Review by Rosemary Goring
In an interview, long after he and his first wife Anne broke up, Paul Theroux reflected that “Writers choose their wives. They choose them for certain purposes. They need a specific kind of woman – protective and self-sacrificing types … What they want is a secretary, mother, a guardian of the gate.”
Anne Theroux, as this memoir reveals, was not suited to that submissive, self-negating brief. The pair met in 1967 when she was working as a broadcaster with VSO in Kenya, and he was teaching in Uganda. Soon she became pregnant. That she gave up her job to marry him suggests the sort of devotion Paul required. Yet Anne’s account of the year in which their 22-year-marriage finally fizzled out shows otherwise. Initially so well-suited in intellect, interests and affection, ultimately they could not reconcile their divergent needs and ambitions.
The Year of the End is subtitled: A Memoir of Marriage, Truth and Fiction, and, like a conscientious student answering an exam question point by point, it lives up to its description. Based on a diary Anne Theroux kept throughout 1990 – “I forced myself to write something on every page, though it did not come easily to me, as you can no doubt tell” – it was amplified a few years later with fuller recollections than the often drab and flat observations of the diary. Thereafter, the manuscript sat in a drawer for decades.
You might wonder why she has now published it, after reading what cannot fail to be regarded as a work of revenge. Doubtless Anne Theroux’s intention was to set the record straight, rather than twist the knife. She had, after all, been long-suffering, tolerant, and accepting of Paul Theroux’s infidelities from early in their marriage. Arguably even worse, she had been humiliated by his depiction of her in his fiction. In 1989, he published My Secret History, in which Jenny Parent, the narrator’s wife, was recognisable as Anne. She is drawn as “shrewish and humourless”, and the husband’s passionate affair is mercilessly described.
Anne writes that “the book was a betrayal”. When she told Theroux how it made her feel, he replied by telling her he was seeing someone. He tried to reassure her that this liaison was unimportant, and his lover – who would later become his second wife – was well aware of where she stood: “I told her that this had happened before, and that when I had to choose, I chose you.”
In January 1990, as the couple brace themselves for the split, they go out to dinner, to reminisce. Champagne is drunk, the final fizz of their relationship. The next day, January 18, Anne records: “Paul left today at 8am, the beginning of a six-month separation. I spent a futile, miserable day drinking, smoking a joint (I even burnt the carpet), and hoping I can pull myself together tomorrow.”
During that separation, unbeknownst to her, Paul lived with his girlfriend in Honolulu and his Cape Cod house. What follows is an account of how Anne negotiated the heartbreak that ensued.
Of all the scores settled, perhaps the biggest is with Theroux’s future wife. At various points Anne recounts conversations in which Paul repudiated her – “‘I do know somebody of that name. But not very well. She isn’t important.”
There are moments in this confessional, unvarnished description of a relationship sliding into the abyss when the reader feels voyeuristic. It’s not clear what is to be gained from revealing private scenes of screaming hurt and rage, of bedroom intimacies and hopeless yearning.
Whatever the motive behind publication, Anne does not seem like a vindictive woman. She is as unflinchingly hard and honest about herself as about Paul. That the book is dedicated to their sons, Marcel and Louis, both now well-known in their own right, would suggest it was not written in bitterness but in the hope of enlightenment or explication. Possibly, indeed, as a guide to others in a similar situation.
Later Anne put her experience to good use. After a long career with the BBC, she became a relationship counsellor. The language of that profession is evident here. When, as a young wife, she responded to Paul’s earliest flings by having one of her own, she writes: “Perhaps the affair indicated a dangerous flaw in our relationship, a weakness in the marital bedrocks of loyalty and commitment. Or perhaps it was my way of screaming, ‘This is what it feels like. Is this what you really want?’” Needless to say, Paul was unforgiving.
Much of this memoir is pedestrian, recounting films viewed, holidays abroad, or Anne’s interviews with writers such as Barbara Cartland and Kingsley Amis. These workaday details add to the impression of a turbulent, distressing year, but she would be the first to admit that she cannot compete with Paul as a writer. It is only in the portrait of a fractured marriage, and reflections on being married to an artist, that the page comes alive.
“I don’t know what kind of woman is best suited to be the wife of an artist,” she reflects, before suggesting there is the “equally-talented” pairing, such as Diego and Frida Kahlo, and then there is “the master and the handmaid”, into which category she fell, albeit reluctantly: “I left a lot to be desired as a handmaid, being too opinionated and argumentative, too hopeful that I had something to offer the world myself, too intent on finding my own satisfactions.”
It was Paul Theroux’s great friend VS Naipaul who embodied the heartlessness of a certain kind of author. Naipaul’s credo was uncompromising – Art is long and Life is short – and it made Anne shiver: “it was a profound conviction that permeated everything he did and said. It was a dangerous belief. It could be used as an excuse to treat people badly. It was a belief I feared Paul shared.”
By Christmas 1990, and the end of the diary, it was obvious that the marriage was beyond repair. In the years to come, Anne found happiness elsewhere, as did Paul. What this book encapsulates, however clumsily, is a wife’s sorrowful admission – and the truth of most broken relationships – that “love died reluctantly by a thousand cuts”.