Must You Go?

Sunday February 7, 2010 in books read 2010 | harold pinter

A vast arrangement of flowers including foxy lilies and other glories in the window, and another on the mantlepiece, and in the back room, all luxuriant, then on up the stairs … I shall never forget them. Or Harold’s expression. A mixture of excitement, triumph and laughter. It transpired he asked the flower lady from Grosvenor House and commissioned them. ‘Is it for a party?’ she asked. ‘No it’s for Sunday night.’

In 1975 Harold Pinter met Antonia Fraser. They were both in their mid forties and both in long term marriages; Fraser to a Conservative MP and Pinter to the actress Vivien Merchant. Must You Go is an account, mostly gathered from Fraser’s diaries, of more than thirty happy years they spent together. For any reader interested in Pinter the artist, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Michael Billington’s excellent biography instead, but this is nevertheless a very good at at times very moving book.

Unlike Billington’s portrait, which drew attention for revealing Pinter’s long affair with Joan Bakewell, Must You Go doesn’t set out to spill any beans on the great man. In fact we can only really gather things from what is left out of the story, for example the abandonment and eventual decline of Merchant and Pinter’s estrangement from his son. Neither receive too much attention here, with Fraser keeping her distance from the people he chose to leave behind. There’s more emphasis on his lifelong friendships, which included Robert Shaw, Simon Gray and Samuel Beckett, and his new extended family (Fraser had six children from her first marriage).

It could also be argued that by the time Pinter had met Fraser he had already made his most artistic achievements, with his best works The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and The Homecoming already established as masterpieces. Perhaps happiness dulled his creative edge, and although he continued writing (Betrayal appeared in the early 80s) he did increasingly concentrate on poetry. And as the years march on, Pinter’s passion for politics begins to take prominence. Much of the book chronicles ugly moments in history; IRA bombs in London, The Rushdie affair (Salman Rushdie visits the Pinters under armed protection at the height of the Fatwa) and the Iraq war. Fraser is frank about their own shifting politics; Pinter voted conservative in 1979, SDP in a subsequent election and then finally Labour. In 1982, surprisingly, he supported the Falklands War.

Must You Go alludes to Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s very first meeting, and these are the first words he ever said to her. The phrase echoes through the book right until the end, and the closing diary entries recall an increasingly frail Pinter and he battled cancer. It’s a very intimate portrait of a fascinating man who enjoyed life as much as he could. In 2007, very sick, he appeared onstage for a short run in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, relishing again the joy of an actor that he had originally discovered at sixteen. Around the same time he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, and enjoyed a revival of The Birthday Party. Busy until the end, his inevitable passing in 2008 was still a shock.

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