Satirical sympathies

The Keep by Gillian Becker (Penguin) and Remembering Herman Charles Bosman — Herman Charles Recollected edited by Stephen Gray (Penguin)

Jane Rosenthal
The Keep by Gillian Becker was first published, to considerable critical acclaim, in London in 1967. By now it has acquired something of the status of a curiosity while maintaining its power as a novel. What makes it memorable in the general welter of current local South African fiction is the startling violence of its plot, offset by the cool elegance of the language and its icy anger.

The most obvious source of violence in this book is Simon, a wild psychopathic boy, unloved by his parents, but defended by his affectionate Nanny. His sister, Josephine, is really the central character in the book and its sacrificial lamb; the reader often sees Simon, the parents and Nanny through her eyes.

Becker shows us the Leyton family in some depth, creating a period piece of a white upper middle-class family in Johannesburg just prior to the outbreak of World War II. They're Jewish, but rapidly assuming areligious colonial identities. It's a toss-up as to which of the parents is worse, which more severely lampooned. Rayfel is an ambitious and clever liberal politician; his puffery is made fun of, as is his considerable vanity. Freda, however, is dealt with savagely. She is an entirely idle, self-obsessed, snooty woman, an extreme caricature of the stereotype of spoilt white South African females, ruthlessly careless of other people.

I found Becker's cold anger against almost all the women in the book, and especially Freda, somewhat undermines the novel's quality. She wrote this book in the early 1960s in the safe haven of London and, though there was much to dislike, even abhor, about South Africa and white South Africans then, I found her righteousness hard to stomach.

German and Boer bashing have often paid off handsomely and Becker does some of this. When the police are summoned by Nanny to deal with what she thinks is a backyard shebeen, they discover a murder.

The callous and obdurate cops seem quite believable, but at this critical point in the novel the crude, classist renderings of Afrikaner English are seriously embarrassing. Added to this is the mystery of why this edition is adorned with no fewer than five portraits of the author. Both the lurid Afrikaner accents and the portraits distract from the novel, which in many other ways is quite remarkable.

She gives an insightful view into the complexity of the Jewish community, without romanticising. In her mostly affectionate portraits of elderly relatives she uses her ear for dialect to good effect. And she does show the shocking trauma of the Holocaust on families even as far away as Africa. Josephine is particularly affected.

As the old song has it, "One man's fish is another man's poisson", and who is to say where the line should be drawn in satire? In Remembering Bosman — Herman Charles Recollected, this greatly revered South African satirist comments on this genre in Lionel Abrahams's piece, Mr Bosman: A Protégé's Memoir. As a young man, barely out of school, Abrahams was tutored privately by Bosman in literature and writing. How extraordinarily lucky for them both. Abrahams's memories are most affecting, detailed and thoughtful. He recalls at length Bosman's ideas on writing. For example, he said: "I think he was indicating that basic human sympathy was indispensable in all genuinely creative art, suggesting that certain kinds of cruel satire were too easy and arrogant for anything worthwhile to be attained that way."

(To confuse matters further, Abrahams himself edited Becker's novel and thought well of it.)

Stephen Gray's collection follows on Life Sentence, his biography of HC Bosman. Remembering Bosman — Herman Charles Recollected is an engrossing and charming read, bringing the era to life and making a many-faceted portrait of Bosman, full of light, energy and contradictions. Bosman's three wives are represented, as are school friends, his contemporaries in the world of letters and critics.

His cousin, Zita Grove, who got to know him after he was released from jail, has written one of the best pieces, with many insights into the background of his mother's family, (Malan), quoting at length from a letter in Afrikaans, which shows that Bosman's fluency and precision in his mother tongue certainly equalled his command of English.

This is truly a gem of a book, of great interest to academics, general readers and historians alike.

Stephen Gray's introductions to each piece enrich the text and create connections. The inscrutable Bosman emerges from behind his inimitably brilliant stories; one gains a sense of the humility of the man and his intense sensitivity. Quoting Abrahams again: "A genial readiness to be fascinated by anyone he encountered was characteristic."

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