Paton, Alan (Stewart)
Alan (Stewart) Paton 1903–
South African novelist, short story writer, biographer, autobiographer, and essayist.
Paton is perhaps best known for his novels Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope. Both of these works, as with the majority of his writing, expose and confront the South African situation. With a perceptive and sympathetic understanding, Paton examines the exploitation of nonwhites by the elite ruling class and reveals the effects this has not only on the exploited, but on the country as a whole.
It is with a religious rather than a political conviction that Paton devotes his life to the betterment of his country. Coming from a puritanical background heavily influenced both morally and stylistically by the Old Testament prophets, Paton approaches his cause with a quiet yet passionate eloquence. Some critics feel that the parable-like qualities of his writing—the spare and evenly biblical prose, the underdeveloped characters, the heavy thematic significance—detract from the literary value of his works. Others, however, feel that these points provide a classical, absorbing power which captivates the reader.
(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1; and Something about the Author, Vol. 11.)
Ever since he published "Cry, The Beloved Country," a book which so passionately brought to the attention of the outside world the plight of the bitterly exploited native population of South Africa, Alan Paton has come to seem one of the few voices in that somber and menaced country that still speak out for liberal values….
Mr. Paton, to put it mildly, is not a dangerous revolutionary, nor, to put it as simply and respectfully as possible, is he a writer of great originality. He writes as a sensitive liberal, placed in a situation whose ferocious depths plainly alarm him…. The humanity of his work and the limitations of his fiction are clearly marked in "Too Late the Phalarope."
Mr. Paton's subject here is the downfall of a South African hero, Pieter van Vlaanderen, a young police officer of the best Boer stock who represents what is legendary and noblest in South Africa; the book is in large part, I gather, to be taken as an allegory of South Africa today, in relation both to its past and to its cruel unawareness of inner weakness. Mr. Paton has something real to write about, which is why one wishes he had created characters strong enough in every detail to support the burden of meaning he puts on them.Pieter's father is one of the great landowners, a leader in the Nationalist party and a harsh, somber man who reads nothing but the Bible, despises the English, and rules his wife and family with absolute...
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Too Late the Phalarope invites us to think of Alan Paton more simply as a novelist than as a kind of Christian plenipotentiary to South Africa. Not that Cry the Beloved Country is a religious tract, or natural accident—but the literary qualities of the first book, which seem to have sprung from the very ground, seem in the second imported. Though Too Late the Phalarope is no patchwork, its relative limitations can be detected. I think, squarely in the midst of its new 'literary' features.
Similarity to Paton's first book only emphasizes the defects. (p. 152)
Paton's symbology and psychology seem sound enough. A big and autocratic father may in effect emasculate the son, may make him half girl and half athlete. A timid wife may disappoint him. His need to prove himself a man may lead him to excel on the rugby field and in the police force, and to engage in the most primitive and dangerous sexual game available. And sexual intercourse with a black girl, at the very time that it enables the son to feel himself his father's equal in potency, has the further advantage of ultimate disobedience, of punishing the father at the cruellest extremity, and of caricaturing, as it were, the white domination of black for which he stands. But something is missing, and the earliest symptoms appear in the very technique.
To be sure, there are literary gains—in new territory, in plotting, in...
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["Tales from a Troubled Land"] is a collection of ten tales, one superb, one first-rate, the remainder of lesser quality. To begin with the best, "Life for a Life" ranks with the most moving writing the author has ever done. It tells of the events that follow the murder of a rich Afrikaner farmer, as seen from the viewpoint of his colored laborers…. The writing is dark with the menace of approaching retribution. Once more the meekness of the colored folk is contrasted with the oafish brutality of the Afrikaner police…. The prose is Biblical in its power, and the whole terrifying episode is set down with a quiet ferocity which wells up not from the words, but in the heart of the reader. This is a story that shows Paton at his unapproachable best.
Hardly less poignant is the brief vignette he calls "Ha'penny." …
For many years before he became a writer, Paton served as head of a renowned reform school for colored boys. Most of the stories in this book are drawn from that experience. They vary in quality: some point up the peculiarities in African ratiocination, others are mere anecdotes which puzzle or amuse. The best of this group is "Sponono," about a Xosa boy who always meant well but invariably acted ill. If this story proves anything at all, it is only that the two races will probably never understand each other's thinking fully.
This reminiscent side of Paton is not one to bring out the...
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In terms of tragedy as the rest of the world knows it, there is a tragedy in Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope—the private tragedy of a man of fine instincts in conflict with an instinct that seems misplaced from some earlier, brutish existence. The writer takes care to endow his hero with noble attributes and virtues, and provides that he shall bring about his own downfall, thus fulfilling the classical conditions of tragedy….
Peter van Vlaanderen is a Greek-godlike young man with [a fatal] flaw. It takes the form of lust, a terrible hunger of lust that, it is suggested (and as modern readers we require this sort of psychological explanation, though the Greeks would not have bothered), has grown out of all proportion to the rest of van Vlaanderen's nature through his father's stern suppression of the son's affectionate needs as a child…. Peter van Vlaanderen's lust takes as its object, as that of many men has done before him, an out-of-work servant girl. But she is black. The colour problem makes of this lust of van Vlaanderen's something hideous and unnatural, rather than an unfortunate venture into infidelity on the part of a strictly-brought-up young man. In terms of a morality outside South Africa, what he does would involve him in a private struggle, a private hurt and unhappiness between him and the wife whom he loves, and some social disapproval; but within the South African morality what he has done is dragged...
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D. D. Chambers
It is not surprising that six of the ten Tales From A Troubled Land should be set within the framework and atmosphere of a reformatory, an environment at once the reflection and the microcosm of South Africa itself. Author Alan Paton is well acquainted with the setting that he uses,… but the "reformatory" stories are unfortunately and somewhat tediously similar in theme and texture. None really approaches the tender and almost "fey" quality of Cry The Beloved Country or Too Late The Phalarope. The difficulty that the reader experiences in these stories may be with the rigid framework of warden and prisoner within reformatory walls, at times reminiscent of Thomas Mann at his worst, or it may be in the obstacle of accepting the carefree listlessness of the Africans themselves. It is nevertheless unmistakeably difficult for the North American reader to accept or adapt himself to the position of either African delinquent or "European" principal in such stories as "Sponono" or "The Elephant Shooter". And this acceptance is even more difficult in the English-Afrikaaner relationship dealt with in "The Worst Thing In His Life".
Where the true brilliance of Paton's storytelling craft makes itself obvious is in the four other stories which take place outside the prison walls….
It is with "Debbie Go Home" and "A Drink In The Passage" … that Mr. Paton's unmistakeable and intangible genius shines...
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Much has been published recently about the decline of tragedy, and the question has been asked whether tragedy can be written in this age. Offstage, during the discussion, Alan Paton went ahead and did it—in terms of the novel—in Too Late the Phalarope. It was the book that followed his much-acclaimed first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. It offered him, therefore, all the notorious "second book" challenges, as well as the problems of tragedy. The two books are an interesting study in the tragic—and an element beyond. (p. 83)
The core of Too Late the Phalarope is classically simple: Pieter van Vlaanderen, a police lieutenant, honored in the community, breaks the iron law of the South African Immorality Act. Thereby he is destroyed and his family with him. A secret flaw has brought about the fall of a man of stature. He comprehends what has happened, and recognizes his own responsibility in it. Nevertheless, the story contains forces that become cumulative inevitabilities, helping to thrust him on an inexorable path. As in Cry, the Beloved Country, we are given a balanced picture of environmental influences coexistent with personal responsibility.
Four major factors—two of which are social and two, personal—produce the tragedy. The first of these is the psychotic rigidity of the Afrikaner community in South Africa. An illicit sexual encounter might cause varying degrees of trouble...
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Although Alan Paton has come to be known as the poet of South African race relations, his point of greatest involvement often seems to be the more universal and eternal mystery of father-son relations…. [In his play Sponono] the same theme occasionally comes to the surface to capture our deeper interest in this admirable if routine portrait of life in a South African reformatory.
For while Mr. Paton and his collaborator, Krishna Shah, have with some success caught the whole panorama of a reformatory life that seems not essentially different from what it is in some American institutions of this kind, and have added to it a folk overtone unique to the conflict between tribal Africa and the ways of its European colonizers, it is in those moments when the principal attempts to break through to his most hopeful and difficult protégé, Sponono, that we are most moved….
The truest problem of this play … is the exploration of Sponono's compulsions to good and evil and of the principal's parental necessity to be fair to all his sons as he patiently encourages their adjustment to an unjust society while trying to respond to one extraordinarily profound boy in his charge.
There can be no simple answer or even full understanding of such a boy, and the play wisely dismisses the traditional sociological excuses it briefly considers. It does suggest that the principal's inability to believe one true...
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[Alan Paton] started what seems to me almost a new era in South African writing. What is interesting about it is that other people had written not much less competently the sort of thing which Paton wrote in Cry, the Beloved Country, but somehow they did not set in motion the kind of cycle which Paton did. If you know Cry, the Beloved Country, you will know that it is a rather simple story. It is a narration of a black man in contact with a society which he doesn't really understand—a society in which he finds himself either unable to cope, or he finds himself sucked into the worst elements of that society. He ends as a criminal and the society is accused of having made him a criminal. All this is really very straightforward and, in a sense, almost trite—and I don't think Paton himself would mind if one described it in these terms.
One must not think in colour categories, but it is very difficult to resist thinking of Alan Paton as a white man, a sympathizing white man standing outside the South African society with all its complexities and dynamic tensions and reducing it to what is almost a parable, a simple little tale told with a certain lyricism which I think is sometimes false because it is almost like a kind of poetic prose; but telling a story which moved people, and caught people's attention…. It is almost as if a serious novel on the theme of the disintegration of African culture and society, a serious...
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"I have been a teacher all my life", says the now septuagenarian Alan Paton in his absorbing Towards the Mountain….
However, if after … much discouragement in confronting some of the most disturbing problems of our century—racism, nationalism, violence—this indefatigable man is still trying to teach us something, he has chosen the most engaging way of doing it. The account of his youth and early career as a science master, husband and lover against the background of the subtropical beauty of Natal, and his later career as a reformer of a reformatory for black delinquents outside Johannesburg, makes compelling reading, and culminates in the final excitement of Paton's feverishly composing a best-seller while visiting penal institutions in Europe and America from Borstal to Alcatraz. He writes in a rigorously unmannered prose, lightened by gentle irony, sometimes breaking into comedy—to my mind this is his best writing yet.
He also presents his readers with a more rounded, interesting and entertaining character than he has succeeded in giving us in any previous novel, short story, play or biography. His honesty stops just this side of being obsessive—if he refrains from boring us with the whole truth, at least one feels he is telling nothing but the truth, without evasion.
Anthony Delius, "Seeds on Stony Ground," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times...
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[Paton's Cry, the beloved country] is not merely a social record: it is the deeply imagined story of an individual life. And Paton has had to devise a language to tell the story in, for the simple Zulu parson who is the protagonist does not deal in the current coin of modern English speech. So that the literary question was as demanding as the historical one; the political act cannot be separated from the work of art. Now, after thirty years, comes Ah, but your land is beautiful, with similar themes and settings, the date of the action a few years later, the conflicts more distinctly those of the modern world. And though the continuity with Paton's earlier work is complete, this is a different kind of book. Cry, the beloved country is an exploration both of the racial problem and of personal suffering; and its quasi-Biblical language is a means of penetrating into a sorrowful and bewildered consciousness. Ah, but your land is beautiful is a panorama, a chronicle, with a wide variety of characters and the interest distributed between them. It is a less lyrical and more political book, in part an evident roman-à-clef….
The story unrolls in a series of short episodes, each centred on a single character and the characters covering a wide spectrum of South African life. An Indian girl sits in a 'No Blacks' library and is arrested; a white school official becomes prominent in the Liberal Party; his life...
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In Paton's novels one hears voices. That is his method. It derives perhaps—fascinatingly—from the secret level at which the suprarational of creative imagination and the suprarational of religious belief well up together in him. In Phalarope a voice bore witness to the undoing of a young man by racist laws that made a criminal act out of a passing sexual infidelity. A loving relative watched what she was powerless to prevent; hers was the voice of compassion. In Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful, watcher has turned spy. Characters' actions are seen now by hostile, distorting eyes and recorded in the evil cadences of poison pen letters. Paton's technique remains the same, but his viewpoint has changed from sorrowful compassion to irony. Compare the hushed shock with which Paton described Pieter van Vlaanderen's "fall" (he has made love to a black girl) from the love of wife and family, honor, and self-respect in Phalarope, with the prurient cackle of Proud White Christian Woman….
The phalarope, rare bird of understanding that came too late between father and son in the earlier novel, is recognized between the generations in the proud acceptance by the wealthy Indian family, the Bodasinghs, of their daughter's involvement in the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws. And, much later in the narrative, the bird figures again in the rise of internal moral conflicts and their liberal resolution within formerly...
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"Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful" shows no slackening of either [Paton's] hope or his realism. This novel is as vigorously and as exquisitely written as anything he has produced. It has the eloquence, the special commingling of sweetness and anger, the Orwellian force and lucidity, familiar to readers of "Too Late the Phalarope" … and several other volumes since. Its tone is quietly anguished. Its classical appeal is based on a direct and simple confidence that the facts of his country's moral disaster will move all men and women, all at once, in the same direction. (p. 7)
The cumulative anecdotal force of "Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful" is difficult to convey. Considering its abundant violence, the passion of its advocacy, and the hatred it matter-of-factly reports, the book is remarkably gentle….
Individual human dilemmas are never swallowed up or diminished by the overarching political context of the story he is telling. Paton is relentless in his faith in the moral meaning of individual human experience…. Paton's faith is not a religious one, but a faith in the function, the usefulness of personal sympathy. (p. 22)
John Romano, "A Novel of Hope and Realism," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1982, pp. 7, 22.
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For some years Paton's literary reputation rested on two successful novels and a handful of short stories. But the judgment of the future may rank his biographies of Jan Hofmeyr and Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton as well as his own autobiographical writings as a comparable literary achievement. (p. 92)
Paton's Hofmeyr is, essentially, about the moral and intellectual development of a man whose lot was to become deputy prime minister for a time and afterwards to be rejected because of his liberal views on civil rights. Although Paton had been Hofmeyr's friend, and a great admirer of his moral courage, the biography was not persevered with through years of difficulties simply out of friendship or admiration. There were those who thought that "of all the lives waiting to be written, Hofmeyr's was the least promising—dull, virtuous, conventional, with no wine, women, or song." Paton, with a novelist's discernment, realized that on the contrary Hofmeyr's life had "an inner drama as exciting as anything to be found in South Africa." This inner drama might have proved reason enough to undertake the work, but Paton had a more compelling reason. He was convinced that the story of Hofmeyr's life could reveal the true spirit of South Africa in our times more clearly than the biography of any other public figure…. (pp. 95-6)
Judged as a work of scholarship, Paton's biography has deficiencies. He is not meticulous about...
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