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Dec 8, 2010

Book Review: Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (November 2, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0385532501
Review copy from the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Great story!
A moving testament to one of the literary world's most celebrated marriages: that of the greatest playwright of our age, Harold Pinter, and the beautiful and famous prize-winning biographer Antonia Fraser. — In this exquisite memoir, Antonia Fraser recounts the life she shared with the internationally renowned dramatist. In essence, it is a love story and a marvelously insightful account of their years together, beginning with their initial meeting when Fraser was the wife of a member of Parliament and mother of six, and Pinter was married to a distinguished actress. Over the years, they experienced much joy, a shared devotion to their work, crises and laughter, and, in the end, great courage and love as Pinter battled the illness to which he eventually suc­cumbed on Christmas Eve 2008.

Must You Go? is based on Fraser’s recollections and on the diaries she has kept since October 1968. She shares Pinter’s own revelations about his past, as well as observations by his friends. Fraser’s diaries written by a biographer living with a creative artist and observing the process firsthand also pro­vide a unique insight into his writing.
Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser lived together from August 1975 until his death thirty-three years later. “O! call back yesterday, bid time return,” cries one of the courtiers to Richard II. This is Antonia Fraser’s uniquely compelling way of doing so.

Some of the British-themed books in my personal library are authored by Antonia Fraser, such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Marie Antoinette for which the popular film was based on. I had little knowledge of the personal life of this British author though, and when I saw that she had written a mini-memoir regarding her marriage with Harold Pinter soon after his death in late 2008, I was intrigued because apparently there was some scandal there. Pinter was an actor, screenwriter and a poet among other things, but Pinter and Fraser were having an affair before they were able to marry.

I learned that Pinter was a respected man with many opinions and a strong opponent to wars, but was most known for his work as a playwright and an actor early on, and is seeming the epitome of "the writer". His first marriage with Vivien Merchant broke up after his wife learned of Pinter's indiscretions with Antonia Fraser, and Merchant displayed her disgust by granting many interviews with the media thus igniting the flames of scandal. The new couple dealt with it quite well, and Pinter was overly nice to the discarded wife, in my opinion. After five years of being together, Pinter and Fraser were finally able to discuss becoming married, with no thanks to Vivien.

Without writing an essay or biography of the two people that this "memoir" involves, I must say that both Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter sound like they would have been excellent friends to have. The way that the author writes is witty, sweet, reminiscent, but not overly done to be too sentimental. I was touched by the love the couple shared, and jealous. Their life together as Antonia writes it sounds close to perfect. And I say "Antonia" as if she were my own friend (wishful thinking!) but after this glimpse into her diary entries I feel like I know her. I loved the way I was drawn in immediately to this special life of the couple as Pinter wrote his fabulous plays and she worked on her biographies or mystery series, they go to dinner with other fabulous people, they get visited by her fabulous kids.. it all sounds so perfectly.. pretentious, doesn't it?

Yet, somehow, in some way, Lady Antonia Fraser has turned all that wonderfulness of gag-me type nuances of socialites into something that had me from the first page. Instead of turning what could be a long drawn out biography of Pinter, it consists of Frasers' small diary entries and comments about the times and how they reflected on Harold and Antonia. Harold the writer (who fought for justice when he was not writing) would have loved the way his wife told their love story, and Harold the husband would have been honored to be remembered in this way with Antonia's vignettes. Although Fraser did add quite a plethora of names as they figured into her life, I had zero idea who they all were and they came and went to emphasize the definition of the phrase "name-dropping". The group she socialized with were obviously over my head and at least a generation ahead of me, but I was still enamored with the conversations that they had. I loved the quick insights into the blended family, like with the FamHol vs. PinHol which related to which type of holiday they would go on. Fraser's reflections were meticulous, poignant, witty and charming, and I appreciated the peek into her privileged side of the world in England. The only focus is on their lives, their love, her thoughts, therefore I would recommend this to those who are intrigued by the people involved and the life behind the famous playwright.

Evil me: "Read this really fast because I truly want to gobble it all up."  Angelic me: "Bit by bit, slowly and peacefully meander through the eloquent prose and absorb the intelligence of the storyteller." I was touched by their love and respect for each other, I laughed out loud at some of the anecdotes, and I will never forget this book, if just for the simplicity of its very theme: True love never dies.