This week's Spectator has Rod Liddle sticking his oar in:
There’s no escape,
The big pricks are out,
They’ll f*** everything in sight,
Watch your back.
- Harold Pinter, February 2003
Read much Heinrich Böll recently? German novelist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, the short citation crediting him with reviving the German literary tradition. Böll was a favourite writer of mine for a long time, but I don’t know anybody else who still reads him — or who read him very much at the time. I would fight his corner and argue that the arid and rather cold The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum is a clever and moving little novel and that one or two of his other stories — The End of a Mission, The Train was on Time — are well worth a look. They all deal with issues which were very fashionable in 1972 — the overweening power of the state and its inherent brutality, the viciousness that lurks behind Western democracy, together with a distinct sympathy for the extreme left-wing terrorists who were, at that time, blowing up bits of Germany and indeed Germans. Böll was very, very left-wing and the Nobel Prize people were, at that time, going through a very, very left-wing phase — the previous year they had awarded the laureate to that vastly over-rated Chilean Stalinist, Pablo Neruda.
And now the Nobel committee have handed the prize to our own Harold Pinter, probably the most deserving recipient in the last 20 years. But the question is, did they give him the award for those wonderful plays of nearly 50 years ago — or for that poem printed at the head of this article, and which was written a couple of years back?
I have absolutely no doubt that Harold Pinter has been by some margin Britain’s greatest gift to literature since the Second World War. (The only British writer who comes close, in my opinion, is J.G. Ballard.) For me there’s no merit in that age old debate, which play was the greater — Look Back in Anger or The Birthday Party; Osborne was a fine playwright, but all that nihilistic raging had begun to seem a little de trop even within the decade. The elliptical dialogue, the seething tension, the claustrophobia of Pinter’s plays are still to be found in all the best drama today: he changed the theatre for good. Between 1957 and 1960, he churned out a total of nine quite magnificent plays, including The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Caretaker. What an achievement! But back then, the Cold War was getting interesting and therefore the Nobel Prize committee bestowed the 1958 award on Boris Pasternak because they thought it would get up the noses of the Russkies, which indeed it did. Has there ever been a less deserving winner?
Pinter has written well since 1960, but never so well. Arguably, his last important play was No Man’s Land, in 1974 — 30 years ago — but they gave him the award now. Is it stretching credulity to suggest that the Nobel people were more impressed by Pinter’s recent, implacable and vociferous denunciations of American foreign policy, as exemplified in that four-line doggerel above? Pinter is now a poet, although, one might argue, not a terrifically good one. His worldwide fame now rests upon his bellowed assaults upon Bush and Blair (with which I am in agreement, most of the time): is this what clinched it for Pinter?
As we’ve seen, the Nobel Prize for Literature is an intensely political business, as a cursory glance down the list of winners will attest. We could pass over those nominations which, by today’s lights, seem a strange lapse in taste and judgment — Galsworthy, for example and maybe Elias Canetti: that’s down to hindsight. But the purely politically inspired awards are less forgivable. By no stretch of the imagination did Sir Winston Churchill deserve the prize in 1953. He deserved our undying gratitude, undoubtedly — but not an award for writing. Fun though History of the English-Speaking Peoples is — 2,000 years of history reduced to battle after battle after battle — its merit lies in its love of the subject and Winnie’s undoubted enthusiasm rather than any analysis. Neruda, Böll and Pasternak were plainly politically inspired decisions, to which we might add the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who would never have been given the honour if the committee members had known just how horribly right- wing he really was, underneath that magnificent beard. Incidentally, the same might be said of the Norwegian, Knut Hamsun, awarded the prize in 1920 before anyone had a chance to see just how enthusiastic a Nazi he could be.
More recently, the Nobel people have been flinging the prize, almost willy-nilly, at black people. We might just about grant them Toni Morrison, but there is really no excuse for Derek Walcott. Nor, on a similar subject, Nadine Gordimer: the end of apartheid in South Africa had more to do with her award than the excruciating prose to be found within her books.
And then there are the regrettable absentees. John Updike, by my reckoning, is a better writer than all bar one (Bellow) of the Americans on the list — and ten times better than Sinclair Lewis — but he may never be forgiven for his support of the war against Vietnam or his moderate, quiescent, Democrat politics. And one of the last century’s greatest writers, Louis- Ferdinand Céline, would never have been allowed near the list, given his unpalatable right-wing and anti-Semitic politics. Trouble is, the most ghastly people sometimes write the most exquisite prose.
I suppose there is a case for saying that literature should not be seen in isolation from the real world; that the political sensibilities and motivations of our greatest writers are indivisible from their literary accomplishments; that one informs the other, and so on. But this is a dangerous argument. One ends up suspecting that the Nobel committee would not bestow its laureate upon anyone who possessed political views with which they disagreed.
Still, all in all, we should rejoice: this time around the Nobel committee has got it right, even if they have got it right for what may seem like the wrong reasons. And who knows, perhaps the big pricks really are out and we should all do as Harold suggests and watch our backs.