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Lifetime tribute to a working man's craft

Various Voices: Prose, poetry, politics 1948-2008

Harold Pinter

Faber and Faber, €18.05

In 2005, when Harold Pinter was suffering from cancer and had hurt himself in a fall, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Because he was unable to attend the ceremony, he sent a pre-recorded video of his speech, entitled Art, Truth & Politics, to Stockholm.

The video, which is still available online, shows Pinter, wheelchair-bound, with a dark red and orange-patterned blanket over his legs, his hands clasped somewhat regally on his knees. He wears a black shirt, buttoned to the neck, and a formal black jacket, and he sits up straight, with actorly bearing, directly addressing the viewer.

The camera zooms in, and behind the big, unfashionable glasses, Pinter's eyes gleam fierce and amused. He looks commanding, charming -- there's a hint still of the rogue who seduced a host of women in his youth -- but he's obviously fragile.

After describing how the characters in his plays came to him -- quickly, and without plan -- Pinter delves into his real subject, which is America's political deviousness. The ailing 75-year-old, who would die within three years, delivers the speech entirely without notes. It's an impressive performance. Yet this is not surprising, for art, truth and politics were three great passions of Pinter's life.

The Nobel lecture is included in this final edition of Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-2008, which has 60 years' worth of passionate writing and political commentary, as well as letters, poems, and interviews with the playwright.

It's an inspiring book, but also a chilling one. In the essays, Pinter's love of literature speaks loud and persistent; the poems reach into the strange and beautiful realms of life; his journalism, on the other hand, paints a disturbing picture of world politics in the second half of the 20th Century and on to the 21st, in which an unprincipled America holds sway. Pinter had a brilliant, edgy and complicated mind, and Various Voices allows us a glimpse inside.

Before he became one of the best-known playwrights and screenwriters of the 20th Century, Pinter was a working-class boy from Hackney in east London, the son of a Jewish "jobbing tailor" who "left the house at 7am and returned at 7pm," as he tells us here. He began his career as an actor and did much of his early work in Ireland.

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This is a time he remembers fondly. Ireland is the subject of several poems, and it was here, he says, that he first encountered Shakespeare. "I was very, very fortunate because I was plunged into a world of Shakespeare in Ireland with the great actor-manager Anew McMaster," he recalls in an interview, adding, "we played several nights a week in Irish villages. I was 20 at the time and I could take it. It was a very rich existence."

For Pinter, writing, like acting, was a craft rather than an art. In a letter to the editor of an Oxford-Cambridge student magazine, he notes wryly that "I have never been to a university myself," even though his plays were very popular with university drama societies. And in a speech that he gave after receiving the German Shakespeare prize in Hamburg, he protests, "I regard myself as nothing more than a working man."

Although he had a reputation for arrogance, the Pinter that emerges in these speeches and essays is often humble. At the Shakespeare award ceremony in Hamburg he starts off by saying:

"I remain honoured and slightly bewildered, but also frightened. What frightens me is that I have been asked to speak to you today. If I find writing difficult, I find giving a public address doubly so."

He ends by speaking of his continued frustration at suffering from writer's block: "I find it ironic that I have come here to receive this distinguished award as a writer, and that at the moment I am writing nothing and can write nothing. I don't know why. It's a very bad feeling ... When you can't write you feel you've been banished from yourself."

This was in 1970 -- after which he came up with No Man's Land (1974), Betrayal (1978), One for the Road (1984), Ashes to Ashes (1996), and a wealth of journalism and other plays and poems.

The personal essays give us an insight into Pinter's psychology, yet it's in the political writing that his voice really shines through.

Although some of his peers criticised his strong political views -- Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph, said his anti-Americanism was "shrill" -- the facts that he presents are shocking. In The US and El Salvador, from 1993, he begins, "Seventy-five thousand dead in El Salvador over the last 15 years. Who killed them and who cares?"

Pinter said he believed that violence was closely linked to the misuse of language, and in University of Turin Speech, from 2002, he says that the administration of former president George W Bush is "now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary."

Pinter's poetry is characteristically relentless, and it looks into the shadier realms of the human psyche. In Cancer Cells we see a man who knows he may be dying, grapple with his disease. And it's clear that even in his old age Pinter paid little heed to social niceties -- the f*** word occurs 12 times in Modern Love, a poem from as late as 2005.

Several other poems do show a more romantic side of his character. He wrote To Antonia while in Greece, in 1987. It didn't appear in earlier editions of this book, and it's addressed to his wife.

Where I found you forever

In the only first time in my life

Which calls out again and again

In the light of this moon on our sea

In our fierce and young and tender tide

My dancer my bride

Among many other things, Harold Pinter's voice was angry, clever, provocative, inspired and loving.

If you care about literature, you should read this last edition of Various Voices. It's an apt summation of a long and brilliant career.


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