When Louis Theroux made a documentary about polyamory in 2018, he admitted he "felt bad" for the man who had sadly accepted that his wife "needed" other lovers. Theroux had been tempted to intervene, but "part of these documentaries is giving people the autonomy and respect to make their choices". He spoke from long experience of standing, divided, on the sidelines of adultery. His father, the author Paul Theroux, cheated on his mother throughout a 25-year marriage. His mother, the documentary maker Anne Theroux, had a couple of affairs in return.
Now Anne has published a short, sharp memoir of 1990, the year of her split from Paul. The Year of the End is a brave book, exposing her own flaws too. But it will come as no surprise to followers of the family saga that Paul emerges as a lumbering, B-movie dinosaur of a macho ego.
Anne met Paul in Uganda in 1967. She was the young British graduate, teaching at a small school. He was the handsome American in the white suit, delivering a lecture that shook her called: "Tarzan is an Expatriate". It was about the patronising attitudes of Europeans in Africa – even those who thought they were there to help. Anne quit her job and married him – but soon realised that he was quite keen on women submitting to men.
He later said that male writers chose wives who were "protective and self-sacrificing types. What they want is a secretary, mother, a guardian of the gate..." If he had given Anne the job application in advance, she would not have applied.
Paul was the adored son of a large and raucous Massuchusets brood; Anne the only daughter of suburban Brits, raised in a south London semi. She surpassed parental expectations by winning a place at Oxford and had become "used to a good deal of applause myself".
The infidelities began so quickly that by the time Paul was off on the Orient Express and Trans Siberian Express (for his travel writing breakthrough The Great Railway Bizarre) in 1973, Anne was already revenge-cheating. Paul later claimed it was this infidelity that lay at the root of their divorce. He expected to be allowed to indulge his own appetite while Anne waited like Odysseus’ patient wife, Penelope. Here, Anne accepts it was disingenuous of her to reason, at the time, that if he had been unfaithful she had the right to cheat too: "Real love included granting freedom." But she later wonders if the liaison was "my way of screaming: ‘this is what it feels like. Is this what you really want?’" Poor Anne’s torments were increased by Paul’s tendency to write fictionalised versions of his wife and her relationships: and lovers, forcing Anne (and literary rubberneckers) to scour his novels to make sense of why their marriage failed.
I felt for Anne as she recounts how she abused substances to cushion the pain after the split. But I worried about her sons. I remember the line in their younger Louis’s 2019 memoir about his semi-detached parents being "unmindful" of the effect they were having on their children.
What’s startling is the way the boys chose to tell their mother they knew of their father’s final extramarital paramour. Marcel wrote a short story about it which he sent to Louis, which Louis left on his desk for his mother to find. Awful and weird. I will now be unable to watch Louis on television without remembering that this is how he learned to confront painful issues at a disconnected angle.
The Daily Telegraph