Jim Doyle, the best teacher I’ve ever known, recommended Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope (1953) to me more than thirty years ago. I bought the novel in paperback, a long time ago — so long that the price, $3.45, now looks like a highly improbable price for a book. The book sat on one shelf or another until last week, when I thought I should read that.
And now I can recommend Too Late the Phalarope. The novel tells the story of the destruction of Pieter van Vlaanderen, Afrikaner, police lieutenant, footballer, stamp collector, husband and father, a man undone by his desire for a black woman named Stephanie. The narrative works as does ancient Greek tragedy: we know from the beginning that Pieter is doomed. His family falls with him: the house of van Vlaanderen. The novel’s narrator is Pieter’s aunt Sophie van Vlaanderen, disfigured, unmarried, unable to prevent what is to befall her nephew (and thus something like the chorus of Greek tragedy). Here and there, we read excerpts from Pieter’s journal, now in Sophie’s hands. In these pages, Pieter is never able to articulate what it is that he feels for Stephanie: his is a desire that dare not speak its name, or that has no name.
Too Late the Phalarope captures the agony of living with the expectation that one’s secret will be (or has already been) found out. A neighbor’s glance, the tone of an offhand remark: to Pieter, the slightest gesture or word begins to seem dangerously meaningful. He hides his secret in a world divided into irreconcilable categories: black and white, body and soul, damnation and salvation, justice and mercy, love and sex. Presiding over all events is an angry patriarch — Pieter’s nearly humorless, rigid father, who is willing to banish his son and lock the door against his return.
I think I’m a better person for having read Too Late the Phalarope. And now I wonder why its enigmatic title didn’t move me to read it sooner.
[A comment on a previous post places Jim’s first encounter with the novel in spring 1980. And if it doesn’t go without saying: Paton was a committed opponent of apartheid.]