Joan Smith: Pinter is angry, touchy and aggressive. But good luck to him

His short fuse is the result of enduring years of press sniping
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The Independent Online

There are dozens of such stories about Pinter. But while his behaviour is extreme, I think it says something about the status of the engagé intellectual in this country, where literary success and political commitment sit uncomfortably together. Over the next few days, I've no doubt that Pinter will be mocked as much as he is congratulated, in a way that wouldn't have happened to the other rumoured candidates for the prize. In Turkey, my friend Orhan Pamuk writes controversial political novels but inspires a degree of popular affection hard to imagine being bestowed on a novelist here; once, walking in Istanbul with him late at night, I was astonished when Pamuk was approached by a reader who engaged him in lively debate about his latest novel.

The Lebanese poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa'id, who was born in Syria but moved to Lebanon in 1956) is no stranger to politics either, writing elegiacally about the Israeli invasion of his adopted country and making powerful interventions in recent debates about secularism and the veil. It may not be an accident that both come from a part of the world where writers risk imprisonment, the fate facing Pamuk if he is found guilty of "denigrating Turkish identity" at a trial in Istanbul on 16 December. I don't know if this is why they are taken more seriously than intellectuals here, but I suspect Pinter's short fuse and acute sensitivity to criticism are in some measure the result of enduring years of sniping from the right-wing press.

The problem is that such defensiveness fuels a pugilistic atmosphere, to the point where intellectuals sometimes undermine the causes dearest to them. Others just like a brawl, as anyone will be aware who heard the staggeringly awful debate about the Iraq war between Christopher Hitchens and the Respect MP George Galloway. Several friends switched off the debate when it was on Radio 4, horrified by what it must have conveyed about British intellectual life to its original American audience.

This is a sad state of affairs, guaranteed to ensure that the standing of writers and public intellectuals remains lower than in other countries. It has another distressing consequence, which is that embattled intellectuals sometimes launch intemperate attacks on people whose political sympathies differ from theirs by a whisker. I experienced this four years ago when I made a speech about freedom of expression at an international gathering of authors in London, only to be denounced by Pinter when he went up to accept an award.

My offence, apparently, was failing to single out Turkey as a major human rights abuser and speaking approvingly of the Foreign Office, which had been helpful in cases involving writers imprisoned abroad. The episode had two curious consequences, one of which was being accosted by strangers at literary festivals who'd heard a garbled version of the story and wanted to know what I'd done to upset Tom Stoppard. The other was the arrival a week later, by despatch rider, of a handwritten letter of apology from Pinter. It's at the back of a drawer somewhere, and the only one I'm likely to receive from a Nobel prize winner.

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