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Turning memory into menace

John Campbell, reading the biography he was once slated to write, finds unexpected personal echoes in the work of ''an all-round man of the theatre''; The Life and Work of Harold Pinter by Michael Billington, Faber pounds 20
Four years ago I wanted to write a biography of Harold Pinter. Just for a moment he nibbled at the idea, then declined to help. I got as far as approaching some of his friends, but he warned them off. To discourage me from persisting he suggested to his publishers that they ask the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington to write a book - not a biography, it was firmly stated, but a critical study, with some biographical assistance.

Pinter chose well. It is an outstandingly good book. More nearly a full- blown biography, I suspect, than he initially agreed to, but Billington evidently gained his confidence and persuaded him to talk - not so unguardedly as Robert Runcie, but certainly more freely than he has ever done before - and to let others talk. By modern standards it is an unusually tactful biography. The title precisely describes the balance between life and criticism: Billington probes the life only so far as it illuminates the work, not for its own sake. Thus we learn remarkably little about Pinter's parents, and not much about the long painful deterioration of his marriage to Vivien Merchant or his alienation from their son. But we do learn a lot that throws new light on the plays: Billington is the first critic to make use of Pinter's archive which he recently gave to the British Library. Pinter should be very happy with his pre-emptive strike.

Memory has become an increasingly explicit theme in Pinter's work since the mid-Sixties. But it was always clear that even the early plays were rooted in the soil of his own life. He was an only child, but raised in a large and extrovert extended family. His childhood idyll was shattered by evacuation. But his really formative years were his teens, just after the war, when he fell in with a precociously intellectual gang of mainly Jewish friends at Hackney Downs School: together they explored Lawrence, Kafka and Dostoevsky, Pound, Bunuel and all the daring paths of modernism in literature, music and film, encouraged by an inspiring teacher called Joe Brearley. This world of intense male comradeship disturbed by sexual rivalry was the subject of Pinter's only novel, The Dwarfs, written in the early Fifties. Even before this, in 1949, he had written an unpublished prose poem, "Kullus", which astonishingly anticipates the themes of his mature work.

More specifically, most of his later plays turn out to have their origin in real life: sometimes it is just an unexplained image which triggered his imagination, sometimes a more conscious process of transmutation. His very first play, The Room, sprang from a glimpse of two strange people in a room (one of whom was Quentin Crisp); The Hothouse (written in 1958, though not staged till 1980) stemmed from his experience as a guinea-pig (for ten bob a time) at the Maudsley Hospital; Old Times, written in 1970, recalls Bohemian days sharing flats in Chelsea and Fulham 20 years before. The characters of Aston and Davies in The Caretaker were based on real individuals who lived in the same house as Pinter and Vivien on Chiswick High Road; the starting-point of The Homecoming was one of Pinter's Hackney gang who married a Gentile girl, emigrated to Canada and kept his marriage secret from his Jewish family; while Billington's well-trailed "scoop" is the revelation that Betrayal has nothing to do with Antonia Fraser, but is based on Pinter's much earlier affair with Joan Bakewell.

The knowledge of their origins does not demystify the plays; it only increases one's admiration for the way Pinter transmutes memory into art. The power of his writing always stemmed from its specificity: the nature of the famous menace might be unexplained, but the setting (particularly of the early plays) was always chillingly realistic, the characters precisely placed in terms of class and speech. It is this social precision which makes Pinter, to my mind, so much more disturbing than the depersonalised abstraction of Beckett or the absurdity of Ionesco. It is typical that Pinter's screenplay of Kafka's The Trial sets the book meticulously in its period, eschewing the windy expressionism of earlier film treatments.

The plays' power derives, secondarily, from Pinter's old-fashioned craftsmanship. Billington is not the first to show how Pinter's mastery of suspense, interrogation scenes and comic crosstalk draws on his years of acting in third-rate whodunits in weekly rep up and down the country in the Fifties. But much of Pinter's strength lies in his admiration for the work of superficially very different writers like Coward and Rattigan, who in turn admired him. In recent years he has tended to act only in his own plays; but he is a scrupulous director of other people's plays. He has also written 22 screenplays, the best of which rank with his original stage work. He has an uncanny capacity to make other writer's books - The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between to name just three - unmistakably his own, without distorting them. The point is that he has become and remained an all-round man of the theatre, with several strings to his bow and always busy. Again the comparison is with Coward or Ayckbourn, professionals and survivors, by contrast with contemporaries like Osborne, Wesker and Nichols - pure writers whose careers dried up when inspiration flagged. Billington suggests that Hirst in No Man's Land - the character Pinter himself played at the Almeida in 1994 - is a nightmare vision of what he might become if he stopped working.

He has found writing increasingly hard since at least 1967; his subconscious does not produce to order. When an image suddenly crystallizes he writes very fast. But his stage works in recent years have been both shorter and slighter. The explicitly political One for the Road, Mountain Language and Party Time were scarcely more than brutal sketches; Moonlight and Ashes to Ashes return to the theme of memory, but with some loss of dramatic tension and an element of self-plagiarism (even self-parody). Billington makes a strong case for these later pieces - relating Moonlight to Pinter's estrangement from his son - but he does not fully explore the impact of his second marriage. It seems unquestionable that Vivien was in some senses his muse; though he denies consciously writing parts for her, she remains the essential Pinter woman. The tensions of that marriage - which lasted 20 years - produced all his great plays; Antonia Fraser has given him a new happiness and security, but something has gone out of his work.

Meanwhile Billington has written far and away the most authoritative critique of Pinter's work so far. Though occasionally repetitive, it is beautifully written; time and again his insight, sensitivity and wide frame of theatrical reference sheds new understanding on the most difficult plays. The pity is that it will be read largely by those who already admire Pinter, rather than those who still find him pretentious or obscure. But the recent spate of revivals suggests that the doubters are in retreat - for my money he already ranks with Ibsen and Chekhov.