In January, 1975, when she was 42, Lady Antonia Fraser, a Catholic mother of six, went to a dinner party. At the time she was, if not happily married, then “happy in [her] marriage” and had never envisaged divorce.
At that dinner party was 46-year old Harold Pinter, also married, but unhappily. The party was to celebrate opening night of Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and just before Fraser was to leave the party, she went over to say good-bye to the playwright. While the friends who were to drive her home waited by the front door, she congratulated the playwright, who looked at her and said “must you go?”
Her journal records what went through her mind: “home, my [waiting friends], taking the children to school the next morning, the exhausting past night [traveling],” and a new writing project. But did she leave? She did not. In fact, Pinter gave her a ride home (they didn’t leave the party until 2:30 in the morning) and they stayed awake talking until dawn.
That dinner party changed their lives: by August 1975 they were living together, in the midst of rather publicly nasty divorces from their respective spouses; and although they did not immediately get married, they were together for almost 34 years, until Pinter died in 2008. The author and historian’s book takes its title from Pinter’s question that first night and, of course, her despair at the moment of his death from esophageal cancer.
Reading the story in Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter, which is told through Fraser’s journal and diary entries, is like being a guest at the most scintillating dinner party you can imagine. Here is Antonia watching as Harold plays cricket with Tom Stoppard; here they are with Edna O’Brien and Jude Law; there they are chatting with John Fowles and Jeremy Irons during the filming of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; here they are having tea with Samuel Beckett; there they are having dinner with Mike Nichols, with whom, she says, both she and Harold “fall platonically in love.”
As improbable as it might seem — and Fraser admits that it is hard to imagine — the Pinter-Fraser story is about love at first sight, about meeting one’s soul mate, however inopportunely, and knowing that it is inevitable that you will be together. It is also about two writers — Fraser is an award-winning biographer, and Pinter is, of course, a Nobel-prize winning playwright and screenwriter. She says that some of her notes about Pinter are like the notes of a biographer watching an artist’s process; she marvels at how a small moment or an image might root itself in his mind but not emerge into dramatic form until years later.
Fraser’s journals also record the occasional tensions experienced by a writer who is also a mother. She tells us about a married woman who wrote her seeking advice about being a writer — her advice is that any woman who wants to write must “be a very, very selfish person.” Thinking back on that advice, Fraser speculates that “households, hitherto peaceful, are being widely disrupted where the wife has taken my advice.” Pinter’s support for Fraser’s work never wavers; he encourages the “selfishness” of spending hours and hours at one’s desk. They read one another’s work, although she points out, at one point, when he is less than complimentary about an initial draft that “like everyone who asks their nearest and dearest for a candid opinion, I didn’t actually want that candid an opinion.”
The book is funny and, as you’d expect, amazingly articulate. It is also, in the final section, incredibly moving. Pinter is diagnosed with first one disease and then another—it looks like he has recovered and then the doctors discover the esophageal cancer that will eventually kill him. It is during this final decline that he is awarded the Nobel Prize, but he is too ill to travel to Sweden to be awarded the prize. He writes a speech nevertheless — brilliant, incisive, witty, devastating — and records it in an English television studio for broadcast at the ceremony.
Pinter died on Christmas Eve, 2008. Must You Go? ends with his death, and while we, like Fraser, have known the death was coming, the ending is still a jolt. We’re used to books about “famous people” that give us the glittery funerals, the eulogies, the lamentations. This book gives us none of that and is the stronger for it.