Thursday, July 5, 2012

Too Late the Phalarope

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.]

comments: 5

Elaine said...

I read that book a few years back, when I reread _Cry, the Beloved Country._ Paton was a powerful and poetic writer....and ahead of the times by decades, alas.

Oddly enough, I recently ran across a book of quilts designed by South African residents, entitled, _Quilt the Beloved Country._ The designs are accompanied by photographs of the plants, wildlife, and scenery.

Michael Leddy said...

What a surprising and beautiful adaptation of Paton’s title. I should probably read at least that novel too, right?

Elaine said...

Alan Paton wrote his draft of -Cry, the Beloved Country- and submitted it in a meeting with visitors, as best I recall. In any case, it was a very different, fraught, and powerful submission. I wonder if it did not electrify the conscience of a nation.

Elaine said...

I can't recall where I read it, but there is an interesting story about how the publishers were introduced to the book and how they title was chosen. Perhaps it was part of a foreword that was added to a later edition?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, he wrote the novel while traveling and showed it to people who sent it to publishers. I don’t know about the title, but I’ll find the story at some point. (So many books, so few lives!)