John Walsh: Nobel for Pinter, man who unleashed 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet'

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The prize - worth 10m krøne (£735,000) and the highest honour available to any writer in the world - was announced by the Swedish Academy yesterday. "Pinter," said the Academy's chairman, Horace Engdahl, "restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles."

He called Pinter an artist "who in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms." It's a judgement close to Pinter's own half-serious summation of what his plays are about: "The weasel under the cocktail cabinet."

The announcement was a surprise for Nobel-watchers. Pinter's name has not featured in speculative discussions among the bookish chattering classes. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who is now facing a jail sentence, was spoken of as the hottest contender, followed by the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates, the Swedish writer Tomas Transtromer, and Bob Dylan, whose career has been spectacularly revived in 2005.

Pinter is the first British author to have won the prize since the Trinidad-born novelist V S Naipaul in 2001. He has been garlanded with many previous honours, including the prestigious £30,000 David Cohen lifetime achievement award.

He refused a knighthood from John Major in 1996, saying he was "unable to accept such an honour from a Conservative government". But he accepted a Companionship of Honour from a Labour one.

His lifetime achievement - as a playwright, poet, screenwriter, polemicist and all-round stirrer-up - was celebrated last week, when a glittering throng of actors, including Michael Gambon, Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Rea and Penelope Wilton, gathered in Dublin to toast his 75th birthday on 10 October.

Pinter's career falls into three acts. Early plays, such as The Caretaker, The Birthday Party and The Homecoming, explore a world where characters move in an atmosphere of menace and threat, tremors of approaching violence ripple the surface of family relationships and everyday language is freighted with foreboding.

It's a theatre in which a vacuum cleaner on a darkened stage becomes an agent of terror, where two frightening interrogators bully an innocent man with nonsensical questions, and a young wife, brought home to meet her in-laws, is sent to work as a prostitute

The adjective "Pinteresque" derives from these days, as does the famous stage direction "Pause" which peppers his play-scripts like buckshot.

The 1960s and 1970s were taken up with film screenplays, The Servant, The Go-Between and The French Lieutenant's Woman, but also produced his most popular play, Betrayal, which was based on Pinter's affair with the broadcaster Joan Bakewell.

His later plays - One for the Road, The New World Order, Ashes to Ashes, Mountain Language, Party Time - evolved from the personal into the political, their subjects state-sponsored violence, torture, the abuse of power, the crushing of the innocent.Pinter became increasingly vocal, public and declamatory, about Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, before turning the howitzer force of his wrath on America, and her interventions in Latin America, Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq. He fulminated against the Anglo-American alliance ("The United States is a monster out of control ... The country is run by a bunch of criminal lunatics, with Blair as their hired Christian thug"), showing he had lost none of his old fire.

A large, truculent man, invariably dressed in black, he radiates a hum of intensity, a rumble of hard, masculine energy. His posh-stentorian voice tends to slam down like a jackboot on certain words, his conversation is salted with obscenities, and he tends to inspect outsiders (and journalists) with suspicion.

Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. In February this year, he said: "I think I've stopped writing plays now ... I've written 29 plays. Isn't that enough?" But typically, he crafted a new one called Voices - a patchwork of moments from his totalitarian-regime dramas, with music by James Clarke - which had its premiere on Radio 4 on his birthday. He told The Independent: "I will continue to write what I want to write until the day I die."