Must You Go? (Antonia Fraser)

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One half of the TVC team considers published diaries and collections of letters to be a lazy form of memoir.  This review is written by that half.  In the opinion of this half, plodding through a (probably) heavily edited and unsynthesised lot of journal entries or epistles is an unedifying and disjointed experience.  And so it is with “Must You Go?“, Lady Antonia Fraser’s annotated diary of her time with the late Harold Pinter – who, as a playwright was master of the notorious, enigmatic pause.  Pinter was also an actor and political activist, particularly in the causes of the Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Disappeared of South America.  Fraser is a biographer, particularly of royal women, and a novelist.

Pinter and Fraser fell in love (and loved each other, they certainly did) while married to other people.  Unhappy as those marriages were, there is not a lot of compassion on Lady Antonia’s part for the deceived partners or the seven children of those marriages.  Indeed, it is unclear what her relationhip with her six children was after she left their father for Pinter, although it may be that she has chosen to maintain their privacy.  In any event, nothing matters as much to Antonia as “Uncle Cuddles” (no, really).

Fraser refrained from name-dropping for the sake of name-dropping in the memoir of her early life, “My History“.  Name-dropping is more legitimate of course in the diary-style memoir and in Must You Go?, Fraser outdoes even her cousin, name-dropper-extraordinaire Ferdinand Mount (“Cold Cream: My Early Life & Other Mistakes”.)   The Pinters mixed only with the great and good of the theatre, literature and politics; no-one who is not Someone need apply.

Fraser has at least gone to the trouble of commenting on each section of the diary and updating its events.  Unfortunately the kindle edition does not adequately identify which sections are which, causing some minor irritation.

Fraser gushes breathlessly.  Every man, woman and child she knows is very attractive, fascinating and brilliant.  Only once does she mention that some less than jolly bits have been excised, that being material concerning Sofia Coppola and the making of the film of Antonia Fraser’s book “Marie Antoinette“, (although Sofia was very attractive, fascinating and brilliant).

TVC has remarked before that Fraser is not a deep thinker.  In “My History” she relates that, despite her family’s political involvement, she voted Tory once because she liked their election poster and she did not know that her fiance was a Tory MP.  Here is a further example from “Must You Go?“-

“”I had listened to Tony Blair speak to the Fabian Society….and had been deeply impressed by his sincerity.  After all the so-called sleaze swirling around in politics at the time, here at last was a straight man.  I liked his smile.  It was an enthusiastic, boyish, above all an honourable smile.  Such a man could not lie.  So I joined the Labour Party on the day he was elected leader…” [Emphasis Fraser’s own]

Fraser’s  naiveté, superficiality and unworldliness is surprising in a woman feted for her meticulously detailed biographies and political histories.  Her adoration of Pinter and lack of any real political centre, cause her to throw herself into his angry and unquestioning bleeding-heart activism, (despite some arguments). Their politics engage them in lots of meetings, fundraising, parties, silly demonstrations (releasing black balloons) and heart-warming chats with the great – in particular, Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie.  Pinter can’t smile because of the suffering in the world. “Sometimes melancholy spreads across the waters of Harold’s life like black water lilies.”  Antonia’s a bit more positive.  “[Liv Ullmann’s] all the more attractive for being very active over human rights as well”.

The inspirations for Pinter’s plays, the development of his ideas, rehearsals, first nights and notices, are traced.  What is lacking is her interpretation of the plays, although that may be because Pinter himself famously refused to provide any.

When at home in Holland Park, they write during the day (Pinter in his Super-Study, a small house joined to their big house by a garden), attend rehearsals and shows in the evening, then they party.  Their musical tastes are classical, and they are pretty much horrified by the soundtrack to Coppola’s film. They travel a great deal – often for work, sometimes on Pinhols (just the two of them) or Famhols (with some of the children).

The book is most effective in its evocation of Harold and Antonia’s love for each other. The details of Pinter’s last illnesses are harrowing and we are thankfully spared much of the content of Fraser’s diaries at this time.  His death is truly affecting.

Of real interest to Fraser completists and Pinter aficionados only.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Smug of Glebe

    March 14, 2016

    Tony Blair's "honourable smile"? Gee Antonia, how privileged are you? THAT smile is the one he usually reserves for his dictator clientele. You should feel honoured.

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