The long goodbye: What do Antonia Fraser's diaries of life with Harold Pinter add to the marital memoir?

Behind the celebrity froth of Fraser's diaries lies a tougher book about living and loving through adversity.
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Let's get the self-parody out of the way first. Antonia Fraser's annotated diaries of her 33 years with Harold Pinter do contain many passages so innocently drenched in perfumed privilege that Craig Brown might (and probably will) slip them verbatim into one of his Private Eye parodies of upper-crust celebrity tittle-tattle. Take 7 May 1989. In their Campden Hill Square house, in "golden weather" the golden couple host a party for Nicaragua's revolutionary president Daniel Ortega, with Graham Greene's presence – cracked rib and old age notwithstanding – "the big thrill for everyone". Here's Melvyn Bragg, and Rosanna Arquette, and Bianca Jagger plus daughter Jade (with "the famous Jagger mouth"), not to mention "at least 12 more Nicaraguans than we bargained for". Luckily, they are "a very good-looking race". After El Presidente's "very long, very serious speech", he sweetly makes time for a tête-à-tête with "Nathalia (our housekeeper) about her recipe for Portuguese pancakes". Bless!

There is, as every reader will notice, quite a lot of this in Must You Go? My life with Harold Pinter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), as dear Tom (Stoppard), Philip (Roth), John (Gielgud), Ralph (Richardson), Joanna (Lumley), Betty (Bacall), Vidia (Naipaul) and Salman (you know who) swell the seething ranks of famous friends whose wit and charm grace garden or table or holiday villa. Gratifyingly, many behave entirely in character. "Pinter to Beckett (in the Coupole)... 'I'm sorry, Sam, if I sound very gloomy'. Beckett to Pinter: 'Oh, you couldn't be more gloomy than I am, Harold'." Warren Beatty, "absolutely delightful" in Rome, asks Lady Antonia, "Do you have a sister?", a cartoon of himself. Joan Collins, at a Fraser daughter's nuptials in Paris: "Oh, Antonia, your Hello! people were so much less intrusive than ours". Jude Law naps under a Dorset apple tree in his trunks, "like a young Apollo".

"Nobody knows the stars I've seen," reflects the weary diarist in Hollywood. She can say that again. When, in 1976, Pinter auditions in New York for a girl to play Flora in a stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, "a minute flaxen-haired doll" steals the show. The tot's name? Sarah Jessica Parker. Back in London, the daily grind often consists of (say) a supper "with Isaiah Berlin at Jacob Rothschild's London palace in Maida Vale. Me: 'Did Ann Fleming sleep with Hugh Gaitskell'. Isaiah: 'That is a factual question to which there must be an answer: Yes or No'."

It would be easy to pretend that pretty much all of this memoir consists of lustrous names dropping in an avalanche of well-connected badinage onto Holland Park lawns, Caribbean and Mediterranean terraces, or luxury-hotel banqueting floors. Easy, but wrong. That springtime frolic of Bollinger Bolsheviks with Ortega, for example, leads fast into a revealing report of the logistics for a post-fatwa overnight stay by Salman Rushdie (the Special Branch team "wearing lovely reassuring smiles"). Then comes a historically valuable set of entries about meetings with Vaclav Havel in Prague ("gentleness combined with authority") as the playwright moves in a lurch from dissident to president when his Velvet Revolution triumphs. Gossip and gravitas forever intersect.

Above all, however, this is a love story - and one of a kind still unusual in its form and its focus. With diary entries – how much edited we cannot know – interspersed with later commentary and explanation, it moves from a dinner party in Holland Park in January 1975 at which the married 42-year popular historian and mother of six first talks long, and leaves late, with the "satyr"-like playwright "with black hair and pointed ears", to a room in Hammersmith Hospital on Christmas Eve in 2008 when, with children and grandchildren all departed, the author looks up from Tolstoy's Ressurection as the "strong rattling sound" of the sick man's breathing stops, his black eyes open "very wide" and his wife says: "It's me, Antonia, who loves you".

Happiness, as Henri de Montherlant wrote, writes white. Routine serenity leaves few dramatic traces behind. The literature of domestic bliss – or even of the normal up-and-down and to-and-fro of conflict and contentment – is smaller and newer than we imagine. In fiction, plots used to end in marriage. Then they began with adultery. That change came in the 19th-century generation that separates Elizabeth Bennet from Emma Bovary.

In memoirs, full-length portraits of a long-lasting marriage or partnership written by a widow or widower remain hen's-teeth rarities until the late 19th century. For glaringly obvious social reasons of the kind that Fraser's books – above all The Weaker Vessel – delineate, marital testaments from women were for centuries even scarcer than the other way around. Piquantly, one of the first – Lucy Hutchinson's lively and combative Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson in 1670 – defends a republican radical against his conservative foes. Another widow with a sword, Fraser is Lucy's latest heir.

When it comes to records of enduring relationships between creative near-equals, the glacially slow progress of gender equality in the arts and of posthumous candour in life-writing combine to squeeze the field even tighter. Even such a famed taboo-busting liaison as that of George Eliot and the philosopher GH Lewes left no solid literary legacy. Instead, after Lewes's death in 1878, the novelist devoted herself to editing her partner's last books and sought in vain for another author to pen "a just appreciation of my Husband's work". (The pair were, famously and scandalously, not married).

With the 20th century, the ranks of memorials to marriage and quasi-marriage do swell a little (see panel). The plight of the bereaved, meanwhile, gave rise to small but distinguished genre of reminiscence and reflection, from CS Lewis's A Grief Observed to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

In extreme contrast, feminist sensibilities have led to a few disgruntled revenge attacks on the august but oppressive other half – most notably, Claire Bloom's Leaving a Doll's House, in which the actress pays back Philip Roth, with steep interest, for the alleged misery that her life with the novelist brought her. That ill-fated couple, by the way, flit intermittently through Must You Go?, with Roth popping up early as an approved restaurant companion: "a wry man. I really liked him".

Fraser's preface properly notes that this chronicle of her shared experience with Pinter omits other dimensions to their lives. We hear vanishingly little about the progress of her histories and biographies, and more – but still not that much – about the gentle downward curve and then sharp upward spike of Pinter's reputation as a dramatist in the years from No Man's Land in 1975 to his Nobel Prize, awarded 30 years later. Crucially, Fraser also makes plain that her record tilts towards the "first light" and "twilight" of their love rather than the "high noon" in between. And, emotionally speaking, her opening and final acts do compel far more fiercely than the sunlit plateau that divides them. On this level playing-field (a cricket field, of course, given Pinter's reverence for the game) of fame and fun, all the smugger sections unfold.

So read it for the entrances and exits. Under the disapproving gaze of her Catholic parents, Lord [Frank] and Elizabeth Longford, Fraser separates from her Tory MP husband Hugh as the "recklessness" of her Pinter affair deepens, from one champagne bar to another, into something "joyous, dangerous and unavoidable". Almost too perfectly, the cuckold and the lover meet for a manly air-clearing chat: soon they get on to discussing "cricket at length, then the West Indies, then Proust". "Intensely romantic" but cosily embedded deep in her Anglo-Irish clan, Fraser always appears surrounded by relatives: parents, children, cousins. Hers is a peopled passion.

Again, almost too neatly, Pinter's messy extrication from marriage to the unhappy Vivien Merchant, creator of his first stage heroines, becomes a harrowing slog through anguish, silence and solitude. (Fraser portrays Merchant, who died an alcoholic, with strictly limited sympathy, branding her reluctance to sign a decree absolute – and so open the way to re-marriage – as "a final flick of the serpent's tail".)

The Jewish boy not from the darkest East End but - as Fraser correctly stresses - upwardly-mobile Clapton carries his hod of loneliness around. His only son loses touch and drops the Pinter surname. Their wealth even permits Harold to work alone in a separate house (the "SuperStudy") which abuts their main home's garden. His increasingly vocal political activism – the brave and even-handed defence of liberty in Latin America, eastern Europe or Turkey; the strident assaults on the Bush-Blair foreign interventions; the deplorable posturing as a "resolute defender" of the Serbs and the dictator Milosevic – fill the months with busy-ness but still hint at inner voids. Even in the glory days, Fraser reports her partner's moods of "savage melancholy". Only fellow-dramatist Simon Gray, the "funniest" and dearest of friends, stays very close.

Yet the fitful rebel against a meddling aristocratic tribe, and the lonely wanderer of poor migrant stock, fill each other's empty spaces. Pinter's intimate poems punctuate the phases of a relationship "happy beyond all possible expectations". (Register-office marriage came in 1980, solemnised in 1990 by the high-society Jesuits of Farm Street in a Catholic service of "convalidation.") Fraser devotes much space and zest to celebrating these gnomic lyrics of love, which will nonetheless read to many outsiders as if Hardy or Larkin had gone in for greetings-card ditties: "My everlasting bride/ Remember that when I am dead/ You are forever alive in my heart and my head".

Yet they serve her well when "twilight" starts to fall. Its final third amply justifies this book. We die for far longer than we ever used to do, but the literary canon of our medically protracted farewells is still scanty. Fraser, like Beauvoir before her, nobly enriches it.

Pinter's first diagnosis with cancer of the oesophagus came on 13 December 2001, soon after that public "Fall" of 11 September. Fraser traces "the steps downwards" through the eight ensuing years of sporadic anguish and relief with exemplary clarity and courage. Despite months, even years, of remission, the "Great Fear" never really leaves their side. Soon enough it turns into the only game in town.

From the post-chemo diet (baked potato, soup, ice cream) through the "martyrdom" of pain in "the time of agonies" to the almost comic roll-call of slips and tumbles that push the sufferer lower and lower down towards the end, Fraser keeps her gaze steady and her heart open. As if in some metaphysical slapstick farce, every public accolade for Pinter the writer is swiftly trumped by a mortifying setback for Pinter the creature.

At the time of the Nobel award in 2005, he can hardly get around the house – let alone to Stockholm – because his "poor swollen feet" make all shoes a torment. Yes, it's Beckett – or even Pinter. But neighbour Paul Smith has a pair that soothes the sole.

By and large, this is new territory for our species: hi-tech fingertip-clinging survival through years of fitful hope with no true prospect of permanent recovery. If the spangled middle passges of glamour and acclaim that bulk out this book sound like almost nobody else's story, its sombre but humour-strewn coda could be anyone's. Must you go? We all must. For all its silly patches, an unflinching marital memoir such as this one can guide us through a distinctly modern maze. It shows us how to say that long goodbye.

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