October 17, 2010 · 10:54 am
Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)
Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter. Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife. They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home. This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?” Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.
The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter). Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry… Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak. And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied. At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?” Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”
“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”
Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity. His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.” As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.” But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues. He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many. Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was. Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”
Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony. But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech. It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.
“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”
If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight. This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph. Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart. Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008. His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher. Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.
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August 30, 2010 · 6:41 pm
Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, August 2010)
“Every writer is alone…”
This is a memoir about a writer, Tom Grimes, whose idol was famous for writing a memoir. It began as a eulogy written by Grimes for Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time: A Memoir that was published in 1977. Grimes decided to expand that eulogy by writing in detail about how he came to be discovered by Conroy, a noted instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This, however, describes just half of the narrative – the book might just as easily have been titled A Writing Life, as it fully details the obstacles, impediments and vagaries that can overwhelm an ambitious young writer.
Interestingly, Grimes and Conroy first happened to meet when the former was an applicant to the Workshop. The meeting went so badly that Grimes left and destroyed his copy of Stop-Time. But Conroy randomly happened to read the manuscript for a novel written by Grimes, and greased his admission into the Iowa Writer’s program. Conroy and Grimes had such an obvious father-and-son relationship that many of Grimes’ fellow students derided him as Conroy’s “golden boy.”
In the sections where Grimes writes about Conroy, I was reminded of the tone used by John Gunther in Death Be Not Proud, the account of his son’s death at the age of 17. The tone is quiet, sad, respectful. (Especially as Grimes comes to regret the periods where he failed to keep in touch with Conroy.) In contrast, the writing has a sometimes jarring quality when Grimes details his own rollercoaster-like (and manic) career as a young author. With the strong support of Conroy, Grimes’ first novel resulted in a small bidding war among publishers for the rights. Grimes went for the highest pay-day only to find that the promised public relations campaign for his novel was never to materialize. And then no publisher wanted Grimes’ second novel.
Grimes clearly covers his descent into depression and near-madness in a manner that only some will wish to read. The more fascinating pages are the ones where he provides a view into the world of publishing; it’s a world where a writer can be offered a high six-figure advance one day and find that the offer has dropped to the very lowest of five figures the next.
“You’ve changed my life… love, love, love.”
This memoir concludes in a way that the reader will find – depending on his/her perspective – either encouraging or unimpressive. Grimes was 54 at the time he wrote Mentor, the same age that Conroy was when the student-writer Grimes met his most important instructor. Grimes is now a college-level journalism professor. He teaches in Texas rather than in Iowa, but serves as a replica of Frank Conroy. This can be viewed as a heartfelt, living, tribute to his mentor or, alternatively, as the reliving of a life that had already run its course.
This reader found this to be an admirable and frank memoir of two lives that, for all of its stark candor, fell just a bit short of being the type of inspirational story that one would read and subsequently re-read. The first half of the account was far more engaging than the second half. Mentor leaves one with a sense of sadness and wariness about life, which was likely the writer’s intent.
Takeaway: This is a memoir that some (writers, mainly) will love – they will view it as a loving tribute to a teacher from his student. Others will understandably see it as a bit too unvarnished.
A review copy was received from the publisher.
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