Alan Paton Paton, Alan (Stewart) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 authority. Pieter himself has a "tragic flaw" in him, to recall the classic formula for the Shakespearean hero; unfortunately, he is so evenly and perfectly split between his strength and weakness that it is hard to take him altogether seriously….

The key to...

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Sheridan Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Paton's wonderful study of guilt—but we soon sense something vaguely familiar and slightly gratuitous. Jakob van Vlaanderen, for instance, has a game leg, the result of an accident. While it helps set his stiff character, is it really functional? One remembers the gouty patriarchs of English fiction and even, guiltily, The Katzenjammer Kids. And any viewer of TV will recognize the conventional stage business in the following:

He took a step or two, then without turning called to his son; and for some reason I cannot give, that was a habit of his, to start to leave a room, and then to stop, and to talk with his back turned.

—Pieter, have you ever seen the phalarope?

—The what, father?

—The phalarope.

Naturally Paton wanted to underline his symbol, as he brings it in here for the first time. But his significant moment seems to have inspired what looks distressingly like a second-rate theatrical—the pause without turning, then the laden speech.

The dramatics have been uncertain, however, from the first. Aunt Sophie's incantatory words open the story. She herself is writing it down, she says…. And though Paton does some...

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John Barkham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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 best in him. Only when grappling with the massive themes which touch his conscience does the writer in him become most eloquent. It is this which stirs him in "A Life for a Life," and there are flashes of it, too, in the closing story, "A Drink in the Passage."

John Barkham, "Meekness and Brutality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 16, 1961, p. 4.

Nadine Gordimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edmund Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dennis Brutus

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Anthony Delius

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Graham Hough

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Nadine Gordimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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,...

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Edward Callan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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