Pinter, at eighteen, thinks in such concrete dramatic and visual terms and maps out his own particular terrain. It's all there; the idea that we construct our own form of Edenic solitude, that we welcome over our threshold the agents of our own destruction and that women not only radically alter the balance of power between men but end up calling the shots. Formally, the piece is also astonishingly mature. I'm reminded of one of this circular Hitchcock camera shots-familiar from Rope-which take one on a 360-degree tour of a room by the end of which the furniture may look the same, but the relationships have acquired a totally new significance. Yet while being technically assured, the piece never seems far from Pinter's own world, particularly in Kullus's devastating critique of his host's failure, like his fire, to grow. That kind of thing was par for the course in Hackney. Pinter once told me that Henry Woolf, who had been invalided out of the forces, was walking past Hackney Hospital one day with Ron Percival when the latter turned to him and said, 'Now look here, Woolf, you haven't made any intellectual progress since you left the RAF,' to which the helpless Henry said, 'Haven't I?' Such abrasive directness underscores Kullus. And while Pinter was to develop with its structure and themes in his 1967 TV play The Basement, what is fascinating is that his first surviving work should reveal so much about his obsessive preoccupations.

 
 
Don't Look
 

Don't look.
The world's about to break
.

Don't look.
The world's about to chuck out all its light
And stuff us in the chokepit of its dark,
That black and fat and suffocated place
Where we will kill or die or dance or weep
Or scream or shine or squeak like mice
To renegotiate our starting price.

Pinter wasn't soliciting comment or approbation, but listening to him read the poem I was struck by its visceral quality. It seemed full of impacted physical rage at the darkness sweeping our world, at our impotence in the face of cataclysm, at the petty compromises we make to keep the system going. 'Chokepit' has extraordinary force suggesting subterranean asphyxiation, and the peremptory starkness of the opening lines leads to a conclusion implying that instead of recognising evil, we seek to appease it or adopt a sauve-qui-peut attitude.

 
 
I Shall Tear off My Terrible Cap
 

Pinter's character at this time was marked by a duality that has never quite gone away. He was, as (Barry) Foster testifies, good company, a great drinker, a generous mate. Yet if you study his writing of this period it is full of almost apocalyptic angst. It was as if Pinter, even at twenty was keenly attuned to life's suffering and harshness but was determined to rise above it with a mutinous stoicism. One of the most remarkable poems he wrote in 1951, 'I shall tear off my Terrible Cap', expresses something of this in that it is filled with a wild, antic despair and hints of possession by demons and devils. It begins:

I in my strait-jacket swung in the sun,
In a hostile pause in a no man's time.
The spring his green anchor has flung.

The immediate impression is of madness, confinement, alienation; there's a lot of future Pinter locked into the idea of 'a hostile pause in a no man's time'. But the poem also sets up an instant contrast between its subject's constrained vitality and the indifferent world of nature. And it goes on to explore the idea of a wildly gabbling, almost insane hero subjected to social pressure, but finally striking a note of cock-a-hoop defiance:

All spirits shall haunt me and all devils drink me;
O despite their dark drugs and the digs that they rib me,
I'll tear off my terrible cap.

 
 
Romantic Ireland
 
  Ireland, Yeats, the relationship with Pauline: all had a strong effect on Pinter's literary sensibility. They certainly changed his poetry. Just as Yeats's own work moves from the decorative, Pre-Raphaelite style of the early years towards an austere lyricism, so Pinter's own poetry undergoes a profound change. The poems of the late 1940s are ornate, overwrought, self-consciously Dylan Thomas-like. The poems written between 1951 and 1953 have not only greater directness and clarity, but also a sense of wounded emotion and an awareness of loss. What you hear at last is the true voice of feeling. Sometimes the poems are simply a response to Irish topography as in 'The Islands of Aran seen from the Moher Cliffs' (1951) which captures marvelously the bleakness and grandeur of these rocky isles seen from the stone of Connemara's head:
 

The three whales of Aran
Humped in the sun's teeth,
Make tough bargain with the cuff
And statement of the sea.

But one of the most remarkable discoveries in Ten Early Poems is a verse-dialogue called 'Episode' (1951): a deconstruction of a love-triangle that in some ways prefigures the world of Landscape and Betrayal. There is an un-named and unmistakably jilted speaker; an empowered rival given voice and identity as 'He'; a silent and shadowy woman who is the object of their struggle. Pinter captures marvelously both the fragility of possession and the obsessive nature of love ('I tread their shadow, Stranger and woman, Arranging the season In her curious dream'). But the most extraordinary feature of the poem is that it is the temporary winner of the struggle who launches a fierce litany of protest against his vanquished rival:

He:
That you did barter
And consort with her.
That you did ash
The fire at her departure.
That you did enter
Where I was unechoed.
That you did venture
Where I was a stranger.

From early on in his career, Pinter sees sexual relationships in terms of a male battleground in which, in the end, there are no real winners and losers because the desired object remains mysterious, enigmatic, unknowable. It's a position Pinter would redefine in his later work as he gained a greater understanding of women; yet there is an archetypal pattern in 'Episode' that is repeated, with variations, in many of Pinter's plays.

But the poems from Pinter's Irish period also show a greater liberation of feeling than anything he had written before. They tend to be rural rather than urban, lyrical rather than imagist, often using Celtic myth as a vehicle for private emotion. A classic example is one called simply 'Poem' which begins:

I walked one morning with my only wife,
Out of sandhills to the summer fair,
To buy a window and a white shawl,
Over the boulders and the sunlit hill.
But a stranger told us the fair had passed,
And I turned back with my only wife.

and which ends three stanzas later with:

The year turned to an early sunrise.
I walked one morning with my only wife,
Out of sandhills to the summer fair,
To sell a candle and a black shawl.
We parted ways on the sunlit hill,
She silent, I to the farther west.

We seem to be in the world of Yeats and Synge - a world of peasants, shawls and summer fairs - and there is even a faint echo of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' in the way the final stanza echoes the first. Yet the poem, which deals with the loss of true love through the cycle of the seasons, also has an aura of personal sadness as if Pinter is grafting his own feelings about the transience of passion onto a standard Irish form.

'Romantic Ireland's dead and gone', wrote Yeats in 'September, 1913' , 'It's with O'Leary in the grave'. But, without being sentimental about it, Ireland had a profound effect on Pinter in many ways.

Yet the biggest discovery of all was of a writer who was to become both a literary influence and a close personal friend. For Pinter it was a genuine coup de foudre: 'One day I came across, I stumbled across, a poetry magazine called Poetry Ireland edited by David Marcus in which I found a fragment of Beckett's Watt. I was stunned by it but I couldn't get hold of this David Marcus because the magazine telephone never answered so I never found out who this man Beckett was. I went back to London and no library or bookshop had ever heard of Beckett. Finally I went to the Westminster Library and asked them to burrow in their records and they came up with a book that had been in the Battersea Reserve Library since 1938 and that was Murphy. After a couple of weeks, I got it, pinched it and still have it.. . I suddenly felt that what his writing was doing was walking through a mirror into the other side of the world which was, in fact, the real world. What I seemed to be con-fronted with was a writer inhabiting his innermost self. The book was also very funny. I never forgot the laughs I immediately got from reading Beckett. But what impressed me was something about the quick of the world. It was Beckett's own world but had so many references to the world we actually share.';

It's fascinating that Pinter seizes on Beckett's ability to create his own unique yet universally recognisable world. For precisely what Pinter himself did in the four years between standing trial as a conscientious objector –something he has remained ever since – and leaving Mac's tours in Ireland was to map out his own universe. In Kullus, in 'Episode', in The Queen of all the Fairies, he writes of a world of territorial battle, of attritional sexual conflict, of profound social decay. In the memoir, while waiting one night for Henry Woolf he has an almost Blakean vision of the London streets with 'Carthorses lugging Etruscan crockery to the fire. Saucers and daffodils broken in the moon. Some vomit of A-bombs and H-bombs.' By his early twenties, Pinter had already created his own private landscape. He had even fashioned a style of jaunty stoicism with which to shield himself against the terrors of the world. At the same time he remained wide open to external influences. 'What was striking about Harold at the time,' says Barry Foster, 'was not just that the literary talent was there, but also an artistic sensibility. It was evident just in the way he talked about other writers.' Pinter's good taste is crucial to an understanding of him. For allied to his own dream landscape was an eclectic artistic pantheon that included Shakespeare, Yeats, Beckett, Patrick Hamilton and the films of Bunuel. Out of that collision would ultimately come a major body of work. But having decided to quit Mac's company in 1953 after five craft-improving seasons, he was once more a jobbing actor with a living to earn, as well as a writer with his own dark, mysterious portfolio.

 
 
It Is Here
       

His work may dwell upon an Eden memory of past happiness, but in the present Pinter has clearly found contentment, security and passion in his second marriage. Anyone who doubts that has only to look at a poem he wrote in 1990 titled 'It is Here' and subtitled 'for A.' It is that rare thing in English verse: a poem celebrating requited married love. It reads:

What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.

 
photography by Susan Greenhill
 
   
 
 

What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
To turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.

 
                         
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