How Diederick Kleynhans found his (mis)fortune in the big city

On the 60th anniversary of Herman Charles
Bosman’s death, we publish ‘Homecoming’
from The ­Complete Voorkamer Stories, edited by Craig MacKenzie (Human & Rousseau).

We wouldn’t have felt quite that way about it, of course, if it wasn’t that we had seen ­Diederick Kleynhans growing up in front of us, as it were. And we knew, naturally enough, what it was that spoilt him.

It was clear that Diederick ­Kleynhans had been undone by his own youthful vanity and by the way he had been praised for his drawings and compositions by the schoolmaster who had been schoolmaster at Drogevlei long before young Vermaak came. Anyway, that schoolmaster had left Drogevlei years ago. He was no doubt still teaching school, telling some standard five pupil—who otherwise had no real evil in him—how well he could recite.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the death of author Herman Charles Bosman. Craig MacKenzie, the editor of a new edition of the The Complete Voorkamer Stories, speaks to us about this new publication and the involvement of photographer David Goldblatt.

One could readily picture that same schoolmaster in paradise, casually sauntering up to the nearest angel standing in a row and complimenting him on his outstanding talents as a harpist. And the angel—not knowing that it was the schoolmaster himself who was just harping on his one string—would start getting ideas in his head. There was really no end to the amount of trouble in paradise that that sort of thing could cause.

And now, that schoolmaster having long since left the Marico, here was Diederick Kleynhans sitting in Jurie Steyn’s post office, back from a lengthy sojourn in the city of Johannesburg, whither he had gone to engage in those studies that would enable him to make his way in the world as a commercial artist. From his talk we could understand that Diederick Kleynhans had come back embittered. From other things we saw that he had come back a failure.

Diederick Kleynhans was not a bad-looking young man. There was an honesty about his eyes that were set far apart—as was characteristic in the Kleynhans family. From his hands, too, you could sense that he had a natural candour—not only from the shape of his hands, but also the size. To have hands like the thick end of a leg of mutton was another Kleynhans family trait, developed through generations of standing bent forward in Cape vineyards with a spade. “I am an artist,”

Diederick ­Kleynhans was saying in the voor-kamer. “And so my spirit revolted at the Philistine subjects they taught me at the commercial art school.”

He spoke in a tired voice.

His soul rebelled at design, he went on. And at anatomy. Spending months and months at drawing from dead clay models and for no reason but just so as to learn to draw it right. That made him want to laugh, of course—not him, but his psyche. And portraiture, now. Going on and on painting a face just so as to get it to look like the person you’re painting. Well, his genius couldn’t stand for that, naturally. And wasting weeks and weeks learning how to mix paints—just so the paint wouldn’t all crack off the canvas again, once you’d put it on. Well, his subliminal self could not but recoil from so low an idea of art.

While we could not understand very much about what Diederick Kleynhans was saying, it nevertheless seemed pretty awful, the things they had done to him at the art school. Once Chris Welman had opened his mouth as though to ask a question. We could guess what that question was. Chris Welman would have liked Diederick Kleynhans to have spoken in simpler language, using words we could all comprehend, in his vituperative references to the goings-on in the place where he had been studying. We had also heard a few things about the way artists lived, and all that. Just because we were farmers in the Marico, it didn’t mean that a few hints and such like of what went on did not reach us from time to time.

Why, each time a theatre company visited Bekkersdal, Dominee Welthagen—without letting on that his sermon had any bearing on the red and blue placards prominently displayed in the town—would talk about wickedness and offending Adam and human frailty and lowest dregs. But we knew he meant the theatre company, all right. And it was sad, also, that more than one young person would, with a view to changing his profession, go and interview the producer of the play on the very Monday after the dominee had thundered against foibles and shortcomings and cloven hoof and irreclaimable. Sometimes that young person would not even wait until Monday. Sometimes that person would not be conspicuously young, either.

And we knew an artist lived in a way that wasn’t very different from how a play-actor lived. We also knew that why Chris Welman hadn’t interrupted Diederick Kleynhans was because of how tired Diederick Kleynhans sounded. It sounded as though what Diederick Kleynhans was saying consisted of nothing more than words, now. We had known our Volksraad member to talk just like that in the past. And it was at such times that we had not fancied our Volksraad member’s chance of getting re-elected very much. The words the Volksraad member would use on such occasions would be good enough, no doubt.

Only, he wouldn’t put the right sort of feeling into those words—as though he had said them too often, so that he had got a bit bored, saying them—just as though those words were making not only his audience, but also the Volksraad member himself, a bit drowsy.

“The same thing happened, afterwards, when I started working for a firm of advertisers,” Diederick Kleynhans went on. “And they said I had to do a drawing of a nattily dressed man smoking a cigar that they wanted to go into a newspaper.

And then they said my drawing was no good. It wasn’t the cigar they wanted to advertise, they said. It was the trousers. And, they said, what was the good of a drawing of a cigar that was so good, it looked almost as though it had been traced with tissue-paper from an overseas magazine, when the trousers seemed as though the man had slept in them in a tram shelter?”

Well, it was, of course, very hurtful to his artistic pneuma to be spoken to like that by those advertising people, and so he had to go to the library and trace a pair of smart trousers, also, out of an overseas magazine with tissue-paper. Endless trouble, they gave him.

That (even though it did not mean much to us) was still not the sort of thing we wanted to hear from Diederick Kleynhans about the life he had led, along with other artists, in Johannesburg. He had said nothing, as far as we could understand, about a den, so far. Nothing—as far as we could follow—about a couple of painted Jezebels. We started wondering if Diederick Kleynhans’s real trouble wasn’t, perhaps, that he hadn’t got into the right sort of artistic circles. It looked like Dominee Welthagen was more enlightened that way. Gysbert van Tonder was the first to hint about it, quite openly.

“It looks to me, Diederick,” Gysbert van Tonder said, “that you wasted your time not only in mixing paints, but in other ways, also. If you ask me, well, that’s what I think.”

Diederick Kleynhans looked somewhat surprised.

“Well, we also had to, at art school,” he said, “study things like tempera and water-colour washes and—”

“That’s what I mean,” Gysbert van Tonder said, giving Diederick ­Kleynhans a man-to-man sort of look, “they never let you into the really plain part of it, did they? It was all just high-sounding things you learned. I mean, after your studies were over for the afternoon, and you had wiped as much paint as you could get off yourself with paraffin and sand—I’ve also done a bit of painting around the farm; like a door or a roof, say—and after you’d put the lid back on to the tin of paint, did you then go and spend the night in some low place? In some disgraceful haunt, like what Dominee Welthagen says play-actors frequent?”

Oh, that? Diederick Kleynhans asked. Why, yes, indeed, he said, the place he went to each night, after his day’s work was done, was pretty low. If any of us were to have seen it we would have been quite shocked, he felt. Like the way the ceiling was falling down in one corner, and the landlord not prepared to do anything about it. And the flies that would come in, through the municipal mule stables being just across the way.

And how he had to keep his window shut, also, he said, against the dagga-smoke that hung about the place like a mist on account of the proximity of the ricksha yard. Where he stayed was not only low, Diederick Kleynhans said, it was actually a blot on the city of Johannesburg. But that was all he could afford in the matter of rent.

“My finances were also low,” he said. “At a low ebb, ha-ha.”

Ha-ha, several of us said, too, then, our laughter sounding almost as tired as Diederick Kleynhans’s own laughter. But he was glad, Diederick ­Kleynhans proceeded, that Dominee Welthagen was exposing from the pulpit the impropriety of the way artists lived in a big city. He only hoped it would do some good. The kind of life artists led was a public scandal and of a sort that must bring a blush to the cheek of innocence.

“Oh, yes, and I almost forgot,” ­Diederick Kleynhans added. “A lot of the floorboards were also loose.”

Well, we knew, of course, that ­Dominee Welthagen hadn’t meant about artists leading loose lives quite in that sense.

And from how he spoke was one way in which we realised that ­Diederick Kleynhans had come back home a failure. The other way we knew it was from how he looked and how he was dressed. For we had known many young men from this part of the Marico who had gone to the big city to seek their fortunes and, having achieved success, had returned to the Dwarsberge for a brief visit, just so as to have a bit of a look round before setting out again to make still more of a success of their lives in some great city, concrete-paved, where neon
lights winked.

There was Prinsloo du Toit, for instance, with his hair slicked back with hair-cream and with the striped socks above his pointed patent-leather shoes held up by suspenders. You could actually see the suspenders each time Prinsloo du Toit changed his position in the riempies chair and pulled his neatly creased trouser-legs up high. Why, if Diederick Kleynhans wanted a model for a smart pair of trousers to draw from, there would have been Prinsloo du Toit’s trousers right away.

Diederick Kleynhans wouldn’t have needed to go to the public library with a sheet of tissue-paper in his wallet and asking for an overseas magazine.

And what was more, with all his success, Prinsloo du Toit was amazingly modest about it all. If you asked him what he was actually doing in the great city, he would as likely as not just smile diffidently and puff a few more times at his cigar. It took quite a deal of straight-out questioning to get Prinsloo du Toit to confess that he had indeed in a few short years progressed as high as first-grade ganger on the railways.

Similarly, there was Frikkie ­Pienaar. Even if it wasn’t for his talking noticeably louder than we had known him to talk in the old days, when he was still just a Marico farm-boy, there were other ways in which Frikkie Pienaar had success written all over him, on the occasion of his paying a flying visit to the Bushveld during his three weeks’ leave from the Consolidated Goldfields mine where he was a rising young cocopan conductor. Just one way how you could see that ­Frikkie Pienaar had pulled it off was in his producing from his coat-sleeve, at intervals, a large white handkerchief with which he flicked at specks of cow-dung from the voorkamer floor that had landed on his pants.

And there were others like Prinsloo du Toit and Frikkie Pienaar. And so we knew the signs of success pretty well. And Diederick Kleynhans had none of those signs on him. For one thing, he wasn’t slick and clean-shaven. Indeed, his beard was longer and more matted than almost any Bushveld farmer’s you could think of. And his hair was wild: there was no hair-cream on it, smelling beautiful. And so far he was from flicking specks of cow-dung from his pants with a white handkerchief, why, he looked just about like he had no handkerchief at all—the way he would at times, while talking, pass, across the lower portion of his face, the sleeve of a corduroy jacket of a style and pattern that had long ago ceased being worn in even the more mountainous areas of the

Just from all that we could see that Diederick Kleynhans could not have made much of a success of his career as an artist. Another thing, also, was that he didn’t talk loud. For we liked young men, when they came back to the Marico from the city, to talk loud. It showed they had got on.

We felt sorry for Diederick Kleynhans, of course. After all, he was no longer as young as he might be. And to think of all those years that he had wasted in the city. Good Lord, just look at Koos Pretorius. Koos Pretorius had been in the same class with Diederick Kleynhans, sitting at the same desk with him. And Koos Pretorius, just because he had had no nonsensical ideas about himself, was today a deacon. A thought like that must be pretty galling to Diederick Kleynhans.

After a long silence, young ­Vermaak, the schoolmaster, spoke.

“Kleynhans ... Diederick Kleyhans,” the schoolmaster said. “It’s not you that’s been writing those poems in the Tydskrif is it? You’re not that Diederick Kleynhans, are you?”

The note of admiration in young Vermaak’s voice was unmistakable.

“Yes,” Diederick Kleynhans said. “That’s me, all right. You see, the schoolmaster that turned my head didn’t say only that I was good at drawing. He also said I was good at writing composition. And I only hope you don’t go and give any youngsters in your class silly ideas, also. That schoolmaster should have looked, not at my drawings, but at my hands. And I still believe I’ve got as good a pair of hands for holding a plough as anybody sitting here in this voorkamer.”

Diederick Kleynhans suddenly did not sound tired, anymore.

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