EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the November 7, 2005, issue of National Review.
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature is one of the year’s more amusing moments, in its way a little gloss on the age. A committee of 18 Swedes is responsible for it, and they all have membership in perpetuity. Publishers, translators, and other lobbyists swarm around them, and their final choice almost invariably depends on politicking rather than literary appreciation. Plucked from obscurity, recent winners like Elfriede Jelinek, José Saramago, and Dario Fo reveal the anxiety of those 18 Swedes to be in what they think is the fashionable swim. And this year they have extended the entertainment by picking Harold Pinter.
Some fifty years ago, he began writing plays whose point is that they have no point. Characters exchange inarticulate snippets at cross-purposes while nothing happens, culminating in nothing. The threadbare dialogue, and the banality of its context, are said to generate an atmosphere of menace and silence, as though that were the sum total of the human condition. Chaim Bermant, a genuine literary wit, once cut unforgettably through the tiresome mystification, writing, “Harold Pinter is a man of few words, most of them silly.” Mark Steyn, another genuine wit, has summed up Pinter’s dramatic technique as “a pause, followed by a non sequitur.”
The opening page of the Pinter website carries a dictum of his from 1958: “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal.” So major a confusion explains how Pinter has become to the stage what John Cage is to music. It’s all derived from Joyce and Beckett, and Pinter has paid his respects to the latter with the impoliteness he likes to cultivate towards others: “The more he grinds my nose in the sh**, the more I am grateful to him.” Portmanteau expressions like “the theater of the absurd” are the attempts of modernist academics and critics to find meaning and art where neither exists . . .