from The Life
and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington Faber and Faber
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
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, and
closed, it it was day. Why closed? Why open?
I have my night
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,
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.
The world's about to break.
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
O despite their dark drugs and the digs that they rib me,
I'll tear off my terrible cap.
||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:
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
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.