Genius or champagne socialist?

27th November 1998 at 00:00
VARIOUS VOICES: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-98
By Harold Pinter
Faber, #163;16.99
Penguin Audiobook #163;8.99.

Harold Pinter is often hailed as Britain's greatest living playwright, and it is a sign of his continuing relevance that his work still divides opinion into two factions: the fans and the mockers.

For his fans, Pinter's genius - exemplified by such classic "comedies of menace" as The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming - remains undiminished in his 1990s plays, such as Ashes to Ashes. His public stance on civil rights proves that there's political life and integrity in the old dog yet.

For the mockers, Pinter is a champagne socialist whose plays have increasingly come to resemble telegrams from Amnesty International. Derided for writing dialogue that is punctuated by pregnant pauses, he is seen as a writer well past his sell-by date.

Various Voices, the first collection of Pinter's prose and poems to span his whole career, is a wonderful book that not only emphasises the versatility of his genius but also gives a portrait of the compassionate individual behind the myth of the difficult author.

Starting in 1950 with a deeply felt and idiosyncratic appreciation of Shakespeare as a writer who described the "open wound", the book features Pinter's choice of his prose, which roams from explanations of his inspiration to his tender obituary of Anew McMaster, "last of the great actor-managers", and his praise of the cricketer Len Hutton.

His poems, like hard gems gleaming darkly on the page, range from the revealing "A View of 'The Birthday Party' " (1958) to the excoriating "American Football", an attack on military triumphalism during the Gulf War, which, as Pinter explains in a separate essay, the mainstream press was too timid to print at the time.

In the last section, there's a selection of his political pieces, most of which are well-informed criticisms of the United States's imperial pretensions. Some hit nearer home: his account of how a rehearsal in Haringey, north London, by Kurdish actors of his play, Mountain Language, was broken up by police who thought the actors were real soldiers about to attack a rival group is an indictment of a brutal institutional racism that is "deaf to reason".

Most timely of all is Pinter's open letter to Tony Blair about the dangers of being too closely "locked in a moral embrace" with "your ally, the US".

After summarising America's appalling human rights record in the Third World, he ends with a characteristic postscript: "We were all chuffed to our bollocks when Labour won the election."

Teachers and students can welcome this collection, which, with Michael Billington's excellent biography, gives a well-rounded picture of a man many erroneously consider an obscure writer. Ten short stories - from Kullus in 1949 to Girls in 1995 - illustrate his prowess. Although the book does speak in various voices - sometimes lyrical, sometimes exasperated, sometimes ironic, sometimes passionate - they are all recognisably Pinteresque. Hearing the audio-book version, you're reminded that Pinter started off as an actor. In it, the crisp voice of modern British drama mixes with the engaged voice of dissent.

Aleks Sierz

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