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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Live in the Layers/ Not the Litter

Stanley Kunitz made this declaration in a poem, “Layers.” I quote his words because of two blogs I read on Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope. Paton is best known for his first novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made into a memorable movie with James Earl Jones and Richard Harris.

Blogger number one, Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm, a stay-at-home mom, loved Cry the Beloved Country. She stated that she will not read Phalarope again and offered her copy to anyone who might want it. What did Rebecca not like about Paton’s second novel?

She did not appreciate the novel’s biblical tone or its “dialogue confused with thought.” Rebecca also disliked the narrator, Sophie, calls her a “spinster aunt,” and found the writing style affected, “a little tedious.” The novel’s subject matter was unappealing too, though a “novel about love.” But there is “something wrong with the wife.” Rebecca concludes by saying, the novel is not about hope…not a happy book. Rebecca, I say… the novel is classic tragedy, which means a fallen hero. There can be no happy ending, no sunny farm, especially given the setting of 1950s apartheid South Africa.

Blogger number two, Erik the Red, posted his thoughts on Too Late the Phalarope just last month. His comments made me think of lines from poet John Keats.

“You do not know/what wars are going on/down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

Please note I have not edited the following words from Erik on Paton’s novel.

“On the surface, it’s a simple enough story, that with no disrespect meant, could have been avoided if the main character had an accountability partner. Having a trusted friend that he could talk about the darkness he struggled with would have made all the difference.”

An accountability partner is all Pieter needed in 1950s South Africa? Really?

In a country of divisions, the obvious white and black, the historical Dutch and English, the laws of 1949 & 1950, a heroic character with a deep division in Self, his tyrannical father named Jakob (an Old Testament unforgiving God), a saintly mother, a country wife, a bitter & envious sergeant, a secretive captain, and a temptress. And all Pieter needed was an accountability partner? Think tragedy, Erik, with its oldest meaning.

I will admit it is lovely to think that one friend could have made “it” all go away. But the American novelist Wallace Stegner would tell us that it is not so easy to recover from parents who are fate (along with the time and place of one’s birth.).

Good literature means living in layers. Which is why Too Late the Phalarope deserves to be read more than once.

Next week: A look at the narrative voices in Paton’s novel and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. The RCC-RILL experimental book club will discuss these two novels on June 22nd.

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