Sunday, April 17, 2011

Re-reading. Pinter/Fraser.

To console myself for not being able to get a seat for tomorrow night's Pinter Fortnightly, I'm returning to Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?, that beautifully tender gathering of memories of her life with Harold Pinter. I read it in one fast gulp last fall, staying up late into the night. It opens with the two meeting for the first time, after a 1975 production of The Birthday Party. "Wonderful play, marvellous acting, now I'm off," she says. "Must you go?" he asks. She stays, and eventually they leave the party, with Pinter giving her a ride home. I offered him coffee. I actually gave him champagne. He stayed until six o'clock in the morning with extraordinary recklessness, but of course the real recklessness was mine.

Pinter knew all about recklessness, of course. Think of the lovers in Betrayal, their tangled stories unraveling until we can see that first knot from which these twisted threads emerged, that first tryst in a bedroom in the midst of a party. Earlier (that is, earlier in the play but later in the story), there are those letters Jerry sends to Emma when she is off in Venice with her husband. (I'm going by a memory, now fifteen years old, of how it all unfolds). What we don't see, of course, is what happened before that - what unspoken messages, accidental touches, speaking glances across a room - that led to the point where the play ends. Someone has to make that first leap into the "must you go?" moment that leads to all the other moments.

They were Bohemians, Fraser writes, shedding the class divisions inflicted upon them by the press - she from the titled upper classes, never mind that her father became an earl late in life, he from the working classes - to meet in this kingdom of Bohemia. They were like the Schlegels in E. M. Forster's Howards End, who were the answer to his question, "who will inherit England?" some sixty years before. Aside from being a great love story, theirs was a kinship of two writers, though not collaborative like the Didion-Dunne marriage, writing in separate studies in their combined household, working on plays and screenplays (him) and researching historical biographies (her) wherever they could, in London or in Scotland or in New York. They had three decades of happiness, not without cost, but real happiness, even if it is seen through the rose-colored flushes of early passion and late widowhood.

The more I read of him, the more Pinter I see performed, the larger and more intricate grows the puzzle that is his vast body of work. I feel as if I have only just begun.

Fraser, Antonia. Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010. p 5.

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