Oct. 10, 2011

Lost Childhood

by David Ignatow

How was it possible, I a father
yet a child of my father? I
grew panicky and thought
of running away but knew
I would be scorned for it
by my father. I stood
and listened to myself
being called Dad.

How ridiculous it sounded,
but in front of me, asking
for attention—how could I,
a child, ignore this child's plea?
I lifted him into my arms
and hugged him as I would have
wanted my father to hug me,
and it was as though satisfying
my own lost childhood.

"Lost Childhood" by David Ignatow, from Against the Evidence: Selected and New Poems 1934-1994. © Wesleyan University Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Columbus Day. On October 12th, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on an island in what is now the Bahamas.

For hundreds of years, Europeans had traded with China and India along the Silk Road, an overland trade route that ran through Central Asia. The Mongol Empire controlled the land all the way from the Middle East to China, and under Mongol rule the Silk Road was safe to travel — that was the era when Marco Polo traveled to China to meet Kublai Kahn. But the Mongol Empire dissolved, and the Ottoman Empire invaded Constantinople in 1453 and blocked European access to trade routes. No more silk, spices, tea, porcelain, ivory, or opium. So European leaders invested in trying to find a new trade route to Asia. Most explorers were heading east, traveling down and around South Africa. Columbus wanted to head west.

It is a common myth that Columbus persevered in the face of a society that thought the earth was flat. In fact, just about all educated Europeans knew that the earth was spherical. King Ferdinand of Spain was skeptical of Columbus not because Ferdinand thought the earth was flat, but because he thought Columbus was way off in his theory of the earth's circumference, and that Asia was much further west than Columbus had calculated. Ferdinand was correct, of course, but eventually he and his wife Isabella changed their minds, and sponsored Columbus. He sailed from Spain on August 3rd, 1492, with three ships: the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta.

In the early morning hours of October 12th, the captain of the Pinta, Juan Alonso Pinzón, spotted land. Ferdinand and Isabella had promised a lifetime pension to the first person to spot land, so Columbus claimed that he had actually seen light the night before, but delayed the announcement until he was sure. So Columbus got the pension, and Pinzón didn't get anything. The island they landed on is part of what is now the Bahamas, but Columbus was convinced he had made it to Asia, and called the indigenous people "Indians."

It's the birthday of novelist R.K. Narayan (books by this author), born in what is now Chennai, India (1906). He said: "Everyone thinks he's a writer with a mission. Myself, absolutely not. I write only because I'm interested in a type of character and I'm amused mostly by the seriousness with which each man takes himself."

It's the birthday of playwright Harold Pinter (books by this author), born in London (1930). He described the neighborhood of his childhood: "It was a working-class area — some big, run-down Victorian houses and a soap factory with a terrible smell and a lot of railway yards." His father was a tailor who worked long days. Pinter said: "At least when he got home, my mother always cooked him a very good dinner. Lots of potatoes, I remember; he used to knock them down like a dose of salts. He needed it, after a 12-hour day. So we were not well-off in any way — he was a working man and that was it."

During World War II, Harold was evacuated from London to stay with 24 other boys in a castle in Cornwall. But he missed his family, and it was expensive for them to house him in Cornwall, so he moved back to London while the war was still raging. He was about 13 years old when he woke in the middle of the night to find that his house had been hit by a bomb. His family all escaped, and Pinter took two items with him: a cricket bat and a love poem he was writing to a girl down the street.

Pinter published his first poem when he was 20, and for the next few years he tried it all: wrote a novel, acted in a touring Shakespeare company, and started writing plays. His first inspiration for drama came unexpectedly. He said: "I was at a party in a house and I was taken for some reason or other to be introduced to a man who lived on the top floor, or an upper floor, and went into his room. He was a slender, middle-aged man in bare feet who was walking about the room. Very sociable and pleasant, and he was making bacon and eggs for an enormous man who was sitting at the table, who was totally silent. And he made his bacon and eggs, and cut bread, and poured tea and gave it to this fellow who was reading a comic. And in the meantime he was talking to us — very, very quickly and lightly. We only had about five minutes but something like that remained. I told a friend I'd like to write a play, there's some play here. And then it all happened." What happened was that Pinter got a call from his friend Henry Woolf. Woolf said he had one week to find a play to direct at the University of Bristol, and he was hoping Pinter might write one. Pinter laughed at him and said he couldn't possibly write a play in less than six months, and then immediately wrote his first play, The Room (1957), in just four days. It's the story of a couple, Rose and Bert, living in a room in a rundown boardinghouse. Their room seems like a warm retreat from the world outside, but from the beginning things are not right. During the first section of the play, Rose talks to Bert nonstop without receiving a single reply — she answers her own questions while he eats the breakfast she serves him. Then the landlord comes in, and he and Rose talk for a while, while Bert continues to say nothing. Finally, Bert leaves to go to work, and several strangers end up in their room, including a blind black man. When Bert returns, he finds the blind man so threatening that he explodes in violence — after a long monologue, he beats the man, possibly killing him. The play ends with Rose crying out that she can't see.

The Room was performed to a small audience at the University of Bristol. Pinter was terrified during the entire performance. He said: "Since I'd never written a play before, I'd of course never seen one of mine performed, never had an audience sitting there. The only people who'd ever seen what I'd written had been a few friends and my wife. So to sit in the audience — well, I wanted to piss very badly throughout the whole thing, and at the end I dashed out behind the bicycle shed."

Despite how uncomfortable the performance made him, he immediately started work on his second play, The Birthday Party (1958). It's the story of a man named Stanley who is staying with a middle-aged couple, Meg and Petey, in an English seaside town. Two strangers appear, sinister men who try to take Stanley away and make mysterious references to his betrayal of some sort of organization. The play centers on a birthday party Meg throws for Stanley, despite Stanley's repeated claims that it isn't even his birthday. In the end, Stanley is hauled off by the two strangers. When The Birthday Party opened in London, it was a total failure. Critics panned it, no one went to see it, and it closed after eight performances. Today it is considered a classic.

Pinter's plays always have an undercurrent of menace, and on top of that, information about characters never really lines up — characters all contradict each other and blur facts, and it's hard to tell who is lying, or for what reason. After he wrote The Birthday Party, Pinter got a letter in the mail that read: "Dear Sir: I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your play, The Birthday Party. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are the two men? 2. Where did Stanley come from? 3. Were they all supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your play." Pinter wrote back: "Dear Madam: I would be obliged if you would kindly explain to me the meaning of your letter. These are the points which I do not understand: 1. Who are you? 2. Where do you come from? 3. Are you supposed to be normal? You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions, I cannot fully understand your letter."

Harold Pinter's writing style is so distinctive — the sinister mood, the long pauses, the characters who all have different versions of the same event — that he actually has an adjective named after him, "Pinteresque." The Guardian defined it as "a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace"; The New York Times as "a byword for strong and unspecified menace"; The Financial Times as"full of dark hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what to conclude." Margaret Atwood described it: "A comet, but a comet shaped like hedgehog or a blur, not a cosy presence: not comforting, not cuddly, nor flannel. Prickly, bothersome, mordant and dour. Always unexpected, coming on you sideways with an alarming glare." You can find even find "Pinteresque" in the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it: "Typically characterized by implications of threat and strong feeling produced through colloquial language, apparent triviality, and long pauses." Pinter, for his own part, said: "I can't define what it is myself. You use the term 'menace' and so on. I have no explanation of any of that really. What I write is what I write."

Pinter wrote 29 plays, including The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1964), Betrayal (1978), A Kind of Alaska (1982), and Celebration (2000). He died in 2008, at the age of 78.

He said: "How can you write a happy play? Drama is about conflict and general degrees of perturbation, disarray. I've never been able to write a happy play, but I've been able to enjoy a happy life."

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