Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?

After I've finished a book, I don't put it back on the shelf until I've registered something about it on this reading blog. Occasionally I manage to write several hundred words of response, analysis, perhaps transcribe some favourite passages. Sometimes I reconcile myself eventually to saying that I read it and liked something or other about it. But I don't let myself put it away until I've recorded some trace of it here. Meanwhile, to prod myself closer to doing just that, I add the book to a space just left of my desktop monitor. When Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? entered that space yesterday, it topped a stack that's threatening an imminent topple.

So.

Let me say a few things about a few books in the interest of housekeeping.

First, the aforementioned Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser's memoir. Much of this is assembled from the historian/novelist's diaries, interpreted through her widow's lens in the very recent past (Pinter died in December 2008, and Fraser wrote the memoir some time thereafter).  At times, the narrative structure is a bit thin, unsatisfying, with not quite enough glue to hold the diary excerpts together convincingly, but the framing romance, the  inevitable poignancy of its elegiac circumstance, and perhaps, above all, the glimpse into a glamourous life peopled by a catalogue of luminaries compensate quite nicely for such limitations.  After all, what might Vaclav Havel and Jude Law and Domenique de Villepin and Paul Smith and Jane Fonda and Cherie Blair and Dustin Hoffman and Daniel Ortega and Samuel Beckett have in common? Pinter and Fraser have met them all, chatted with them, dined with them.

It's important to note that Pinter and Fraser were not simply hobnobbing with celebrities. They brought writers, artists, actors, and political leaders together because of their commitment to social justice, particularly through their work with PEN, speaking out for persecuted writers throughout the world. This work culminated in Pinter's Nobel Acceptance speech, a lecture I must now watch in its entirety, so moving is Fraser's account of his recording it despite the extreme ravages of illness.

And besides the political ideals, the commitment to social justice, the memoir spends considerable time on conversations about literature and theatre and art, intellectual and aesthetic debates. While these observations are often brief and anecdotal, I found them interesting and helpful in giving a sense of the climate in which Pinter's plays and poetry were written.

The memoir's central romance inspires, of course: that one could meet, in one's 40s, someone worth completely disrupting one's life for, braving all sorts of social disapproval and scorn (Pinter was married, with one son; Fraser, married, had six children). . . and then have that love burn so compellingly for over 30 years, until death. But I was also inspired by the realities of a shared creative life, the support they drew from each other, but also the way they carved out schedules and rooms and habits that allowed them to work. And given that both writers were esteemed by their respective audiences, I was impressed at their support for each other in the required travel. Trips for book launches or play performances or speaking tours in Paris or New York with one's partner, exciting as they might be, could obviously interfere with one's own progress on a work-at-hand. Yet they managed to do these trips together more often than not (at least, according to this memoir) and neither's oeuvre seemed to suffer from the travel. As one who makes all kinds of excuses for the research and writing I don't do enough of, I'm making a little mental note about work habits . . .

Overall, an enjoyable memoir with some fascinating insights into a rarefied world that Fraser nonetheless writes as connected and practical and everyday.  Worth reading if only for the very moving account of Pinter's heroic perseverance and achievement through his last years struggling through the depredations of cancer and other ailments.

Hmmm, I see the word "First" several paragraphs above. That was optimistic of me. . . ."Second" or "Next" is just going to have to wait for another day. But at least that stack is one book less likely to topple . . .

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