SHAKESPEARE, BLACKSTONE and the Bible were Abraham Lincoln's main curriculum. Born in Pietermaritzburg in the valley of the Umsindusi River in 1903, Alan Paton read more widely than Lincoln, but the Bible was at the core of what he learned and thought. And Lincoln, whom he considered "the greatest of all the rulers of nations" was a star in his firmament, one that shone from far away on the "lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills."

In his autobiography, Towards the Mountain, Paton tells how in 1946, shortly after writing those first words of Cry, the Beloved Country, his novel about South Africa's racial ordeal, he stood in awe before the seated figure in the Lincoln Memorial. America would become for him "the country of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," but already, thanks to Lincoln, it was the "shore dimly seen."

Paton's quietly moving autobiography builds slowly, as his life seems to have done, coming to a climax when, alone, on that 1946 trip abroad, "under the influence of powerful emotion," he started to write the book that was to sell millions of copies and make him famous. Although a life of political action and literature lay ahead, he looks back fondly on the emotion that possessed him at age 43, and notes sadly: "I do not expect, and for a long time have not expected, to be revisited by it."

Except for the ecstasy the young Paton felt for nature, there is a dullness in the first part of his life story. Perhaps it is the "awful odor of goodness" coming out of a devout Christadelphian ("brothers of Christ"), born-again fundamentalist family. He reacted against the authoritarianism in his home, and came to hate his father. Yet in his autobiography he proves to be his father's son, viewing lust and anger as the "volcanic sins" from which one must run.

Very early Paton knew what he did not like. At age 13, when his dentist tried to seduce him, he drew back and said, with a clarity and finality that made him conscious of having a will of his own: "I don't like that." The man gave him half a crown, saying, "That is the reward of virtue." Paton adds, "I did not stop going to Dr. B., but to my regret there were no more rewards for virtue."

Twenty-two years later, in 1938, he came to the same decision about Afrikaner nationalism. He had been sympathetic to the Boers, whose ancestors had been white Africans for three centuries -- Christian Zionists who were the first pioneer settlers to rebel against British colonialism. On the centenary of the Boers' Great Trek northward to escape British rule, Paton was one of the few English-speaking South Africans to join a mass pilgrimage to Pretoria.

From the black African boys' reformatory that he then directed, he set forth by ox-wagon, flourishing a newly-grown Afrikaner-type beard and flying the flag of the old Transvaal Republic. Caught in the fervor of a quarter-million Boers on the march, he soon discovered, to his horror, the anti-British and anti-black fanaticism being released.

Thundering against "ungodly equality," Dr. D. F. Malan declared that "the Afrikaans-speaking man of the new Great Trek meets the non-European at the new Blood River." A Boer said to Paton, in Afrikaans, "Now we'll knock hell into the English."

A decade later, the Afrikaner majority of white South Africans had brought Malan to power, and they were knocking hell into the English, and even more hell into the colored and Indian minorities and the black majority. By 1948 Paton's good will toward the Boers had turned to ashes, and he had left the small world of professional education, in the reformatory, for the larger educational agent is the community itself," he had concluded while reforming the reformatory at Diepkloof. By establishing increasingly larger measures of freedom, Paton hoped to teach young Africans to move away from a life of crime and violence.

By restricting the freedom of black, colored and Indian South Africans, the Nationalist governments of Malan, Verwoerd and Vorster taught the opposite lesson. Paton's autobiography moves inexorably toward the great fear that darkens the last pages of Cry, the Beloved Country: that when the white people are ready to love, the black people will be ready to hate.

Alan Paton is one who has been ready to love. As a boy, his heart first awoke to a love of the land of his birth. At age 77 he still says, as he did at 21, that "I had for better for worse, for richer for poorer, given myself to this strange country, to love and to cherish till death us did part."

Later he fell in love with (but did not dare touch) a married woman named Dorrie Lusted. After her husband died, she became Paton's wife. Twice in the next 40 years, he says, he transgressed that marriage. He tells us (and told his wife) of the first transgression, when he loved and parted with a young woman for whom he felt great passion. Of the second, he says only that "candor is not a constant necessity" and he saw no need "to give the complete story of my sexual life."

Although he has trouble with the commandment to love your enemies, he writes ardently about his heroes, and the flame he has drawn from several of them seems to have warned and illumined his life. If he does not succeed in bringing these special men and women to bright life in this book, we do get a sense of how, in his fiction, they have gone through a prism and come out in so many vivid colors. The originals of the small boy with the brightness in him, and the young man who hid his gentler nature behind the fierce and frowning eyes, and other characters from his novels, are here. Most of all, of course, Alan Paton is here -- straight, simple and true.

Paton attributes in part these virtues of his literary style to his early training in mathematics and physics, which made it difficult for him to overembellish and to pretend that he had a solution when he had not. It is religious faith, not science, however, that becomes the guide for his pursuit of the more important kind of truth, "which one would never find, but for which one would never stop searching."

At age 27, he was confirmed in the Anglican Church, the church of the Book of Common Prayer he loved. His father would have been pleased by the central place Christ came to hold in his son's passions. With some reluctance, the young Alan vowed to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil, but with eagerness, he joined a body "which was to set itself a task no less than to define what it believed to be the mind of Christ for South Africa." This causes him to open his eyes and look at his country as he had never looked before.

In the first half of his life, Paton taught boys and girls; in the second and, he believes, less successful half he has "tried to teach white South African adults the facts of life, but they are a tough proposition." At age 77 he promises to write another volume about that second larger effort. We can hope that he -- and South Africa -- will be given the necessary time.