Conversations with Pinter - conducted by Mel Gussow originally as interviews and later changed to conversations due to their length and informality - is a book well worth reading. From 1971 till the last conversation in 1993, Gussow met Pinter on and off and asked him all sorts of questions about his playwriting, poetry, scriptwriting, directing, acting and political views, and about the earliest failures, later successes and an occasional question about Pinter’s much private life.
Harold Pinter, who grew up a poor Jew towards the end of World War II in east London, dropped out of school at the age of sixteen. He wrote and published poetry at an early age and started out as an actor in theater. He began playwriting at a much later age, when he was 27. His first play performed on stage The Birthday Party
was a failure at the time (although it was revived later, to much critical acclaim). However, this did not deter the ambitious playwright and, two years later, another play made it to the stage and launched what would be the start of a successful career. He would also act in and (occasionally) direct some of his own plays. In 2005, Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Successful interviews with writers have a way of revealing the essence of the person behind the persona. It was with much joy that I came to learn of Pinter’s early background, career, inspiration, success and political views through his conversations with Gussow. It made for a fast and informative read without all the narrative bogging down that can be typical of a biography.
One of my favorite passages about Pinter on inspiring writers:
Pinter: … I can tell you who I think are the great writers very simply. They’re so evident. They’re obvious.
Gussow: Name some obvious.
Pinter: Well, Dostoevski. This is in my mind. Joyce, Proust. They haven’t got their names for nothing. And Beckett. [Silence.]
Gussow: It it something to strive for, isn’t it?
Pinter: I don’t see it in those terms. I don’t have that kind of ambition. I mean you can’t strive to be a Great Writer.
Gussow: You can strive to be better.
Pinter: Always strive to be better.
And on his political views, this passage pretty much sums it up:
A few weeks ago the U.S. sent missiles on Baghdad because they said Bush’s life had been threatened last year. This was blatantly a move on Clinton’s part to say, look, I can do this too. We have a great friend here, who’s a Syrian woman, Rana Kabbani. She’s a writer. One of her great friends was an Iraqi artist, called Leila al-Attar. She also ran a museum. She’s dead. Those missiles killed her and her husband, and members of her family. The next morning Clinton was on his way to church. Asked how he felt about the missile attack, he said, ‘I feel good about it, and I’m sure the American people will feel good about it as well.’ Well, that’s great! I’m very happy that he feels good, and the American people are going to feel good, according to him. That woman is dead, and there are plenty of others. This kind of action represents a terrible doublethink. The word ‘punish’ is used; that isn’t doublethink, it’s quite direct. But claims of freedom and democracy are thrown around all over the place – and don’t forget ‘Christian values’, too. I’m very surprised by the lack of criticism of United States foreign policy in the United States press. I’m surprised there isn’t a much more rigorous scrutiny. Death has been degutted.
It is refreshing to have an artist not shy away from his political views, especially when it is to criticize the harmful and single-minded policies of authority. People should pick up the mantle of responsibility and make a change for the better when they are in a position to do so. Harold Pinter was an amazing humanitarian and a political activist who deplored death, especially senseless death.
With a new-found respect by reading his conversations in a mere 150 pages, I now look forward to reading his plays.