Mother Land is the latest novel of Paul Theroux whose career has many similarities to that of Evelyn Waugh. Both made their living exclusively from writing after beginning as school teachers. Theroux’s teaching career began in the Peace Corps on assignment to Central Africa. Their early novels were comic and satirical and both wrote about Africa. They each also branched into travel books. For Waugh, this was in the golden age of travel writing and seemed an obvious choice. For Theroux, it meant reinventing what was in the 1970s a moribund genre which he succeeded in rejuvenating, beginning with The Great Railway Bazaar. Both also wrote stories and essays in magazines and newspapers. And both had brothers who were also writers. While both are Roman Catholic, this is less important in the writing of Theroux, who was born a Roman Catholic, than in that of Waugh, who was a convert.
Theroux’s latest novel is about a dysfunctional family which seems based to some extent on his own. Unlike Waugh’s family, Theroux’s was a larger unit which he shared with several siblings; there are seven in the novel plus another who dies at birth but remains in contact with their mother. The comedy in the book is darker and less pronounced than in his earlier novels, many of which were written very much in the same tradition as Waugh and Graham Greene, with whom he is often compared. The best of these early books deal with Africa: Jungle Lovers, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play. How much of the dysfunction Theroux describes in the new novel is based on what he experienced in his own family is hard to say. He has described the book in an interview as 60 percent autobiographical, and the rest fiction, But there is perhaps a bit too much of it on offer, and the book is unnecessarily repetitive, especially in the large number of family meetings which tend to become indistinguishable. It could have been a much better book by losing about 100 pages with very little rewriting of what was left (although Theroux told an interviewer that he had already cut a substantial portion of the book).
The subject matter might share something with Brideshead Revisited since that was about the offspring of two dysfunctional families. Perhaps for that reason Theroux includes an allusion to Waugh’s novel toward the end of Mother Land. This occurs (p. 469) after his mother, at the age of 101 but still in good health and mentally alert, moves to a retirement home on Cape Cod where most of the fimily live nearby. The name of the retirement home is Arcadia. As the narrator, Jay, is leaving the home after visiting his mother, he meets at the door his brother Floyd, a poet who teaches English at Harvard, and Floyd’s new wife Gloria. Their conversation begins with:
“Et in Arcadia Ego.” Floyd said as a greeting. “Source?”
“I think you’re looking for Waugh. Brideshead.”
“The obvious middlebrow reply. What I had in mind was the ambiguous painting by Nicholas Poussin in which the enigmatic ego might–who knows–refer to death speaking.”
Gloria said, “Guercino did one as well. Baroque.”
“Clever girl,” Floyd said. “Jay is overwhelmed, punching above his weight with that reference to Waugh.”
In Waugh’s novel, the Latin statement was inscribed on a skull in Charles Ryder’s room, rather than a painting but was generally used in painting beginning in the Renaissance, not necessarily associated with one by Poussin or any other particular painter. See previous post. So Floyd may have outsmarted himself since Jay’s reference can be traced back to Floyd’s. The book was recently reviewed in the New York Times by Stephen King who liked it despite its flaws.
UPDATE (20 November 2017): In yesterday’s Observer, Alex Clark reviewed Mother Land and included a remark about another possible Waugh allusion:
The portraits of Mother’s children, themselves ageing and succumbing to illness as she lives on past a century in fine fettle, are especially well done, and the novel’s climax, with its hints of an inversion of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, are sharp and subtle.
Since he may not have wanted to spoil the ending, this is all he has to say about it, so perhaps it’s best not to speculate on how Theroux may have inverted Waugh’s novel.