Motiveless Malignity

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Dwarfs by Harold Pinter
    Faber, 183 pp, £11.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 571 14446 2
  • The Comfort of Strangers, and Other Screenplays by Harold Pinter
    Faber, 226 pp, £14.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 14419 5
  • The Circus Animals by James Plunkett
    Hutchinson, 305 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 09 173530 0
  • The South by Colm Toibin
    Serpent’s Tail, 238 pp, £7.99, May 1990, ISBN 1 85242 170 3

Ever since 1958, when his play The Birthday Party opened in London, Harold Pinter has been admired by the judicious for the witty realism of his dialogue and the engrossing mystery of his omissions – particularly his omission of motive, his blank refusal to explain why: why his characters are behaving so weirdly, why they are saying such terrible things. He had written a novel, The Dwarfs, in the early Fifties, before he began writing plays, but he did not offer it for publication: he turned part of it into a play (with the same title) which was, he now says, ‘quite abstract, mainly, I believe, because I omitted the essential character of Virginia from it’. Last year, he went back to his old novel and prepared it for its present publication, mainly by cutting it down: despite the omissions, there is not quite so much mystery as usual about the motivation of the principal characters, Virginia and the three young men, Pete, Len and Mark, all Hackney people. Being of the same generation as Pinter and, like him, a London grammar-school boy, I claim to understand these young people of the Fifties, to recognise them with a sort of nostalgia, to take pleasure in their realistic conversations, their cross-talk or stichomythia.

Much of this novel is laid out like a playscript, vertically. To illustrate, I need to quote a long, thin stretch:

  – If I’m a ponce, Mark said, I’m my own ponce. I’m nobody else’s ponce. I live and operate in my own life.
  – You can’t live safely tucked up in a test tube.
  – You’re off the beam.
  – Your danger, Mark, is that you might become nothing but an attitude.
  – Not while I’ve still got balls, mate.
  – They won’t save you. They might drop off.
  – I keep them well oiled.
  – Look. What I’m objecting to is that you tend to take a bit of a holiday in between times.
  – If I do, they’re not with pay. I fork out …
  – Listen, Mark snapped. It’s about time I told you people something else – for your own good.
  – What?
  – Did you know I was born circumcised?
  – What!
  – The geezer came along with the carving-knife to do the necessary and nearly dropped dead with the shock. They had to give him a double brandy on the house. He thought I was the Messiah.
  – Well, Len asked, own up. Are you?

This sort of realistic dialogue was uncommon in the plays and novels of the Fifties: the established authors seemed not to know, not to wish to mimic anyone who talked like that. Nowadays, television scriptwriters strive to capture the natural speech of ‘youth’ and ‘the working class’, but natural speech has been so corrupted by television that the project rolls into a vicious circle.

During that inconsequent, inconclusive conversation, Pete is tormenting Mark, in Len’s company, like a destructive interrogator. Pete Cox is an intellectual, a mighty talker, with an unsatisfying job in a City office: he seems to have been, at some time, a keen Anglican or, at least, to have taken a strong interest in the Church of England. Len is a weirder sort of intellectual, working as a railwayman at Euston, playing the violin, talking extravagantly about Bach and the Talmud: his surname seems to be Weinstein, but his chums call him Weinblatt, to irritate him. Mark Gilbert is also Jewish: he is an actor (as Pinter was, at the time) and seems, from the dialogue, to have a winning way with women. Probably, all three were at school together. Then there is Virginia, Pete’s girlfriend. She seems loyal and submissive to Pete: he has made her a dress, but he treats her wilfully and he tries to educate her up to his own standard. When she comes out with a rather dismissive critique of Hamlet, Mark is politely amused, but Pete wants her to shut up: when he gets her alone, he delivers a three-page diatribe about her folly, concluding: ‘Why are you crying?’ Not long after, Virginia takes up with Mark. She soon contrives to make Mark think ill of Pete and the two men have a serious quarrel.

Such is the plot. There seems to be no great mystery about the motivation. Readers who follow the dialogue fairly thoughtfully, noticing clues, will soon be able to visualise these four Londoners and gather what they are up to, what they are up against. Here are three young bachelors, variously frustrated, consoling themselves with overweening talk and fantasy in their own semi-private language: Virginia is just the sort of girl such men get. Interwoven with the storyline are half a dozen brief chapters about ‘the dwarfs’, written in a surrealistic manner:

  The dwarfs are back on the job … They are like kites in a city disguise; they only work in cities … They stumble in the gutters and produce their pocket-watches. One with a face of chalk chucks the dregs of the day into a bin, and seats himself on the lid. He is beginning to chew though he has not eaten …

Maybe this ‘dwarf’ fantasy is shared by all four, but I think it belongs primarily to Len, the weird and imaginative railwayman. It is like the fantasy devised by Isherwood and his friend, ‘Chalmers’, at Cambridge in the Twenties – about ‘The Other Town’, Mortmere and the Rats’ Hostel. Pinter’s ‘dwarfs’ are also like the dreadful Vodi, despoilers of life, who work for Nelly, the witch with pointed teeth, in John Braine’s best novel, The Vodi, which appeared in 1959.

Such demonic fantasies are quite common, I think, when young men are locked in a long-running conversation in, say, barrack-rooms or hospital wards. In Pinter’s case, the fantasy of ‘the dwarfs’ acts almost as film-music does, setting the mood, creating the atmosphere for a ‘comedy of menace’ (as we used to call Pinter’s plays). The Dwarfs is a haunting novel, likely to remain in my memory as The Vodi and Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows have done.

We are offered a good opportunity to compare Pinter’s original work with some of his film scripts, his adaptations of other men’s novels, in The Comfort of Strangers, and Other Screenplays. Perhaps the most interesting of these scripts is his version of Joseph Conrad’s Victory. It comes out like Pinter’s play The Birthday Party – where Goldberg, a jaunty Jew, and McCann, a morose Irishman, descended upon the reclusive Stanley in a seaside town, to demolish him with interrogations.

GOLDBERG: Don’t lie!

McCANN: You betrayed the organisation. I know him!

STANLEY: You don’t!

GOLDBERG: What can you see without your glasses?

STANLEY: Anything.

GOLDBERG: Take off his glasses …

We wondered why they were behaving like this. Was there a rational cause? Did they ‘symbolise’ something? Later on, Pinter published a poem about the plot, a sort of ballad:

Nat Goldberg, who arrived
With a smile on every face,
Accompanied by McCann,
Set a change upon the place …

This poem offered no sort of explanation: it was more like an appreciative theatre review.

In Conrad’s Victory, the reclusive Heyst, on an island near Borneo, is invaded by the British and ‘gentlemanly’ Mr Jones and his curiously Cockneyfied secretary, Ricardo, from Latin America, seeking to destroy him. Conrad has plausible reasons for this incursion – which Pinter plays down. Conrad also offers the invaders a ‘symbolic’ status. Heyst says of Jones and Ricardo (with their brutish Amerindian servant): ‘Here they are, the envoys of the outer world – evil intelligence, instinctive savagery, arm in arm. The brute force is at the back …’ Pinter’s adaptation omits this passage. It is the scene that he likes, not the explanations, the rationalisations. This script could certainly have made a good film: it was intended for Richard Lester in 1982, but ‘the finances were never found.’

The other three film scripts have become real movies. One of them, The Comfort of Strangers, is another macabre: it adapts Ian McEwan’s novel about an Italian sadist and his subservient wife capturing and destroying two English holiday-makers in Venice. McEwan offered a ‘psychological’ reason for this motiveless malignity: it is an implausible reason, very nasty, and Pinter has kept it in the script. Then, taken more gravely by both reader and adaptor, there’s a version of Fred Uhlman’s Reunion, a story about a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany: the history of that place, I believe, has had a strong effect on Pinter’s fiction and drama, his ‘comedies of menace’ – with the lack of reasonable motive, the spiteful stupidity of the interrogations, the gross and vulgar clownishness of the menace. This script is quite moving to read.

James Plunkett’s The Circus Animals may fairly be called a traditional novel, very skilful and good-hearted, quite challenging. It is bound to be a widely-read paperback, possibly an admired and popular television adaptation, like Plunkett’s celebrated Strumpet City: we would not want Pinter to pare it down, concentrating on its more sinister images. It is set in the Fifties, but in an Irish environment, quite different from Pinter’s Hackney, very conscious of politics and the Roman Catholic Church, their virtues as well as their little meannesses: the revival of the IRA is unimagined, unimaginable. We are concerned with Frank McDonagh, a young journalist who becomes a bogey-figure in the Dublin media, through taking part in a broad-minded, fact-finding tour of the Soviet Union: the bien-pensants of Dublin are presented as rather sympathetic to the Irish-American Senator, Joseph McCarthy. Another problem for Frank – and his wife – lies in the Church’s attitude to artificial contraception. Fortunately, Plunkett does not devote excessive space to this well-worn topic: more important perhaps, more painful and even tragic, than the Jewish attitude to pork or the Islamic attitude to alcohol, the problem is very boring to most non-Catholics.

This novel is never boring. Just as interesting as young Frank is his old family friend, Lemuel Cox, a septuagenarian bachelor, mourning a lost love. Through Lemuel’s memories, we are taken back to a 19th-century and Edwardian Ireland, to years which James Plunkett (though born in 1920) seems to view with an informed, experienced nostalgia, easily communicated to the reader. The years of Lemuel’s youth are presented as convincingly as the heyday of young Frank, half a century later: the different periods are interwoven with great skill, so that there are no jolts or tangles. Characters are so religious, so other-worldly, that the reader keeps expecting something supernatural to happen. Something of the sort does occur, most persuasively – but, of course, the event might be Lemuel’s hallucination.

The most compelling passages concern Lemuel’s courtship (of a Protestant girl, incidentally, though there seems to have been no problem) and the death of the girl in an accident, to be mirrored, fifty years later, by Lemuel’s own death. These moments are, for us now, far more touching than Dickens’s essays in that direction – but Plunkett resembles him in his ability to turn from pathos to broad comedy, closely-observed working lives, clowns, and denunciations of humbug. The circus animals have not deserted this traditional, old-fashioned novelist. Curiously, in an Irish novel, the title does not seem to refer to Yeats’s poem: it hints rather at a vision of human life as a busy, beautiful entertainment, cruelly disciplined.

The South is another Irish novel much concerned with sojourning abroad, the dangers and the alienation. We are in the Fifties again (Colm Toibin was born in 1955), concerned not with Communist Russia but with Fascist Spain. The artistic Katherine has abandoned her husband and ten-year-old son in Ireland and escaped to Barcelona. Her widowed mother, who now lives in London, had made a similar break, deserting her husband during Katherine’s childhood: now she provides the funds for Katherine, self-exiled in Spain, one ‘bolter’ subsidising another. The old lady takes Katherine for a holiday in Portugal: the mother seems very conscious of herself as being a lady among the locals, a settler among the natives. She had been somewhat ‘alienated’ from her neighbours in her native Ireland, referring to them as ‘the RCs from the village’: she is of land-owning stock, Protestant, Church of Ireland. We discover that Katherine has something of her mother’s attitude to rural Ireland. When she was a little girl, ‘the RCs from the village’ came round to burn her father’s big house.

This Irish history is brought out with careful slowness, during a narrative about Spain. Colm Toibin begins his story with the solitary Katherine trying to make friends in Barcelona, joining a painters’ class: she takes up with Miguel, an artist who had fought on the Republican side, burning up enemies’ big houses – but now liable to be beaten up by Franco’s police. They settle in the Pyrenees, where Miguel quarrels with locals and Katherine bears him a daughter: dreadful things happen to them, coldly reported. Katherine returns to Ireland – to meet her long-abandoned son and to sniff at the in-laws: he has married one of the RCs from the village. The story is told with spare, simple elegance, from Katherine’s point of view. She certainly has a painter’s eye, but she is not one to discuss motivation or to make connections – between Ireland and Spain, for instance, with their civil wars: the reader must do that. We may be reminded of Pinter’s ‘no-explanation’ characters, not the jaunty Goldberg, but the morose McCann.