Books

The good, the bad and the Bosman

Sean Christie

Herman Charles Bosman's colourful life story 
has been equally sanitised and sensationalised. The true story turns out to be rather well-hidden.

The scene of the murder of Bosman's stepbrother, David Russell. (Supplied)

Herman Charles Bosman, author of the gently humorous, much-loved Oom Schalk Lourens stories, spent four years in jail for the murder of his stepbrother. He also started the literary magazine the Touleier, which 'libelled everyone from the prime minister down'. At various stages in his colourful life he is also said to have faked his own death and performed an abortion on his third wife, Helena Stegman.

Was Herman Charles Bosman saintly or devilish?

In A Portrait from Memory, the short reminiscence George Howard wrote following Herman Charles Bosman's death in 1951, we get Bosman weeping in frustration in a Johannesburg café in 1945, despite having just been advanced some money from a publishing house.

"If only the police would leave me alone," Howard quotes Bosman as saying. "They keep on my track, remembering the bad, bad days. I'm getting my stuff published but the past keeps interfering with the present. I'd like a little peace now. I'm harming nobody."

In the 62 years since his death, some custodians of Bosman's memory have indeed cut him a little slack, preferring to foreground the evidence of his genius, particularly the bushveld stories featuring the narrator who became a household name: Oom Schalk Lourens. Others, however, seeking balance, have rescued the sordid details, even dredging up new ones. There have been over-corrections and embellishments on both sides, not helped by the fact that everyone who knew Bosman and recorded their memories of him seemed to be writing about a different man.

As such, there are questions that arise out of Bosman's life story about which there will never be clear answers. Some are important: Did he kill his stepbrother, David Russell, in a fit of passion or was the murder a little more calculated? Was he a racist or a liberal? Some are plainly fatuous, such as: Was he sitting on the toilet when he suffered a heart attack or was he throwing up into it?

No single chronology could possibly do such a complicated life justice, and so the Mail & Guardian has done some reading in order to bring you two versions of the life of the writer once described by his friend Howard as "a man, a woman, an angel, a devil, a tenderness, a cruelty, a brave man and a coward, an emasculated satyr, a womaniser, a racist and a liberal".

1905

 Birth of Herman Charles Bosman at Kuils River, near Cape Town, the first son of Elisa (née Malan) and Jacobus Bosman. His parentage connects him to two of the most successful white Afrikaner families of South Africa.

 Birth of Herman Charles Bosman at Kuils River, near Cape Town, the first son of Elisa (née Malan), a teacher, and a miner, Jacobus Bosman, or Jakoos for short. Some years after his death, Bosman's friend Gordon Vorster would describe his origins thus: "Herman Charles Malan Bosman was probably born, spawned of what were possibly his parents. His mother was X and his father may possibly have been Y. I think his father was Edgar Allen Percy Bysshe John François Oscar Fingal O'Flaherty Wills de Sade Rossetti Dante Shakespeare Oliver Onions. And he had a sister, Night, and a brother, Desert. And he was educated, in his own soul, by fine fires."

1917-1921

 Bosman attends the English-medium Potchefstroom High School for Boys and later, when his family moves to Johannesburg, the Anglophile Jeppe Boys' High School, and his earliest published work appears in the Johannesburg Sunday Times and the Jeppe High School Magazine. The latter ran his The Mystery of the ex-MP (July 1921) and The Mystery of Lenin Trotsky (December 1921), which a Bosman expert, Professor Craig MacKenzie, describes as "hilarious spoofs revealing the young Herman Charles Bosman's precocious literary and historical reading, and his early ability to satirise and exploit literary models and precedents".

 Bosman attends the Jeppe High School for Boys, where he tries to commit suicide after being disciplined by a prefect. Painfully conscious of his parents' relative poverty, he signs his first published stories for the Sunday Times as Ben Eath – that is, from Beneath.

1923

 Registers at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Normal College for teachers. He contributes several pieces to the Umpa and the Sunday Times and, according to Serita Dales in her interview with Stephen Gray, strikes fellow students as a "very retiring" young man. His father dies in a mining accident; his mother marries William Russell, a Scotsman.

 Registers at Wits University and the Normal College for teachers, where his courses include woodwork and cardboard modelling. In My Life and Opinions, he would later sarcastically credit the latter with imparting "the moral virtues … honesty, tenacity of purpose, spiritual concentration, a high idealism, determination and chastity". To make money, he launches a post office scam, sending letters that, according to his friend Jan Bosman, read: "If you wish to hear something to your advantage, communicate with the above address, enclosing 5/- for initial expenses." Of course, nothing advantageous was ever imparted. A disruptive student, he despised his teachers and missed few opportunities to ridicule them. Submits a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem to a university poetry competition and wins third prize. After his father dies, Bosman tells a friend that he was "almost" moved by the event.

January 1926

 Marries Vera Sawyer in January; is posted two days thereafter to a small farm school at Zwingli, the fulcrum for his famous bushveld stories featuring Oom Schalk Lourens, "the narrator of the major part of Bosman's creative work, the 60-odd stories of his first Marico cycle", according to Gray, a Bosman biographer. "So much of a household name did this coffee-swilling raconteur become," wrote Gray, "that several claimants to the title of being his original arose."

 Marries Vera Sawyer. According to Lionel Abrahams's Mr Bosman: A Protégé's Memoir, the legend was that "she had been 'picked up' by the young Herman during Christmas Eve jollifications … and had accepted his whimsical proposal". Bosman is posted to a small farm school at Zwingli. Vera does not follow. When South African photographer David Goldblatt visits the Marico on the trail of Bosman years later, he finds that, "not only had Bosman used real place names in his fiction but, in blissful disregard of the conventions, the real names of people too".

July 1926

 During mid-year holidays, Bosman returns to the family home. His brother, Pierre, clashes with his stepbrother, David Russell, and in the heat of the moment Bosman shoots and kills Russell. Bosman is sentenced to death, taken to Pretoria Central Prison and placed on death row.

 When he returns to Johannesburg for his midyear holiday, Bosman fails to inform his wife and stays at his stepfather's home. One evening, while his brother, Pierre, is fighting with his stepbrother, David Russell, Bosman enters the room and fires his hunting rifle, killing Russell instantly. The tragedy makes the front page of the Sunday Times. The judge refuses to accept that it was an accident, based on Bosman's testimony that he walked to the kitchen after shooting his stepbrother instead of trying to assist him, as would have been natural in the event of an accident. The judge concludes that Bosman murdered in cold blood. Bosman is sentenced to death, taken to Pretoria Central Prison and placed on death row.

1926

:) After nine days in the death cell, and following appeals for clemency made by his fellow students and others, Bosman's sentence is commuted to 10 years with hard labour. Years later, Bosman's prison memoir, Cold Stone Jug, is compared by the researcher and author Vivienne Mawson with ee cummings's The Enormous Room. Doris Lessing called it "the saddest of all prison books".

:( Responding to the efforts of his fellow students to have his life spared, Bosman tells a friend, Fred Zwarenstein, that his energies would be better used finding him a job "as the shooting instructor at Jeppe high school".

1929-1931

 Bosman's poem Perhaps Some Day appears in the journal the Sjambok on July 5, concluding with a stanza now much quoted by elderly singles on South African dating sites:

"Though my heart is bruised and riven,

Though my soul is scathed with scars,

Yet I've touched the fringe of heaven,

Yet I've lived amongst the stars."

Released early from prison for good behaviour after serving a little over four years.

Launches with friend and fellow ex-convict Jean Aegidiu Blignaut the literary magazine called the Touleier, which included the first Oom Schalk Lourens story, Makapan's Caves. More classics are later printed in subsequent Blignaut/Bosman journals, the New LSD and the New Sjambok.

1930-1934

 Bosman and Blignaut launch the Touleier, the first of a series of magazines, including the New LSD and the New Sjambok, which, said Bosman's niece Zita Grové, "my cousin Herman … libelled everyone from the prime minister down".

Although the magazines also include Bosman's first Oom Schalk Lourens stories, the publishers use them for self-promotion, settling scores and extorting money. Few are safe from their lash. Bosman, writing mainly under the pseudonym Herman Malan, attacks a wide range of South African and international writers past and present, including C Louis Leipoldt ("flat-brained pseudo poet"), Sarah Gertrude Millin ("earnest plodder") and George Bernard Shaw ("poseur"). After Ismail Kadjee of Dullstroom writes in requesting that the word "coolie" not be used, Blignaut and Bosman reply with the headline "We don't want our girls ravaged by coolies". Other shockers include "What the best man did to the bride for the last time", an attack on the reputation of Ellie Beemer, a former Bosman sweetheart. There is "ES Sachs and kaffir girl", an unwarranted attack on socialist and labour activist Emil "Solly" Sachs, and in a Christmas edition that lands them another stint in jail: "White girls get stuffed", with the subheading "in more ways than one".

What Bosman's friend Edgar Bernstein calls their "foolhardy, Rabelaisian adventure" comes to an end with the publication of A Nun's Passion, Herman Malan's depiction of a celibate sister driven to masturbation to relieve the intensity of her adoration for Christ. Blignaut is sent to jail for a year and Bosman becomes the first South African writer to be convicted for blasphemy. Having divorced Vera, he and his second wife, Ella Manson, leave South Africa for the United Kingdom.

1934–1940

 Living in extreme poverty in London, Bosman sends back 20 classic Oom Schalk Lourens stories from England, to be published by the South African Opinion. Although he finds London dirty and inhumane, Bosman will later tell his third wife, Helena Stegmann, how "the long tunnel of dark hours" in winter are ideal for writing.

 Herman and Ella move around a great deal in London, dodging landlords. According to Gray's biography, Life Sentence, in the winter of 1936-1937, Bosman fakes his own death. His brother, Pierre, seeks confirmation from a news agency and is told that Bosman's widow is destitute. Bosman's mother, recently diagnosed with cancer, sends a sum for the funeral and brings a planned trip to England forward, only to find her son alive and well. Elisa's relatives advise her to cut all ties with her son.

1943-1944

 Bosman meets Helena Stegman. Days later he has his wife, Ella, send for her. "My life is empty," Helena recalls him saying. "I cannot create any more. I have reached a stalemate. I feel that if you leave me, I will just die. My response to Ella is now only that of the blackmailed to the blackmailer." Walking with both Herman and Ella one afternoon, they reach a "kaffirboom" tree in bloom. Herman, recalls Helena, closes his eyes, turns ashen and says: "No, no, I can't look at it. It is simply too beautiful." After a year he divorces Ella and marries Helena.

Abrahams would later comment that "Helena was not Ella … her influence favoured relative order and gentleness … their interaction was altogether warm and sympathetic, and the years of their marriage coincided, I believe, with the most productive period of his creativity."

 Bosman meets Helena Stegman , impregnates her and then performs an abortion himself. "As Gordon Vorster once said of him," writes Gray, "he liked to play around with women's parts with the old knitting needle." Bosman appears to abandon Helena and she lays a charge to clear her name. Bosman appears in court with his toenails painted red, only to hear Helena publicly declare her love for him and recant her accusation. Later Bosman secures a divorce and celebrates with his former wife, Ella, and his lover, Helena. Days later he marries Helena.

1945

 Ella dies. Howard recalls observing Bosman outside her house, crying: "Oh God … I'd do anything to have her back here." Howard also recalls how, after this, Bosman used to water the weeds around his semi-detached house, near to where Ella had died. "He didn't like flowers, but he had the highest khakibos in the whole of the Transvaal," Howard says.

 Bosman lives à trois with Ella and Helena, according to the testimony of friends like Howard. Ella becomes pregnant and not for the first time Bosman procures an abortion. When Ella falls seriously ill, Bosman fails to take her to hospital for fear of becoming embroiled in another abortion scandal. On April 19, Ella dies, in all likelihood of a botched abortion.

1947-1951

 Jacaranda in the Night and Mafeking Road published.

Cold Stone Jug and Veld Trail and Pavements published. Begins the Voorkamer stories, which ultimately run to 80. Dies of cardiac arrest at his home in Lombardy East, which he had named Paradise Regained. His final Voorkamer piece, Homecoming, appears after his death.

1951

 Dies on a Sunday in the toilet of Paradise Regained, his Lombardy East home, after suffering cardiac arrest. Some of his friends speculate that he died "of a hangover", since the Bosmans had hosted a raucous party on the Friday night. The toilet door is locked and also blocked by his body, according to Gordon Vorster in an interview with Gray, and Helena has to break the bathroom window to get to him.

Craig MacKenzie's assistance with this story is greatly appreciated

Topics In This Section

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus