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"Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter," a memoir by Antonia Fraser

By Carolyn See
Friday, November 5, 2010; C03

MUST YOU GO?

My Life With Harold Pinter

by Antonia Fraser

Nan Talese/Doubleday.

328 pp. $28.95

In describing how she and the playwright Harold Pinter met back in 1975 and eventually married, Antonia Fraser begins with an explanation of the rigid British social caste system. Yes, he was Jewish and had a working-class background, and she "could be argued to be an aristocrat." But, she goes on, "the truth was that by the mid 1970s, both in our different ways successful writers, Harold and I belonged to the same class: I will call it the Bohemian class."

And of course that's true, but they belonged to another one as well: the Iron Discipline class, whose members know what it means to get ahead and stay there, to make your mark and then make another one; to live a public life -- even a life of celebrity -- not for the sake of celebrity itself, but so that it will reflect upon the life's work. Thus, the endless lists of newspaper articles in which one is featured, the TV shows on which one appears, the cricket matches in which one participates, the lunch parties, the charity events. Add the keeping of a charming diary that can be quoted from frequently and will last, in theory, forever as a record. All this is part of the discipline of a carefully lived, extremely focused life. There are very few grilled-cheese sandwiches eaten thoughtlessly over the sink in this account. Instead, there are tickets bought, dresses worn, speeches made, poetry read and then more speeches. All of it duly and dutifully recorded to point to lives lived as a form of art.

It would have been understandable enough if Lady Antonia had done all these activities for herself (she's a historian with a very fine reputation), but as the subtitle here makes obvious, most of this diary seems to have been recorded in the service of Harold Pinter, who, by the time they met, had a good deal of his major work behind him. In later life he wrote several more full-length plays, including "Betrayal," but mostly confined himself to one-act plays, poems and increasingly left-wing political speeches.

He was indisputably a great writer. He went on to win the Nobel Prize, but he was subject to debilitating bouts of depression, and there's no telling how his life would have turned out if -- when they were both in midlife -- he and Fraser hadn't met and begun living a life of measured pleasure, focused leisure, melded together by steady and constant iron discipline.

She was 42 when they met; Pinter, 44. They had both been married to their first spouses for almost exactly 18 years. He had one child; she had six. His first wife took the breakup badly and complained bitterly to the tabloids. Her first husband took a philosophical view and remained, according to this account, on friendly terms with the new couple. Pinter's son moved further and further from a relationship with his father. But her family -- one of those Big English Things about as large as an American public high school -- seems to have taken him in enthusiastically, after some initial misgivings. By the end of his life, he had what amounted to a private army of relatives and supporters behind him; he was totally plugged in to the Larger British Society.

Remarkably, although this volume purports to be a memoir of their life as a couple, there's very little material here on Fraser's own work. She wrote major biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, Charles II and Marie Antoinette, as well as numerous mysteries -- by my count she produced 19 books during the period they were together -- but we see very little of what occupied her intellectually during the time of her marriage to Pinter. She was ladylike, in the traditional way, deferring at every point to the important husband's career.

So this extremely interesting book might attract several kinds of readers. First, on a very practical level "Must You Go?" is a study on how to succeed, a user's manual on how to live an examined, focused, productive life. More crassly, it can be read as a variation of People magazine for very smart people, an enchanting catalogue of celebrity names and sparkling events. Or, if you're a masochistic, aspiring artist or writer, you can read this as an instrument of torture, a way to make yourself miserable with envy. Basically, this is a list of all the wonderful parties you were never invited to, the fancy dress balls you never attended, the interesting people you never met, or even if you did meet them, you didn't have as much fun as Fraser had. For instance, Anthony Powell ("A Dance to the Music of Time") seems to have come over to their house all the time, but I don't remember getting invited. Novelist Alison Lurie ("The War Between the Tates") cast a horoscope for Fraser, but not for me. But wait a minute! Alison did cast a horoscope for me once, and it was fun, but not part of this continuously enchanted life Fraser is writing about. I mean, we had fun, but not that much fun. And I forgot to write it down in my diary. And that's part of the loving service Fraser performed for her husband; she not only provided him with an interesting, culturally layered, extremely enjoyable life, but she recorded it, so that this book exists as a homage, not just to their love but to their time and work together.

The sour grapes attitude to take would be that Fraser is name-dropping, and she certainly does: Averell and Pamela Harriman, Elizabeth Taylor, Carl Bernstein, Alexander Cockburn, Arthur Schlesinger, John Gielgud -- they all pass through these pages.

But this is an account of iron discipline, remember, and Fraser makes it clear that her life's work with Pinter was not just to entertain and record, but to comfort and cherish. After cancer struck for the first time, the couple was haunted by "The Great Fear" for the next seven years, during which Pinter was beset by a good percentage of all the ailments known to man. She was there, recording the falls and the breaks and the ulcers, along with the Nobel Prize. With the publication of this enchanting memoir, she has more than discharged her loving obligation to this distinguished man.

See reviews books for The Post every Friday.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Joe Biden, American son.

-- Jim Thorpe, Native American son.

-- What if Latin America ruled the world?

-- Simon Winchester dives into the Atlantic.

-- And the letters of Saul Bellow.

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