As even the most respectful tributes have been forced to acknowledge, Harold Pinter was not an easy man. The rage that animated his work for 50 years could also manifest itself in his personal life. He did not suffer fools gladly, and was likely to answer an innocent "Good morning" with the demand to know what was so bloody good about it.
Yet this anger was underscored by a fervent belief in justice. From his early psychological dramas to the late political plays, the imaginary world he created is unspeakably unjust. His characters say and do horrendous things to each other and get away with it. "I've never been able to write a happy play," he said; and a happy ending tagged on to any of his works would be as ridiculous as Nahum Tate's rewrite of King Lear, in which Lear survives and Cordelia marries Edgar.
There is no possibility of such redemption in any of Pinter's plays. Yet it is this impotence which makes his work so distinct, and is why the Pinteresque condition so closely resembles the Kafkaesque.
Unlike Kafka, however, Pinter took his passion for justice on to the streets, and into decades of campaigning on behalf of English PEN and other human rights organisations. The world he created in his plays was chaotic and unjust, but his political life was driven by a commitment to the possibility of change.
In his 2005 Nobel lecture, he recalled the belief he had held as a young writer that there are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal. Now, in his seventies, he said: "I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask, what is true, what is false?"
These two halves to his identity – the relativist writer and the activist citizen – seem to sit oddly beside one another, but for Pinter they were integrated into a coherent whole. He spent part of his life describing injustice in the form of theatrical unreality, and another part attempting to create justice through human rights campaigning. Each part was motivated by the passionate empathy that he felt for the outsider, even when he became a feted man of letters and a member of the literary aristocracy.
Pinter became intimately involved in the work of PEN around the time that his wife, Antonia Fraser, was elected president of English PEN in 1988. He had already joined Arthur Miller on a PEN mission to Turkey in March 1985, when they were guided around Istanbul by a young – and then little known – novelist called Orhan Pamuk. Years later, when he succeeded Pinter as the Nobel laureate in literature, Pamuk recalled how this meeting – at a time when Turkey was blighted by censorship, and writers and other dissidents were being tortured in police cells – had shown him that "a consoling solidarity among writers was possible".
Pinter maintained this commitment to human rights in general, and the plight of Turkish writers in particular, until the end of his life. Two years ago he turned up on his walking stick on a freezing cold January afternoon outside the Turkish embassy for a vigil in memory of Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor who had been shot dead in Istanbul.
He was in poor health but he stood in the cold for 40 minutes, surrounded by admirers who couldn't believe that one of the most famous writers in the world had joined their demonstration. He departed as quietly as he had arrived, climbing awkwardly into a taxi. His presence did more than anything else to galvanise those of us who were there, and contributed to the pressure on the Turkish authorities to bring Dink's killers to justice.
A few days later I saw him again in a very different setting, at an English PEN dinner in his honour at Cumberland Lodge, where Lindsay Duncan, Michael Pennington and Alan Rickman read from his plays and poems and a glittering guest list sat down to dinner. Pinter rounded off the evening with an excoriating speech against the human rights abuses of George Bush and Tony Blair. His voice had by now taken on the hoarse quality which gave his every utterance the air of oracular authority, and we shifted uncomfortably in our seats.
The last time I saw Pinter he was in the audience for an extraordinary play called Being Harold Pinter, devised by the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group from Minsk. For the gala performance, an ensemble of famous British and American actors swapped with the cast to read from the testimony of Belarussian dissidents who had been imprisoned and tortured. These readings formed a powerful conclusion to an evening which was otherwise made entirely of Pinter's own words, taken from his plays and the Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Pinter, however, wasn't impressed, deploring the use of Western stars in this way, which he saw as a distraction from the work of the Belarussian actors.
It was characteristic of him to be noisily discontent at the dinner and grumbling at the gala but quiet in his support of a fellow writer of conscience at the demo. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other outsiders, he was part of something bigger than himself, whereas grandiosity, even when it was conjured up in his honour, clearly made him uncomfortable.
Pinter famously called speech "a constant stratagem to cover nakedness", and it seemed that he used it to cover his own essential shyness, and the feeling of being the outsider which lasted throughout his life.
Jonathan Heawood is director of English PEN. www.englishpen.orgReuse content