Pinter is unexpected winner of Nobel for literature

Enigmatic Briton is hailed as the foremost playwright of the second half of the 20th century


When Harold Pinter was a teenager in post-World War II England, he was threatened every day by a gang of boys who lurked in the rough London neighborhood of Hackney.

"They were holding broken milk bottles," says Pinter scholar Steven Gale. "He wore glasses and he was carrying a pile of books. To them, he either was a Jew or a communist, and they didn't care which it was. He had to talk his way past them every day. Never once did he get hurt."

Pinter, who turned 75 on Monday, hasn't stopped talking since.

Yesterday, Pinter's powerful, enigmatic words - collected into 29 plays, 21 screenplays and numerous books of poetry and essays - won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

On its Web site, the Swedish Academy describes Pinter as the foremost playwright of the second half of the 20th century and cites the palpable sense of doom that hangs over his best work. "In his plays [Pinter] uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle, and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms," the awards committee writes.

"I'm just bowled over," Pinter said in an interview posted on the Web site. "I've been absolutely speechless."

Pinter's most frequently produced plays include The Birthday Party (1957), The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965) and Betrayal (1978). The latter, the story of an affair told in reverse, was made into a 1983 film starring Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge.

Pinter is one of just a handful of playwrights who have captured the literary world's top prize in its 102-year history and the first since Italian Dario Fo was awarded the Nobel in 1997. (No American writer has received the Literature Prize since Toni Morrison in 1993.)

The choice of Pinter surprised nearly everyone. He was not mentioned on the short lists of candidates that were floated in recent weeks in literary circles. His selection seems designed to avoid the controversy that surrounded last year's literature prize in which some judges objected on artistic grounds to the choice of Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek.

Pinter's selection also allows the Nobel academy to implicitly criticize American foreign policy. The playwright publicly linked U.S. behavior abroad with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More recently, he repeatedly has denounced the war in Iraq.

The first hint that there was no overwhelming favorite this year came earlier this month. The panel announced that the literary award would be delayed at least a week after most of the other Nobels were given out. According to the London newspaper The Guardian, the literature committee reportedly was torn over the candidacy of dissident Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.

Other names tossed about included Americans Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood and Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said. As recently as yesterday, at least one British oddsmaker listed Oates as the 7-to-1 favorite.

There even were rumors that the panel might award the prize to a nonfiction writer.

Just yesterday, one judge quit the literature panel in protest over the 2004 choice of Jelinek. Swedish author Knut Ahnlund described her work as "unenjoyable, violent pornography" but did not explain why he waited to resign until a full year after Jelinek's award was announced.

In selecting Pinter, the committee chose a literary lion and an heir to the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, himself a Nobel winner in 1966. Frequently, Pinter is grouped with other playwrights of Theatre of the Absurd: Beckett, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco.

Pinter was born on Oct. 10, 1930, the son of a Jewish tailor who lived in London's East End. When World War II broke out, the 9-year-old boy was shipped out of the country. He returned five years later. The wartime experience imbued Pinter with a sense of impending doom. He later said: "The condition of being bombed has never left me."

Pinter, whose first career was acting (he still performs from time to time), discovered his true calling in 1957, when in four days he threw together a play called One Room for Bristol University in England. It captured the eye of a London critic, and Pinter's career was launched.

The plays that Pinter wrote in the 1960s and 1970s frequently are described as "comedies of menace." "He may be the best English-language playwright of the 20th century," says Gale, a professor of humanities at Kentucky State University and the author of five books about Pinter's work.

The playwright strips dialogue and action to the bare minimum. His characters usually are trapped in one room - and, by implication, the audience is trapped with them. Characters typically launch into absurd stories about, for example, a street that is easy to find but impossible to leave, or recollect in great detail events that never occurred.

As one character reminisces in Old Times: "There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened."

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