Whenever I get stuck with a piece of writing, when I have an idea but am unconvinced by my attempts to resolve it, I turn to the masters on my bookshelves for advice.
Always generous, always wise, eternally insightful, the books they have written and which I hold dear never fail to provide inspiration, sometimes usefully diverting me down another path so that I can return to my own with renewed hope.
This is how I recently found myself in the company of Harold Pinter, seeking guidance on the art of conversation.
The classic “Pinteresque pause”, the stammers and the gaps that he orchestrates between his characters’, have occasionally been misinterpreted as a sign of how we generally fail to communicate, to say what we mean, to articulate our thoughts.
However, in a speech that Pinter gave at the National Student Drama Festival in Bristol in 1962, which I rediscovered in an old collection of his plays, he lamented this “tired, grimy” idea:
“I believe the contrary. I think that we communicate only too well, in our silence, in what is unsaid, and that what takes place is a continual evasion, desperate rearguard attempts to keep ourselves to ourselves. Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else’s life is too frightening. To disclose to others the poverty within us is too fearsome possibility.”
It’s this “constant stratagem to cover nakedness” that concerned Pinter. He knew, and his work artfully demonstrated, that conversations are not always open exchanges but stunted dialogues. Staccato exchanges on parallel lines, where there is more meaning in the things left unsaid than the things we pretend to share.
Throughout his speech – and in his plays – Pinter rejected the idea that dialogue should be straightforward, that endings should contain resolutions, that life should be neat and orderly, even that words should come easily and make any explicit sense.
On the latter point, Pinter referred to deriving a certain pleasure from watching words appear on the page, but at the same time, of how intensely he felt their nauseating weight:
“Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale dead terminology; ideas endlessly repeated and permutated become platitudinous, trite, meaningless.”