Pinter the lover...

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

During his lifetime, Harold Pinter was for many years considered Britain’s greatest playwright, although he saw himself as foremostly a poet. Many people knew him as a champion of human rights; others as irascible and a few witnessed his wrath at first hand. Pinter was many things to many people and, given his fame, there was, perhaps inevitably, a sense of public ownership.

This is what makes Antonia Fraser’s tender portrait of the 33 years she spent with Pinter as his lover and, later, as his wife, so interesting. Through her eyes we are now presented with Pinter the Romantic, Pinter the Lover and Pinter the Love Poet. During their courtship, and throughout their time together, Pinter frequently wrote passionate poems for Fraser. The day she moved in with him to their first home together at 33 Launceston Place he, quite literally, filled the house with flowers.

Fraser draws on her diaries and adds a retrospective commentary. Her atmospheric account of their adulterous meetings in hotel bars (when they were both still married to other people) and an early weekend spent together in Paris is the stuff of romantic films.

Not surprisingly, there is less focus on Pinter’s politics, although there are chapters dedicated to their friendship with Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. Fraser describes Pinter’s “loss of faith” in Labour which, she tells us, began with the situation in former Yugoslavia: “He disapproved strongly of Nato’s action.” Only passing reference is made to Pinter’s support for Slobodan Milosevic – “he did not believe Milosevic was innocent but he thought what happened was illegal: the court of justice was, in essence, just NATO, his enemy” – and they remained sharply divided on this and other issues.

In paying tribute to her husband, Fraser is not afraid to voice criticism and she finds humour in unexpected places. Her observation about Pinter’s tennis skills is one little gem: “There were those who maintained Harold remained a maniacal squash-player to the end of his days on the tennis court. The art of serving certainly eluded him.”

She also comments wryly on his quick temper. After he died, she found in his desk an old place card for a dinner party on which she had written “Darling – You are right. SO SHUT UP.” But she also emphasises his domestic conviviality when she describes him as “house angel, street devil”.

The last part of the book covers Pinter’s physical decline – a period Fraser movingly refers to as “the steps downward”. Her final chapters are searingly honest and often heart wrenching to read. She describes all the horrors of dealing with cancer from the diagnosis through chemo – the ice cream, soup and potato diet – the operations, endless procedures and convalescence. Pinter was first diagnosed at the end of 2001 and died seven years later.

The book’s title? The first night they met Harold stayed Antonia’s imminent departure with these words. The last love poem he wrote to her, towards the end of their time together, carries equal force with its opening line: “I shall miss you so much when I’m dead.
Published in Tribune Sunday, May 30th, 2010

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