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Bosman, Herman Charles

BOSMAN, Herman Charles

Pseudonym: Herman Malan. Nationality: South African. Born: Kuil's River, Cape Town, 3 February 1905. Education: University of Witwaterstand and Normal College, Johannesburg, 1923-25, teaching certificate 1925. Family: Married 1) Vera Sawyer in 1926 (divorced 1932); 2) Ellaleen Manson in 1932 (divorced 1944; died 1945); 3) Helena Stegman in 1944. Career: Teacher, Groot Marico district, Western Transvaal, 1926; incarcerated for murder of step-brother, Pretoria Central Prison, 1926: paroled, 1930; wrote under the pen name Herman Malan, in the 1930s and 1940s; founder and publisher, literary journals, The Touleier, The New Sjambok, and The New L.S.D., Johannesburg, 1930-34; lived in London, Paris, and Brussels, 1934-39; founder, with W. W. Jacobs, Arden Godbold Press, 1934; returned to South Africa, 1939; journalist, advertising salesman, and newspaper editor, Pietersburg, 1943; literary editor, South African Opinion, 1944; moved to Cape Town, 1949; moved to Johannesburg, 1951. Died: 14 October 1951.

Publications

Collections

Selected Stories, edited by Stephen Gray. 1980; revised edition, 1982.

Collected Works, edited by Lionel Abrahams. 2 vols., 1981.

Short Stories

Mafeking Road. 1947.

Unto Dust, edited by Lionel Abrahams. 1963.

Bosman at His Best: A Choice of Stories and Sketches, edited by Lionel Abrahams. 1965.

A Bekkersdal Marathon. 1971.

Jurie Steyn's Post Office. 1971.

Almost Forgotten Stories, edited by Valerie Rosenberg. 1979.

Makapan's Caves, edited by Stephen Gray. 1987.

Ramoutsa Road, edited by Valerie Rosenberg. 1987.

Novels

Jacaranda in the Night. 1947.

Willemsdorp. 1977.

Poetry

The Blue Princess (as Herman Malan). 1931.

Mara (includes "Mara: A Play in One Act") (as Herman Malan). 1932.

Rust: A Poem (as Herman Malan). 1932.

Jesus: An Ode (as Herman Malan). 1933.

The Earth Is Waiting, edited by Lionel Abrahams. 1974.

Death Hath Eloquence, edited by Aegidius Jean Blignaut. 1981.

Other

Cold Stone Jug (autobiography). 1949.

A Cask of Jerepigo: Sketches and Essays. 1957.

Uncollected Essays, edited by Valerie Rosenberg. 1981.

Bosman's Johannesburg (stories and essays), edited by StephenGray. 1981.

Editor, with C. Bredell, Veld Trails and Pavements: South African Short Stories. 1949.

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Critical Studies:

Sunflower to the Sun: The Life of Bosman by Valerie Rosenberg, 1976; My Friend Bosman by Aegidius Jean Blignaut, 1981; Bosman edited by Stephen Gray, 1986; "Poe on the Veld: Herman Charles Bosman's Use of Edgar Allan Poe as a Literary Model" by Irmgard Schopen, in American Studies International, October 1993, pp. 82-88; "The Mocking Fugitive: Humor as Anarchy in the Short Stories of Herman Charles Bosman" by David Medalie, in New Contrast, September 1994, pp. 78-91.

* * *

A prolific novelist, poet, critic, and short story writer, Herman Charles Bosman has some 20 published works to his name. It is as a short story writer, however, that he is best known. Whether one measures his achievements in this genre in terms of sustained popular appeal or widespread critical acclaim, Bosman's stories—most of which appeared in collected form only after his premature death in 1951—are among the best South African literature has to offer.

Bosman was born of Afrikaner parents near Cape Town but spent most of his life in the Transvaal, and it is the Transvaal milieu that permeates almost all of his writings. At the impressionable age of 21 he received a posting as a newly qualified teacher to the Groot Marico in the remote Western Transvaal. The impression that the Marico and its inhabitants made on the young teacher was clearly so strong that he was able over the last 20 years of his life to deliver a series of stories remarkable in quality and deeply redolent of the area.

Bosman's stories have appeared in a dozen collections over the years. However, Mafeking Road, by far his best-known collection, was the only one to appear in his lifetime. Bosman's storyteller figure, the wily backveld raconteur Oom Schalk Lourens, features in all but three of the stories in Mafeking Road. Schalk Lourens was first introduced to the South African reading public in "Makapan's Caves," which memorably begins: "Kafirs? (said Oom Schalk Lourens). Yes, I know them. And they're all the same. I fear the Almighty, and I respect His works, but I could never understand why He made the kafir and the rinderpest." From the very outset, then, Bosman was to make use of his very distinctive brand of irony, a technique that has not always been properly interpreted by all readers of the Schalk Lourens stories. Between 1930 and 1951 no fewer than 72 stories appeared in this sequence, most of which have been taken up in posthumous collections of his work.

Mafeking Road is rich in memorable stories, but one in particular demonstrates the peculiar brand of humor that Bosman made his own. In "In the Withaak's Shade" Oom Schalk describes his encounter with a leopard in the veld when he is out one day looking for strayed cattle. True to character, Oom Schalk conducts his search by lying under the shade of the "withaak" tree. "I could go on lying there under the withaak and looking for the cattle like that all day, if necessary," he observes: "As you know, I am not the sort of farmer to loaf about the house when there is a man's work to be done." To Oom Schalk's horror, a leopard appears, inspects him closely, and then goes to sleep next to him.

Of course, Oom Schalk's attempts to convince the local farmers of the truth of this the next day render him the laughing stock of the area: "I could see that they listened to me in the same way that they listened when Krisjan Lemmer talked. And everybody knew that Krisjan Lemmer was the biggest liar in the Bushveld." In typical Bosman style, satire is subtly interwoven into Oom Schalk's narrative. Oom Schalk is partly vindicated when a leopard's spoor is discovered in the neighborhood, and great excitement ensues. There is, we hear, "a great deal of shooting at the leopard and a great deal of running away from him." Says Oom Schalk: "The amount of Martini and Mauser fire I heard in the krantzes reminded me of nothing so much as the First Boer War. And the amount of running away reminded me of nothing so much as the Second Boer War." This deadpan rendering is typical of Oom Schalk, who always knows more than he lets on, and whose subtle digs at the Bushveld Afrikaner are heavily cloaked in layers of irony.

Bosman skillfully blends humor and pathos in his stories. "The Music-Maker," for example, concerns a Bushvelder's attempt to transcend the stifling confines of backveld life by risking his musical talent in "the great cities of the world." His venture takes him as far as Pretoria, where, in a reversal of the traditional rags to riches story, he winds up playing on the pavements outside bars. Typically, the reader receives this information in the last sentence of the story, and the concealed ending contrasts strikingly with the lighthearted hilarity that pervades the entire narrative.

Another important aspect of Bosman's stories is his artful foregrounding of narrative technique. The well-known opening to the title story of Mafeking Road is a good example of this: "When people ask me—as they often do, how it is that I can tell the best stories of anybody in the Transvaal (Oom Schalk Lourens said, modestly), then I explain to them that I just learn through observing the way that the world has with men and women." He then punctures this spurious piece of philosophizing by conceding that it is a lie: "For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen, and at what stage of the story you must start talking about the School Committee at Drogevlei. Another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out." This kind of direct intra-textual reference to the mechanics of fictionalizing is indicative of a self-consciousness in the way Bosman crafts his stories. With some of his later stories this foregrounding of literary device approaches the level of metafictional experimentation.

Bosman's artistic concerns in his stories do not begin and end with a portrayal of South African backveld life. Critics have over the years argued convincingly that Bosman is insistently allegorizing about wider issues that touch the entire South African population and, indeed, the world beyond.

—Craig MacKenzie

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