‘Must You Go?’ Harold Pinter Said to Antonia Fraser

In January 1975, Antonia Fraser went to the first-night shindig for a production of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party because her brother-in-law had directed it. Trying to leave the soiree, she paid her parting respects to Pinter:

“He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. ‘Must you go?,’ he said.”

She didn’t. They talked for hours, the beginning of what would quickly become a passion, then a romance, then a burning desire to be together. They were, for more than 33 years, until his death on Christmas Eve 2008.

Her chronological memoir of their life together draws heavily on her diaries, with occasional second thoughts interspersed. Throughout their life together, Pinter wrote her love poems.

Now Fraser, a popular historian, biographer and novelist, has returned the compliment. Early on, she writes, she always wanted to be in love and always wanted to know a genius. With Pinter, she clearly believes both wishes were fulfilled.

Their romance was a scandal in the English tabloids, as both were famous and long married to others: Fraser to a Tory member of Parliament, Pinter to actress Vivien Merchant. After the initial shock, Fraser’s husband stepped aside, but Merchant held them hostage over divorce papers for several years, even as she declined into alcoholism. Fraser, a fair-minded diarist, never takes a gratuitous swing at either receding spouse.

Even though the lovebirds were worldly people in their early 40s, the early segments of Must You Go? are swoony, occasionally even eye-rolling swoony. But the flame never burns out for these two, consistent romantics until the end of his life.

In her diary, Fraser writes, “I always paid special attention to any green shoots where Harold’s writing was concerned.” She supposes this was a “consequence of a biographer living with a creative artist.”

She loves her husband but doesn’t gloss over his challenging aspects. She quotes Pinter’s own idiom about people and life: “You have to take the rough with the smooth.” At a lunch with V.S. Naipaul, another famously cranky writer, Fraser observes what he and Pinter share: “They discuss anger like one might discuss a taste for port.”

She also catches a wonderful dialogue between Pinter and his friend and literary hero, Samuel Beckett, that ought to resonate with anyone who has seen their plays. After Pinter had gone on some time with a political harangue, he said to Beckett: “I’m sorry, Sam, if I sound very gloomy.”

Beckett replied, “Oh, you can’t be more gloomy than I am, Harold.”

Pinter, she observes, “behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom in real life. He never wrote unless he had a sudden inspiration, an image, as he often used to explain.” Once or twice, she surely understates, she is commissioned to write down a sentence or phrase that has just come to him.

Fraser pinpoints the origin of Betrayal, Pinter’s remarkable reverse-chronology play, which had its roots in Pinter’s previous affair with BBC TV presenter Joan Bakewell, which brought on more sensational press when that affair was revealed in a biography. She also catches the genesis of Pinter’s play A Kind of Alaska, which grew out of the image of a woman speaking, and was deeply informed by Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings.

But Pinter was no dilettante who waited on a muse. He also worked steadily as a director and screenwriter and cured a later-life malaise by returning to work as an actor. He also became deeply, and controversially, involved in politics and activism; near the end of his life, he harshly criticized the Bush and Blair administrations over the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fraser has a nuanced view of these years. After Pinter’s death, she found among his things a place card she had scribbled on when Pinter was arguing politics at a dinner. “Darling — you are right. So SHUT UP.”

Pinter’s endgame began in December 2001, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. A vigorous man with a lifelong passion for cricket, the disease, the treatment and subsequent illnesses and afflictions wore him down.

But he keeps working and so does she. Her biography of “Marie Antoinette” leads directly to Sofia Coppola’s movie; the making of both versions of the story becomes a diversion for the couple. His final years are brightened by the news that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. Unlike Beckett, Pinter and Fraser embrace the award with utter joy: “Our two telephones became like mad hissing snakes,” she writes.

Liver cancer is the final assault on his frail body. On the morning of his final day, many of his grandchildren, ages 8 to 21, surround him: “The scene was like a Victorian painting called ‘Farewell to a Grandfather,'” Frazer writes. That evening, she sits by his bed reading Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”. He opens his eyes one more time and breathes his last.

After kissing his body one final time, she bids the old actor adieu with Horatio’s words from Hamlet: “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing you to your rest.”

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