Mum’s the word

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - JU­LIA O’MA­HONY WRIT­ERS AND THEIR MOTH­ERS EDITED BY DALE SALWAK Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 258pp, £19.50

The hid­den his­to­ries of writ­ers and their moth­ers

When Philip Larkin was asked if he might re­gret not be­ing able to at­tach more sig­nif­i­cance to his child­hood, the in­ter­viewer high­light­ing that there was no trauma – no vil­lain­ous mother – that had led to his be­com­ing a poet, he replied sim­ply, “Well, it would have been nice to have more tech­ni­colour, so to speak.”

Clas­si­cally un­der­stated though Larkin’s re­sponse was, it re­mains true that writ­ers and readers con­tinue to ob­sess over what it is that nur­tures the im­pulse to write. We pore over pho­to­graphs of writ­ers in their stud­ies as much, if not more, than we do the early chap­ters of lit­er­ary bi­ogra­phies, hint­ing at our con­fu­sion as to whether such an im­pulse is ac­ti­vated in child­hood, or only in the pres­ence of a care­fully cu­rated book­shelf. We’re con­vinced that there’s a com­mon­al­ity among the chaos – a few dis­til­l­able mo­ments or in­flu­ences that make a writer.

In his col­la­tion of 22 es­says on the theme of writ­ers and their moth­ers, editor Dale Salwak in­di­cates that a mother, whether present, or no­tice­able in her ab­sence, might be as for­ma­tive an in­flu­ence on a writer’s work as in life.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that a mother might oc­cupy a per­va­sive space in their child’s work, but what is most strik­ing about the col­lec­tion is its lack of pre­de­ces­sors. Colm Tóibín’s New Ways to Kill Your Mother con­tains pieces that would not be out of place here, de­spite be­ing an an­thol­ogy that chooses to fo­cus on the broader im­por­tance of a writer’s fam­ily. There’s no doubt, how­ever, that its ti­tle hints at which of these forces Tóibín felt most im­por­tant, his own mother’s lit­er­ary am­bi­tions cer­tainly a crit­i­cal in­flu­ence on his craft.

Sur­prised to re­alise there was so lit­tle writ­ten about the sub­ject, Writ­ers and Their Moth­ers is Salwak’s re­sponse to Alexan­der McCall Smith’s as­ser­tion that “there may be no book on the moth­ers of po­ets, or artists in gen­eral, but it might one day be writ­ten and would be, I think, an en­light­en­ing read”. In a book con­tain­ing both bi­o­graph­i­cal and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal pieces, Salwak de­liv­ers a se­ries of snap­shots into the lives of 22 very dif­fer­ent women and their re­la­tion­ships with their aus­pi­cious chil­dren.

Shake­speare’ s mother

From a scarce por­trait of Mary Ar­den Shake­speare, whose pres­ence in her son’s life is very much felt within his works, to the for­mi­da­ble Char­lotte Low­ell, whose tyranny fuels her son’s poetry; each of the moth­ers de­mand a very dif­fer­ent re­sponse – whether wor­shipped or vil­i­fied; treated as life­time con­fi­dantes, or rarely trusted. Nat­u­rally, the chil­dren of­ten seem to live out the un­lived lives of their moth­ers, whether or not that in­cludes as­sert­ing a lit­er­ary am­bi­tion. Yet while the re­la­tion­ships them­selves dif­fer im­mensely, none of them seem en­tirely dis­tinct, or wholly ir­rel­e­vant to, the bod­ies of work that would sur­face down the line.

Ian McEwan ad­dresses this some­what opaque tra­jec­tory in his assess­ment of his in­her­ited “mother tongue”. The young McEwan waged a cul­tural re­bel­lion on his di­alect, ask­ing his peers to cor­rect him when he slipped into us­ing his mother’s prose. When set­tling down to write, McEwan found his clipped prose mis­taken for sear­ing per­fec­tion­ism, but this was a mere byprod­uct of his own un­ease with us­ing lit­er­ary English so un­like the id­iom of his mother. His es­say del­i­cately un­der­scores the cycli­cal na­ture of this jour­ney, as McEwan comes to cher­ish that which he once cast off, sav­ing tit­bits of his mother’s speech for his char­ac­ters. More sig­nif­i­cantly, McEwan looks to his fe­male char­ac­ters to em­body the good­ness of which his male char­ac­ters fall short, which he puts down to a long time spent de­fend­ing his mother to his fa­ther “. . . In other words, pen in hand, I was going to set my mother free”. What starts as a light-hearted com­men­tary on the writer’s use of lan­guage be­comes a space in which McEwan can as­sess a theme cen­tral to his work – his mother’s in­flu­ence serv­ing as the en­try point into this rev­e­la­tory mode of self-ap­praisal.

An­thony Th­waite, by con­trast, chooses to sup­plant his es­say with six po­ems writ­ten to­wards the end of his mother’s life. Through poetry, he is able to echo the quiet dis­tress of vis­it­ing an el­derly rel­a­tive, in a way that a long­form es­say might not have cap­tured:

Be­ing with her now is a kind of bore­dom, A dull­ness in which guilt and pain both ache, When all my child­hood an­guish af­ter free­dom Has long since van­ished. Now I wait to take

Her back to her own lone­li­ness, where she Can fol­low bore­dom of a dif­fer­ent kind, Rou­tine quite un­re­sented, and set free From all con­straints. She is re­signed . . .

This docile im­age is shat­tered in a later poem, when Th­waite dis­cov­ers a scrap of pa­per on which his mother asks in a “dead­ened, end­less shout” . . . “Why have you done this to me? Take me out.” The cou­plets ring out ac­cus­ingly, fur­ther stress­ing the un­healed wounds that lie at the heart of his con­tri­bu­tion.

In style alone, Th­waite’s piece lies al­most at odds with the more tra­di­tional es­says in­cluded in the col­lec­tion, but there is much of value here too. An ex­am­i­na­tion of Eva Larkin’s in­flu­ence on her son’s style makes for an al­most sooth­ing read, re­veal­ing as it does, that Philip Larkin was at the very least ca­pa­ble of true and last­ing af­fec­tion. A for­mi­da­ble May Beck­ett, both a cre­ative and de­struc­tive pres­ence in her son’s life, of­fers a clue into his dark­ness, while Martin Amis pens a witty homage to a won­der­fully “wicked” step­mother, al­low­ing her just a few mo­ments in the spot­light be­fore the in­evitable thud of his fa­ther’s wit ap­proaches. Per­haps most no­tably, a piece of­fered by Wil­liam Gold­ing’s daugh­ter con­cludes so beau­ti­fully that a reader might be con­vinced they were read­ing fic­tion.

In each case, these women are shown to be dif­fer­ent to one an­other, whether in strength or foible, all wield­ing a unique in­flu­ence over their chil­dren, and en masse, this makes for a com­pelling, and var­ied read. In his col­lec­tion, Salwak sim­ply as­serts that good writ­ing is likely to flour­ish be­cause of, or in spite of, a mother’s in­flu­ence. In con­sid­er­ing how far such an arc of in­flu­ence might stretch, the en­dur­ing strength of these es­says, how­ever, lies in their en­deav­our to el­e­vate these women – these moth­ers – from the foot­notes.

Ian McEwan, above: “Pen in hand, I was going to set my mother free”. Be­low, Eva Larkin’s in­flu­ence on her son Philip’s style “was at the very least ca­pa­ble of true and last­ing af­fec­tion”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.