Hemingway wrote somewhere that when two people are deeply in love, it is Inevitable that their story will end in tragedy, since one will quite likely out-live the other. I’ve been thinking about this recently because in the last few years I’ve read a handful of books by widows who were in deeply reciprocated love relationships and who write about those relationships in retrospect with great affection and a deep sense of loss. These books include Joan Didion’s The Year of Living Dangerously, Sandra Gilbert’s Wrongful Death, A Memoir, Eleanor Clift’s Two Weeks of Life, Anne Roiphe’s Epilogue, A Memoir. Obviously most of these books are written from a woman’s perspective, since women outlive men (although I also recently read Donald Hall’s The Best Day, The Worst Day, Life with Jane Kenyon, where he writes about his wife’s long and losing bout with cancer).
Add to these titles, and many others, Antonia Fraser’s My Life with Harold Pinter, her touching and moving account of her life with the great British playwright who died in 2008. Fraser and Pinter were in a 33 year relationship, though both were married to others (Pinter to a well-known British actress, Fraser to a member of Parliament) when they met in 1975 and did not marry one another until 1980 after both divorces were final and some recovery had occurred.
In her account of their life together, Fraser makes it clear how eminently suited they were for one another. Both high-achieving English writers, both moving in upper echelon social circles, both keenly intelligent, ambitious and gregarious with shelves filled with awards of various kinds (including, for Pinter, the Nobel Prize in Literature). This is an enviable relationship from almost any perspective, but that does not lessen the sting of Pinter’s death, though he lived to the fairly advanced age of 78.
In addition to the lovely accounts of their feelings for one another, what distinguishes Fraser’s book is its page after page of (high-end) celebrity dish. On these pages you will find appearances by Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier, Faye Dunaway, Arthur Miller, John Fowles, Ian McEwan, Leonard Bernstein, Steve McQueen, Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Vidia Naipaul, Sofia Coppola, Rex Harrison, Frank Sinatra, and the list goes on and on and on. Here’s a typical passage:
Lunch at Kensington Palace with the Prince and Princess of Wales [yes, that’s Princess Di] for Shimon Peres, Prime Minister of Israel, Philip Roth, in his waggish way: ‘Of course Harold hasn’t been invited: he’s Jewish.’
But these somewhat gloating passages of what it’s like to be rich and famous are balanced by the warm, tender, loving feelings these two life partners shared. These feelings are epitomized in two poems, one which Harold wrote for Antonia, and the other which she wrote for him. Here is Harold’s:
It is Here
What sound was that?
I turn away, into the shaking room.
What was that sound that come in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
To turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?
It was the breath we took when we first met.
Listen. It is here.
The other, by Antonia, is in “bridge” language, because she believes bridge, “because it’s about partnership, is a romantic game.”
For My Partner
You’re my two-hearts-as-one
Doubled into game
You’re my Blackwood
You’re my Gerber
You’re my Grand Slam, vulnerable
Doubled and redoubled
Making all other contracts
These are privileged lives, but well-lived, filled with love and creativity. The book is aptly titled with the question one lover asks another at the end of life: Must you go?