In 1996 the author Paul Theroux wrote a short story about the final evening of a marriage, where the characters talk poetically and drink champagne. “The reality”, writes Anne Theroux today, “was different.”
I arrive at the café early, but Theroux had arrived earlier still. She greets me from the far side of a wisteria- strung patio, elegant in the shade. We are meeting to discuss her memoir, based on a diary she kept in 1990, the year her marriage was collapsing, and over the course of our conversation we stumble only once, but in quite an unexpected place. “I’m not a writer,” she says, her voice suddenly a little ragged. But, you are, I insist – you have written a book. “I would never describe myself as a writer just because I’ve written one book.” Why? “I suppose I think Paul would be quite cross if I claimed to be a writer.” I will claim it for her then, only partly out of political spite.
She began writing the book as a therapeutic exercise, then, just before the first lockdown, came across the manuscript and thought, “Well, if I’m going to publish, it has to be now. I’ll be 79 in October. So I couldn’t really afford to leave it any longer.” It started as therapy, but ended as a revisionist history, told in tears, faxes, bathroom renovations and baby photos of her sons (novelist) Marcel and (filmmaker) Louis. She had been head of features and arts at the BBC World Service for six years, but was the only member of her family not to have published a book, until now. “I wanted to tell my story,” she says, “because I had been written about. Paul had written about the marriage, in separate books. And Louis has written about his parents. As a woman, as someone who isn’t a famous person, I just thought, I want to have my say. I thought, this picture of me as a character in someone else’s books, that’s not me.”
Which is not to say this is a memoir of shocking reveals or bitter literary gossip, that’s not her either. At times the reader might wish it was. Instead it is a delicate and careful account of a break-up, unpainting a picture by returning to the sometimes banal reality of her diary, the lunches, the phone calls, the work, then adding colour, feeling, shade, his other women, her other men. “I longed for a defining moment from which there could be no return, a pumpkin pie thrown in the face,” she writes. “I never quite managed to achieve anything as conclusive. Instead love died reluctantly by a thousand cuts.” At the time she was writing the diary, she was a journalist, but later Theroux was a relationship therapist, and it’s this expertise she brings to her story , thissense that every marriage is a novel.
On the last Sunday of 1990, Theroux was in New York on holiday alone and suddenly scared. Eating a sandwich in a café, she reached for her purse and realised her bag had gone. Back at her hotel she called the police, cancelled her cards, prepared to call the airline, the embassy about her passport, she held her head in her hands. And then the phone rang. Her bag had not been stolen – she’d left it beside her chair. She remembers being hot with embarrassment. “Why was I so sure I would be mugged?” she writes. “Could it be because I already felt robbed, of my husband and much more besides?” Friends, relatives, “the status I had enjoyed as the wife of a successful writer. It would take some time to tot up the damage”. The role of a writer’s wife, if we flick quickly through the scrapbooks of history, traditionally requires patience, worship and the ability to iron out all wrinkles in domestic life in order to create a starched, cool peace in which the writer may write. It requires organising, mothering and often putting aside the books she might have wanted to write herself.
“I was reading recently about John le Carré’s wife,” says Theroux, “who was much more than his typist. She actually edited and was involved in the writing of the books. And it sounded like a real partnership. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s how it should be.’” Except, we only know his name. “Perhaps it gave her satisfaction. I’m not sure I would ever have wanted to do that. I needed something of my own as well.” She pauses. “Sometimes second wives are quite good for authors. Like Mrs Eliot. Or the second Mrs Orwell. They seem to be better at being the devoted wife. Oh dear, that’s not a very nice way of putting it – better at being the… supportive partner.” She corrects herself frequently and politely, a tension here between needing to be honest and promote her work properly, and not wanting to upset her family. With 30 years, many grandchildren, a new partner and a long career now wedged between here and her life with Paul, she is keen to show that life goes on.
“The feelings in the book are often very painful and strong and angry, but I don’t have those feelings any more. That’s due to having another life, which has worked out well.” She has some regrets, though she does not describe them as such. “The issue of infidelity,” for instance, which “seemed almost inevitable at the time. Looking back on it, I think, well, we should have sorted that out right near the beginning, rather than pretending that it perhaps didn’t matter. It’s certainly something we should have been more honest with each other about.” But, she insists proudly, “I wouldn’t really want things any other way.”
The cafe in which we’re sitting is almost comically charming, dappled sun, the smell of lilac, the perfect place to discuss breaking down. “Being a character in a book can make you feel a bit disempowered,” Theroux smiles. “At one time it did feel positive, because I was very involved in Paul’s writing. I admired him enormously. And I was pleased when he wrote about things that we’d shared, experiences we’d had together, I was glad he recorded them, even if I didn’t necessarily agree, because his view of the world is much harsher than mine. But in some ways, it’s quite exciting to be with someone who’s as fierce and combative as that.” She quietens slightly. “He was writing very directly about his marriage, except it wasn’t our marriage. There’s a book called My Secret History, which is pretty autobiographical, with the usual disclaimer saying these are fictional characters. There’s a chapter about me having an affair while he’s away. And his reaction, which is extreme. And then the last chapter is about him having an affair and going around India, first with his lover, and then with his wife who doesn’t know. And that upset me because it really happened. And yet it wasn’t the truth about what really happened. And the woman that was me was, I thought, a lesser person than me.” The male fictional character reflects: “I had married a pretty girl, but she had quickly become a discontented woman.” When My Secret History was published, friends would ask how she felt about the novel and she would grit her teeth and say it was wonderful. She looks down. “Actually, I would read it in order to find things out.”
Once, after her ex-husband (whose life and fiction are so blurred his books often feature a character called Paul Theroux) included Anne in a story as a bitter hostess at a dinner party, she wrote to the New Yorker pointing out that the “very unpleasant character with my name said and did things I have never said or done”. Her memoir is a kind of extension of this letter, her right to reply.
I emailed her family, to offer them their own. “I found it intimate and honest and revealing,” replied Louis. “It gave an insight into my parents’ relationship I would never have had otherwise and I admire her for taking the step of putting the work into writing it.” He added: “It’s always slightly odd when you read about your parents’ intimate lives, so I won’t say there was no aspect of it that gave me a moment of slight cringe, but that’s to be expected. She is still – to me – first and foremost my mum.”
In the book, Anne recalls a day in December she found a letter from Marcel while clearing Louis’s room. It contained a short story he’d written, about a detective finding traces of a woman in his father’s house – a fax arrives from Honolulu, with a name and address, and phrases of love, “I can’t get used to sleeping alone.” She knew the story was based in fact; this was how they lived. Marcel was reluctant for her to publish the memoir. “I’ve no real desire for all this to be made public,” he admitted. “Still, my dad has had his say, multiple times, Louis has published a memoir and I understand that my mum wants to have her voice heard and not just turn up as an NPC in other people’s books. I support her in that.”
NPC is a gaming term that’s evolved to mean someone with no agency – a “non-playable character”. “In my graphomania,” offered Paul, from his home in Hawaii, where he lives with his second wife and has just completed his 51st book, “I have written a great deal, mainly fiction, about marriage and divorce, sometimes touching on my own marriage and divorce, so obviously I am in no position to object to Anne’s book, or her version of events, even though my memories differ.”
Theroux sips her coffee and waits for my question. How did it feel revisiting her divorce as a couples counsellor? “Yes, as I was editing it, I did wonder, how could we have done this better? I don’t think there is a perfect way. You should aim to be kind, and dignified. But as you’re a human being, and unlikely to be feeling kind and dignified at the point when your relationship’s ending, it’s almost inevitable that it will be messier than that. That some of the more… primitive feelings come out.” Rereading her diaries she saw reflections of her clients’ relationships. “We couldn’t bear to say, ‘That’s it. The end.’”
What advice would she give to the couple she sees in her diary? “If I were looking at Paul and myself now, as a counsellor, I would be thinking to myself, ‘There’s something going on here about roles. This chap is the one who’s fierce and angry and takes on the world. And this woman is the nice, kind, supportive wife, or at least is trying to be – but what about the part of her that wants to take on the world? And what about the part of him that’s gentle and sweet and nurturing? Are those parts getting lost?’ I might have thought, ‘I don’t think this couple are going to stay together. But I think they’ll both have quite good lives once they’ve separated.’ People who have a love of life, they’re probably going to survive, both in the marriage or outside it.”
She, as it turns out, has thrived. Her career at the BBC led to her career as a therapist, and today, living between London and the south coast, she and her partner have spent longer together than the 22 years she was with Paul. They signed their divorce papers in 1993, soon after he had written a message under her pine dining table. If, after dinner, you lie on the floor with your feet through the chair, you will read, “This table is an altar. Never forget that love.”
From her bag she unfolds a page of printed notes she had made in advance, checks them quickly, refolds. “I’ve been feeling very nervous,” she whispers. “I’m… really quite a private person. And there is a sort of feeling, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. Maybe ex-wives are supposed to maintain a dignified silence. That can be very effective for some people. But I had the feeling, well, that I’d been silent about this for long enough. I wanted to talk about my own life. I want to see what that feels like.”
And then he left… from The Year of the End by Anne Theroux
18 January 1990 Paul left today at 8am. We had been married just over 22 years. The previous evening we had gone out to a local restaurant, where we drank champagne and reminisced. In a short story about that final evening of a marriage, the central characters talk wittily and poignantly. The reality was different: we talked about the au pairs who had cared for our sons.
The conversation chronicled the years. We lived in Singapore from 1968 until 1971, when we flew to England. In 1972, I started work for the BBC and a north country lass called Beryl moved into our terrace house in Catford; she liked the Bay City Rollers, the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds; Marcel and Louis, aged four and two, appreciated her taste in music and the house rang with shrill voices singing ‘I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool.’
Beryl was a good companion when my husband left on his first long absence – a term teaching at the university of Virginia. At Christmas I flew to be reunited with him. He confessed to an affair with a student, the first admitted infidelity, and I kissed him and said it didn’t matter, thinking this was true.
Shortly afterwards, Beryl left and her place was taken by a Norwegian girl who was still with us when Paul went off on The Great Railway Bazaar journey, the beginning of his success as a writer. It was my turn to be unfaithful, and this au pair shopped me when he returned. I had confessed myself, but she added further incriminating details. Paul and I spun into a turmoil of misery yet miraculously we emerged to resume a fairly happy family life.
We talked about some, but not all of these memories over our last dinner, summoning up a procession of ghosts. Back in the purple bedroom, having walked home across Wandsworth Common, we made love, as we had done a thousand times before, kissed and turned to our separate pillows. In the morning Paul called a taxi. When it arrived, he sat on the bed and hugged me and we both shed tears. ‘I’ll be back,’ he said. Then he left for ever.
The Year of the End: A Memoir of Marriage, Truth and Fiction by Anne Theroux (Icon, £12.99) is published on 8 July. Order it for £11.30 at guardianbookshop.com