Must You Go?

My Life with Harold Pinter

By Antonia Fraser

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 328 pp. $28.95

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Reviewed by Howard Shapiro


Before we get into the matter at hand, a sweet look at a limelit marriage that offers insight even as it opens a revealing window, consider these last lines of a love poem:

You turn, and touch the light of me.

You smile, your eyes become my sweetest dream of you.

Oh sweetest love,

My heart is not a beat away from you.

So, who knew? The late Harold Pinter - among the iconic playwrights of our era, a man who could illuminate the notions of self-destruction, general malice, self-defense, control, resistance, and all manner of human lapses in sparse, dark, and pummeling English - who knew this same, often absurdist Harold Pinter was a romantic?

Well, he was. The lines above are from a poem Pinter wrote to the noted biographer and novelist Antonia Fraser, weeks after their first conversation at the tail end of a dinner party to mark the 1975 London revival of Pinter's The Birthday Party. Fraser was there because her sister's husband, Kevin Billington, directed the production and because of the cultural reality of British class: She belonged there. Her husband, Hugh, was a member of Parliament; she herself was a lady - the daughter of an earl and a countess.

If this reasoning is all very British, so are some of the everyday references that flow in and out of Must You Go?, an extraordinary look into one rich love and the lives of the famous and well-heeled.

Whatever else Must You Go? provides - a little Bianca Jagger here, a nonchalant reference to lunch with the prime minister's wife there, partying with Sir John Gielgud, lunching with Jude Law - by the end, the Fraser/Pinter family's place in rarefied circles has become a given, and we get to understand the dynamics of a couple whose life partnership is ever-evolving.

Specifically, we understand Pinter as a person. A triumph of Fraser's book - she is the author of Jemima Shore detective thrillers and of meticulously researched biographies of royals long past, including Marie Antoinette - is its portrait of Pinter. Outside a traditional form, she provides a biography of Harold Pinter that no one else could have written.

Most of Fraser's words come from handwritten diaries she kept for decades in hundreds of notebooks. Sometime after his death on Christmas Eve in 2008, she went through them in 10 weeks, which must have been satisfying, revealing, and wrenching. She chose entries that would follow their lives together, and composed the thoughts that would cement these snippets, as though she were constructing frames and choosing the matting for groups of related snapshots, to provide an artful context.

An entry from Jan. 8, 1975, their first conversation, at that dinner party: "I was slightly disappointed not to sit next to the playwright who looked full of energy, with black curly hair and pointed ears, like a satyr. Gradually, the guests filtered away. My neighbours Richard and Viv Jing offered me a lift up the road. 'Wait a minute,' I said. 'I must just say goodbye to Harold Pinter and tell him I enjoyed the play; I haven't said hello all evening.' They waited at the door. I went over to where Harold was sitting. 'Wonderful play, marvelous acting, now I'm off.'

"He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. 'Must you go?' he said. I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning, the exhausting past night in the sleeper from Scotland, my projected biography of King Charles II . . . 'No, it's not absolutely essential,' I said."

In the end, Pinter gave her the ride home, in a car with a driver. Thus began a love story that lasts 33 years, as each divorces (she from Sir Hugh Fraser, a Conservative politician, and he from the actress Vivien Merchant), but not before moving in together. This caused a sensation in '70s Britain, in political and social circles as well as with the omnipresent and lurid British press, which found a natural story in the affair between a Roman Catholic woman of the peerage and a common Jewish man who had become a remarkable voice of the stage. The notoriety was prolonged by the comfort of the two in their situation; they were not married until almost six years into their relationship.

"Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life," Fraser writes. "He never wrote unless he had a sudden inspiration." For her, writing was different; much of her work demanded enormous research, and the desire to live with a real-life character for years until a first printing. Pinter and Fraser encouraged each other and were forthright in assessments - some of these are chronicled.

But what will be most revealing to Americans about Pinter, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in literature, is his wide-ranging life outside writing plays and movie scripts and adapting works for film (Sleuth, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Last Tycoon among them). He became a devoted family man - at least within Fraser's family, which included her six children; if the estrangement between Pinter and his own son, Daniel, was a topic in Fraser's diary, she chose to exclude it.

Pinter was an ardent critic of repression, a fighter for human rights, and an out-front political activist. He also acted and directed, sometimes on Broadway. He was athletic - and a proud cricket player.

Pinter and Fraser rode life's ups and downs with passion and determination. Her diary entries, which would be easier to follow had she more often included the years they were written, demonstrate this clearly, especially later in their lives together. In his last years, Pinter worked on major projects even as he was severely afflicted by several maladies - and finally fell to liver cancer. He was 78, her current age.

Nov. 28, 1980: "My Diary: It's not about great writing. It's my friend, my record, and sometimes my consolation. . . . Harold: 'Well, it's a great record of - us.' "

Howard Shapiro is an Inquirer theater critic and staff writer. Contact him at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.