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Trysts and turns: Hearts overwhelm heads in love

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds - Shakespeare, and mostly true. Especially this week, a bad one for trysting.

Brigadier-General Daniel Ménand - 42, two kids - was relieved of his post in Afghanistan after allegations that he had had an affair with an enlisted woman. A week earlier, he was fined $3,500 for accidentally discharging his firearm. As metaphors go, that one is hard to beat.

Three new books describe the late Norman Mailer's endless dalliances, even during his marriage to Norris Church, his sixth wife. You can't say No. 6 didn't come forewarned.

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Sexy Tipper and Stolid Al - the Gores, poster couple for American marital squareness - also called it splitsville. Forty years. You could almost hear clucking tongues over the ring of cash registers selling self-help divorce books.

It was therefore with relief that I came upon Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?, her deft account of her midlife marriage to Harold Pinter, the late Nobel Prize-winning playwright. The book, out in Britain last January, is due in Canada in November. Stuff the self-help experts and read this account of an articulate, honest heart.

Lady Fraser (historical biographies, novels) and Harold Pinter, the master of the Angry Pause (29 stage plays, 27 screenplays), abandoned their respective spouses for each other in 1975, when they were both in their 40s. It might not have been Twittered into the 24/7 media gaga we've grown used to - exhibit A, Tiger Woods; exhibit B, Sandra Bullock - but the Playwright and his Lady were a major scandal at the time, one Shakespeare would have loved for the way it opened the most sclerotic arteries in British society.

Mr. Pinter was the clever son of a Jewish tailor, born in poor-end Hackney. He had been married for 18 years (unhappily and unfaithfully) to one of Britain's favourite (and most alcoholic) actresses, Vivien Merchant, star of Alfie.

Lady Fraser was a Catholic, Oxford-educated, knockout blonde and daughter of the Earl and Countess of Longford. She, too, had been wed for 18 years, to Sir Hugh Fraser, a wealthy Scottish aristocrat and Conservative member of Parliament, with whom she had six children. The upstart Jew and his lusty Lady! It was a drama written by the Devil of stereotypes, who is definitely British. Paparazzi hounded the lovers for years.

Must You Go? is the inside story. It's a delicious book for old-fashioned reasons. For one thing, it's based on her private diary, not a blog for public consumption. It never panders. Two: Lady Fraser knew everyone who was anyone in artistic and political London, and had a reporter's ear for their best stories. Like all great diarists (Samuel Pepys, Harold Nicholson, our own Charles Ritchie), she is as watchful as she is reluctant to judge.

The result is a rare thing - a calm but meticulously honest portrait of a man and a woman so deeply in love, so fascinated and charmed by each other, that they agreed to brook the displeasure of the shallow, shifting mob and take refuge in each other's company.

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The British press made their lives hell, siding with a blabbing Ms. Merchant (one of her most popular criticisms was that Lady Fraser had big feet) and predicting Mr. Pinter would never write well again. (He soon gave the world Betrayal, while Lady Fraser, who had been stuck for years on a biography of Charles II, got so unstuck she went on to write a total of 22 books.)

This book's title is what the playwright said to the historian on The Birthday Party's opening night in London in 1975.

"Wonderful play, marvellous acting, now I'm off," she breezed.

"Must you go?" Mr. Pinter countered.

"No," she replied, "it's not absolutely essential."

But falling in love with him turned out to be. They spent the night together, then began hiding in hotels - and loved checking into them for the rest of their lives. (Mr. Pinter, no surprise, liked suites.) Their friends were full of useless, contradictory advice, as friends always are in a split-up.

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"I would like to be married to you when I'm 80," Mr. Pinter told her, two and a half months along. "I don't want to pretend I'm on a lecture tour."

To which Lady Fraser replied, in her diary: "I suppose I'm used to being on that 'lecture tour' and it seems a perfectly good way of life. But Harold's force is burning me up and fascinating me all at the same time."

Though tortured by Ms. Merchant for five years before she agreed to a divorce, Mr. Pinter knew what he wanted. He made a literary career of depicting the inflexible doom of human existence, the way we insist on living our lives as if they are fated and set in stone. But when he saw a glimpse of real emotional freedom in the form of a loving and intelligent woman, he jumped.

Lady Fraser doesn't gloss the hellish pain of "the dog days of divorce," but she has a historian's long view. Scandal felt like a midnight of the soul, but she knew it was not midnight at all, but dawn. When a reporter referred to the "allegedly passionate playwright," Lady Fraser advised her lover to sue: "What's alleged about it?"

My suspicion is that we all know that we should extend our tolerance and kindness to people whose hearts overtake them - Tiger Woods included. But it's easier to scold than it is to struggle through the contradictions of humanity.

Thirty-three years after the pair met (her 70th birthday with him was the "happiest day of my life - so far"), she watched him die of cancer. The diary's account is devastating. It isn't just Mr. Pinter who dies, but their example.

Appropriately, the couple's last conversation takes place in bed. Lady Fraser is reading Tolstoy while her husband fades. She records the final full sentence of Harold Pinter, who made his mark putting sentences in other people's mouths: " 'What are your plans,' pause, 'generally?' "

That's the thing we hate to admit about a human life: It's always too soon to tell.

With this column, Curiouser goes on hiatus, while Ian Brown writes a summer series about eating his way across Canada, which begins in print and online in July.

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