Every Pinter Tells a Story

By Sexton, David | The Spectator, October 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Every Pinter Tells a Story


Sexton, David, The Spectator


Lindsight is seductive. Like the last light of the evening, it can make any mess look composed, necessary. Michael Billington has written an `authorised biographical study' of Harold Pinter which is entirely a work of hindsight.

It began, Billington says, as a short book `about his work, his political ideas and the way in which these relate to his life'. Although much expanded, that is essentially what it has remained - an `interpretation of Pinter's work as seen in the context of his life'. Although he delivers a fairly full biography along the way, Billington never tries to reverse these unfashionable priorities. He makes no attempt to imagine how uncertain every life feels at the time, as it is lived, without foreknowledge. So it's hardly a suspenseful read.

'A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery,' says Stephen Daedalus, talking of Shakespeare. It may be a mystical insight, but it's still an unusual approach for a modern biographer. Some of Billington's interpretations are distinctly overdetermined. Early in the first chapter, for example, he describes Pinter's extended family and sees in it a source for those famous pauses: Passover - the Jewish festival commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egytian bondage - was always a big event. The young Harold participated in the ritual of the symbolic descent of the Angel of Death which was always followed by a long, and significantly dramatic, pause. Born in 1930, he experienced both evacuation and the Blitz. `It is hardly surprising that he grew up with a sense of the precariousness and fragility of existence', Billington says, before prodding further: Like many children who grew up in wartime, Pinter had a strong sense of life's drama and impermanence; and like any incipient artist, he was alert to the significance of his own experience. An only child, Pinter lived with his parents in Thistlewaite Road in Hackney until in 1951 he joined Anew McMaster's touring company as a Shakespearean actor. Again, Billington moralises the facts: You don't live at home till your early twenties without developing an awareness of private space or a fear of unwanted invasion ` classic Pinter themes', he emphasises. Yet although these matters may have been necessary components in Pinter's make-up, they are hardly sufficient as explanations. Others have lived through the war, observed Passover, or shared a family home without having become Pinter.

Nonetheless, much the most interesting section of the book is the description of Pinter's Hackney background. His grandparents on both sides were Ashkenazic Jews (three from Poland, one from Odessa), a fact which Billington can't resist prognostically underlining: They imported from East Europe a residual love of culture, a memory of suffering and an extraordinary resilience. His father, Jack, born into a musical family, built up a ladies' tailoring business in Stoke Newington; his mother, Frances, came from a more secular and sceptical tradition. The love they gave their son can perhaps be inferred simply from his achievement. His parents must have been so wonderful to him because he has never, ever really doubted himself, an early girlfriend in Hackney, Jennifer Mortimer, is quoted as saying. More than this, all Pinter's thinking and feeling is first-hand, not just the borrowings with which most of us make do. He has a quick ear and a thin skin. The induration which others come to welcome has somehow passed him by.

Billington quotes Joan Bakewell: He's immaculate about the significance of his life. Which is why he doesn't need to do much more than walk to the tube - that is full of significance for him. This characteristic has both given his writing its originality and latterly led him into some of his odder political stances. It's a stage beyond being simply an auto-didact.

Forties Hackney gave Pinter an intellectual life to rival that to be found in any more materially privileged environment. …

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