A life in letters: Alan Paton’s alternative autobiography

2009-09-02 00:00

PETER F. Alexander, Alan Paton’s biographer, was the ideal person to be invited by the Van Riebeeck Society to edit a volume of Paton’s letters.

Paton wrote thousands of letters during what Alexander calls his “long and energetic life” of which approximately 2 500 survive. From these Alexander has selected 1 318, from the earliest in January 1922, when Paton was a student at the then Natal University College, to his last letter written in March 1988, shortly before his death.

In-between those parameters, Paton had been a “much-feared schoolteacher, the principal of an African borstal, a prison reformer and theorist of penology, a famous and best-selling novelist, the founder and leader of [the Liberal Party], a leader of the long struggle against apartheid and renowned biographer and poet.”

The book’s five sections reflect both the developments and changing circumstance of Paton’s life and each comes with a brief introduction. There are also succinct footnotes where required (eg., Laurens Van Der Post: “South African author, farmer, soldier, journalist and fantasist.”) and an appendix with more extensive biographical notes on Paton’s main correspondents.

Alexander said in an earlier interview with The Witness that the letters are the autobiography Paton didn’t know he was writing and Alexander has selected them with a view to providing a continuous narrative enabling the reader to get a sense of what Paton was really like. If there is one thing that comes through it is consistency. Paton’s world view, his Christian beliefs, although they evolved and changed to include new insights, remained a continuous touchstone. Paton states his position and sticks to it; whether it be in regard to the use of violence or matters of personal, political or literary integrity.

The range of Paton’s correspondents is vast, close friends from student days such as Reg Pearse (of Barrier of Spears fame), Liberal Party colleagues, churchmen such as Trevor Huddleston and Canon John Collins; politicians Jan Hofmeyr, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the then Winnie Mandela, writers such as Uys Krige and Nadine Gordimer. There are also long-term correspondents who weave a thread of intimacy through the book. These include his first wife Dorrie (during his long absences overseas), friends such as politician Leslie Rubin and author and historian Mary Benson. A glance through the index will throw up many names familiar to Witness readers.

However, the index is also this book’s Achilles heel. It barely reflects the content. For example, in his correspondence with Benson, Paton discusses the work of other writers, including Graham Greene, R.C. Hutchinson and James Michener. But none of these names appear in the index. There are many more omissions.

In a book of this nature, for reader and researcher alike, a good index is vital. Without it, the book is well nigh unusable. The Van Riebeeck Society should seriously consider publishing a proper index.

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