Essay: A Pinteresque homecoming

Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Harold Pinter has a Jewish problem.

pinter 88 (photo credit: )
pinter 88
(photo credit: )

'I must say that my experience during the war and after the war was of a world which is extremely precarious, to put it mildly. Fraught with anxiety and fear and dread of what was to come on the very next day. And this wasn't a superficial thing by a very long chalk. This informed our lives and I think it remains with us. It certainly remains with me over all these years."

Those comments were made by Harold Pinter while participating in a panel discussion two years ago in London celebrating "Jewish Book Week." They're instructive because that's as close as the celebrated dramatist has come toward openly discussing how his own Jewishness has possibly influenced the body of work that last week earned him this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

Almost all the news reports of Pinter's win dutifully noted his upbringing in London's heavily Jewish East End during the 1930s, where Oswald Mosley's pro-Nazi Fascist gangs clashed with residents in the streets. Many also repeated the well-known stories of Pinter's shock at still encountering such virulent anti-Semitism after the war - "We'd just fought for six bloody years to defeat, at the cost of millions of people, the Nazis, and yet the Government allowed these groups of Fascists to congregate in the East End of London and beat people up," he once noted.

IN HIS earlier plays, such as The Birthday Party with its ominous bully named Goldberg, and especially The Homecoming, which is recognizably set in the home of a working-class East End Jewish family lorded over by a patriarch named Max, it is possible to discern Pinter's ethnic roots. But as his stage work became increasingly abstract, one would be hard-pressed to make any direct link between the "nameless sense of menace" (to use a by-now clich d critical expression in describing Pinter's viewpoint) and the "hate that dare not speak its name" which so marked the dramatist in his youth. He generally avoided any but the rarest specific reference to Jewishness in his work, even when, such as with The Homecoming, they would have made dramatic sense.

In a piece published in The New Statesman in 2000, critic Michael Jay linked Pinter's tendency in this regard to a wider sociological reticence among British Jewish artists. "Why does Pinter onstage, like Mike Leigh on film, not deal with this material in an overtly Jewish context? Beyond questions of artistic choice, there is surely an issue of cultural confidence. Jews in Britain have long been an "invisible" ethnicity. Among white Europeans, they can fade in and out if they want to, and assimilationist politics often encourages a low-key approach. Pragmatism, keeping your head down and not drawing attention to yourself have characterized mainstream Jewish life in Britain."

While there may be some truth to this, Jay perhaps underestimates what was also no doubt largely a conscious artistic decision on Pinter's part. It is the very lack of specificity that give such dramas as The Caretaker and The Birthday Party their ominous universal appeal. This approach also reflects Pinter's openly acknowledged heavy literary debt to the absurdist view of Samuel Beckett, also the clear inspiration for the continual pauses and non-sequiturs of his "Pinteresque" dialogue.

BUT IT'S difficult not to also view this aesthetic direction as in some way a reflection of Pinter's personal life. The playwright abandoned any religious association with Judaism as a child, and has never identified himself as a Jew in any significant way since then. He has made it clear in countless interviews that outside his work, he chooses to define himself publicly through a political outlook that falls comfortably within the confines of British left-wing activism. Indeed, many media reports credited Pinter's surprise Nobel victory less for his literary achievement and more to his outspoken criticism of the Bush (and Blair) administration's Iraq policy, citing the Literature Prize as a bookend to Peace Prize-awarded IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei.

If Pinter's political activism helped him win the Nobel, it has occasionally led him to join with like-minded fellow travelers in condemning Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and championing the cause of Mordechai Vanunu. Truth be told though, Pinter tends to reserve most of his passion toward criticizing the policies of his native Britain, or even more so in recent years, the United States; Israel, like his Jewishness in general, seems very much on the periphery of his inner vision.

WHERE THEN, to place him in the admittedly small canon of notable British-Jewish dramatists, especially in the company of such near-contemporaries as Arnold Wesker, Steven Berkoff and Frederic Raphael, whose work more openly deals in one way or another the reality of what it means to be a British Jew?

Right at the center, I would argue, and at the very head of that pack. Indeed, without taking in account Pinter's Jewishness - and very specifically, the Jewish world in which he was raised - his work, at least the best of it, is missing a vital element of its meaning and theatrical power.

In its award citation, the Nobel Prize committee focused more on Pinter's stylistic contribution, noting how he "restored theater to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle and hide-and-seek of interlocution."

But what kind of "power struggle" characterizes Pinter's best work? Largely those of the powerless - bums, petty crooks, lower-class families, people already living on the margins of society, and themselves at the mercy of hostile forces so much greater than themselves they cannot even properly identify the source or reason of the menace.

Surely that's a viewpoint not surprising for a Jewish boy coming of age in a Britain both itself infected with virulent anti-Semitism and in mortal danger of being conquered by a regime dedicated to eradicating from the Earth the very race to which that boy belonged. If by an accident of geography Pinter, the child of East European immigrants, belonged to one of the few European Jewish communities not directly decimated by the Nazi death camps, he belongs no less to that generation of Jewish writers across the Channel whose work was indelibly defined by the Holocaust.

Though most often compared to Beckett, Pinter's work also brings to my mind that of the Shoah-obsessed novelist Aharon Applefeld, whose books are equally imbued with a sense of imminent threat conveyed in threadbare narratives told with a spare, elliptical language (obviously influenced heavily in all three cases by Kafka). Pinter is in fact an emblematic Diaspora-Jewish writer par excellence, especially of his generation of British Jewry raised, as it were, on the edge of the abyss that swallowed most of its European compatriots.

Perhaps the writer himself might object to this characterization as too ethnocentric and parochial, especially as Pinter has occasionally objected over the years to productions of certain of his plays, especially The Homecoming, presented with too heavy a Jewish accent.

As for myself, I wonder how much Pinter personally identified with the character of Teddy in The Homecoming, a prodigal intellectual who discovers too late that you never quite escape your roots. I suspect that in this greatest of his works, the latest Nobel-winning author subconsciously lets on just how much of a Jewish writer he really is.

The writer, the Post's former managing editor, is director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project.