MOTHER LAND by Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton – ISBN 978-0-241-14498-5 (h/b)
© Paul Theroux 2017 – 509 pp
This is a devastating denunciation of his own mother by Paul Theroux, scarcely disguised as a fictional portrait of the eponymous one of the title who rules her brood of eight children (including one long deceased but not erased from her and the family`s discourse) and a ham-fisted husband who was prone to use a hard fist when the mood seized him. This is how I described it as an entry in my 2018 diary when I finished reading the book:
“My favourite author bares it all – his soul, his inner life, his family and above all his turbulent, viscerally destructive relationship with his mother! His heartfelt dedication says it all. Will have more to say about this perhaps later. Finished it in record time of just two weeks.”
The epigrammatic quotes from Jim Jones` Jonestown `Death Speech` of November 1978 and a poem by William Butler Yates which serve as a dual prelude to the book at the very start give a flavour of this relentless 500+ page diatribe against his mater. Then we are treated to an unforgivingly critical analysis of her character and how all through his growing up he felt unwanted, despised and useless as one of her offspring. There is, as other critics have noted, much repetitive delving into his upbringing and the impact her biting tongue had on him. These few lines from the middle of the book speak volumes:
“Knowing we would never find encouragement within the family – knowing in advance we would always be undermined – we sought it elsewhere. This need sent us into the world. Except for [two of his siblings, two sisters] who had tied themselves to Mother, all of us had looked for a welcome we never found at home. So some of us became travelers”, clearly including himself, reinforced by countless references throughout to the narrator as a well-known published author. And later, in the same vein, he examines a series of other writers` relationships with their own mothers:
“Edward Wilson`s mother said she`d never read a word of his. D. H Lawrence`s father mocked his son`s writing and called it a kind of slacking. Joyce`s wife famously jeered at his verbal ingenuity ... and Joyce pointedly did not attend his mother`s funeral. Hemingway`s mother hated The Sun Also Rises and called it `one of the filthiest books of the year`, with every page filling her `with sick loathing`, as she wrote to him.” He also mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald`s short story called `An Author`s Mother` which portrayed her as a philistine and an unappreciative parent of a successful author. These are just a few of the many literary examples of a dysfunctional mother-son dynamic that he gives as a pointer to his own angst! (pp 390-391). By an extraordinary coincidence, just as I finished reading the book, I came across a review of `Writers and Their Mothers` edited by Dale Salwak, a 2018 publication as it happens. It does not list Theroux among the writers featured in the book, but I have no doubt that in a future edition it probably will.
Further, there is yet another biographical revelation (at pp 402-403): “In the early, searching part of my life, as a teacher in Africa and South-east Asia, when I read everything, including the small print on the labels of ketchup bottles, I`d happened upon The Death Ship and discovered a writer to my taste. B. Traven was a rebel, a wanderer, a bitter satirist, an underdogger – and a mystery”. “Hidden, productive, loved; living in Mexico, a restless man, a linguist, a photorgapher, an occasional explorer in the jungle – sought out but never found – he had always been a hero to me, especially now, as I reflected I was living at home near my mother and among my contentious family, deeply in debt, pitied by my children, unregarded, unproductive, unloved”. “Amen. Mother”! It is significant that Theroux himself completed his manuscript of Mother Land in 2015 at Villaflores, Chiapas, Mexico – a clear tribute, intended or not, to his literary hero!
And all this was so unknown to his readers! As a long term fan of his writing … that he harboured such a deep seated sense of grievance, hatred even, towards his own mother ...there was never a hint ... but did it matter, does it matter? Not at all. It took courage to confess, to the world at large, about his inner feelings: how he felt ignored, undervalued, belittled – there are lots of instances and accounts of his interactions with every member of his family, only one of whom he was close to - the sheer minutiae of these is staggering, even if, as noted above, at times repetitive. His penmanship let loose; his anger vented. he must feel at peace now. Let`s hope so. My admiration for him as a writer remains undiminished.