MUST YOU GO?: MY LIFE WITH HAROLD PINTER
By Antonia Fraser
Doubleday, $28.95, 336 pages, illustrated
The title of this memoir provides a poignant form of bookends to this account by popular biographer and mystery writer Lady Antonia Fraser of her relationship with playwright Harold Pinter. The eponymous phrase that he uttered when she was leaving the party where they met in 1975 and that inaugurated their decades-long love affair and marriage, becomes a kind of leitmotiv for her when he is dying of cancer more than 30 years later.
Ms. Fraser’s account of this cruel process that ravaged the last seven years of their idyll is a model of its kind: tender, judicious, tactful, unsparing of the terrors it wrought on them both, always mindful of who was the prime sufferer and managing to be respectful of his dignity while not flinching from the awful reality.
Her account of their decades together recalls a great deal of mutual happiness despite a variety of obstacles that they had to overcome. She paints a picture of an outstandingly uxorious man, thoughtful, kind and loving, who brought her fulfillment and happiness such as she had never known. She writes of all this with endless appreciation and paints a picture of a domestic idyll about as far removed from the world of Pinter’s plays as could be imagined. This is a cozy world with happy blended family holidays, but also one replete with flowers, limousines, luxury and glamour on a level that even Ms. Fraser with her aristocratic background had never experienced.
The trouble with the pretty picture Ms. Fraser paints is that if you read between the lines at all or think about how all this happiness was achieved, there are some pretty unsettling serpents lurking around this Garden of Eden. Most notably, both Ms. Fraser and Pinter were very much married; he had a son, she had several children - all still at school.
Her husband seems to have accepted his unhappy lot, shuffling off into a modus vivendi that was just tolerable even if there was no question of further happiness for him. Pinter’s actress wife, Vivien Merchant, went kicking and screaming all the way, evincing in real life the flair for drama that had made her so wonderful onstage, especially in his plays. Her real-life tragedy had no catharsis but only descent into alcoholic self-destruction and premature death.
All this suffering that Ms. Fraser’s grand passion caused for others does not seem to bother her overmuch. Not for her the magnanimity in victory espoused by Winston Churchill, even though “Must You Go?” is very much in the mode of victors’ history. Neither Ms. Fraser nor Pinter had really loved their previous spouses it seems, although one suspects that might have been news to them during their years of marriage. Previous dalliances are also downgraded and scant sympathy is shown to a castoff Pinter mistress distraught at his skewering of their relationship in one of his plays. People are judged by whether or not they approve of Fraser/Pinter.
And then there is the specter of Pinter’s repulsive political views - his rabid, reflexive, thoughtless anti-Americanism and strident hostility to Israel - which are splattered all over these pages. To her credit, Ms. Fraser apparently tried to argue with him about this sort of stuff, countering his ridiculous assertion that the United States is the worst regime in history by pointing dryly to Hitler and Pol Pot and this colloquy after the Entebbe hostage rescue:
“My first words to Harold were to recall our argument where Harold maintained the militaristic spirit of Israel was no longer necessary although it had been once, and I disagreed due to the marauders surrounding Israel.”
But she repeatedly hails Pinter as a “genius,” a sobriquet questionable enough when applied to an oeuvre that lacks the humanity and depth of, say, Samuel Beckett’s but ludicrous in view of the huge amounts of political twaddle she quotes as coming out of his mouth. Ms. Fraser is not much for irony; perhaps if she were, she might see the oddness of a playwright notable for his rebarbative view of women being such an uxorious husband to her (if not to her predecessor).
Or how deeply ironic it is that her staunchly Roman Catholic husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, was known during his many years as a Conservative Member of Parliament to be Israel’s greatest friend in the House of Commons, while her Jewish husband was famous for spewing forth anti-Israeli rhetoric on a regular basis.
An almost intolerable air of self-satisfaction lies like a pall over this intensely personal narrative. It summons up nothing so much as the image of a cat extremely pleased with itself as it laps up an enormous portion of rich cream, with no thought to the cost at which it was purchased. That was paid by other poor souls, who get short shrift in this disturbing tale.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.