Ghosts

According to the Nobel committee, Harold Pinter “uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” Perhaps that explains the suffering that sitting through Pinter’s plays has engendered, at least in me. After he wrote “The Homecoming,” Pinter himself stated that he “couldn’t any longer stay in the room with this bunch of people who opened doors and came in and went out.”

The official Harold Pinter Web site is a trove of information about Pinter’s career. I had forgotten, for example, the extent of Pinter’s work in film, including adaptations of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” John Fowles’s “French Lieutenant’s Woman” and his own “Betrayal.”

The Nobel citation, however, focused on Pinter’s dramatic work. When the Nobel committee announced its award to Pinter on Thursday, we deduced that his politics are what commended him to it. The Los Angeles Times story on the award quotes a good sample of Pinter’s political discourse:

In recent years, he has labeled British Prime Minister Tony Blair a “war criminal” and the United States “a country run by a bunch of criminals” with Blair its “hired Christian thug.” He added his name last year to a short-lived bid seeking Blair’s impeachment.

“We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East,'” he said in a speech this year.

His politics don’t appear to leave much room for forcing entry into oppression’s closed rooms, but no one is parsing his train of thought too closely.

By contrast, John Updike seems to me the foremost living English-language writer deserving of the kind of recognition attendant to a great prize for literary attainments. Take, for only one example, his work in the genre of the short story. His stories about the Maples (first collected in 1980 in Too Far to Go) represent only a small part of his work in the form over his long career, but they can stand as representative of his accomplishment. In those stories he explores marriage and divorce with a kind of depth and intimacy that one would have thought impossible in a short story.

He has also written enough stories to fill three small volumes about his fictional alter ego Henry Bech. Despite the fact that it is Updike’s gifts with the language for which he is usually either praised or damned, in the Bech stories Updike writes in a comic or satiric mode that displays several other facets of his genius.

In “Bech in Czech” (from the third Bech volume), for example, Bech is sent to Czechoslovakia on a cultural exchange program through the United States government in 1986, while the country is still Communist. Bech attends a party of dissident writers, one of whom had been jailed. Bech reflects:

Jail! One of the guests at the party had spent nearly ten years in prison. He was dapper, like the cafe habitues in George Grosz drawings, with a scarred, small face and shining black eyes. He spoke so softly Bech could hardly hear him, though he bent his ear close. The man’s hands twisted under Bech’s eyes, as if in the throes of torture. Bech noticed that the fingers had in fact bent, broken. How would he, the American author asked himself, stand up to having his fingernails pulled? He could think of nothing he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant.

That paragraph, buried in the middle of the story, is the product of a deeply humane sensibility. I can’t think of another man of letters who could have written it in the course of a story devoted to the ghosts of recent history.

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