Life Sentence: A Biography of Herman Charles Bosman

Review: Stephen Gray. 2005. Life Sentence: A Biography of Herman Charles Bosman. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

Margaret Lenta   

In the last decade, and especially since the long series of volumes which constitute the Anniversary Edition of Bosman’s writings began to come out in 1998, it has begun to be recognised that this best-selling South African author is more than an entertainer and an indulger of white nostalgia for a rural past. The enterprise of re-collecting, re-grouping, editing, and framing the groups of stories and the novels with suitable introductions has implied a contention by the editors, Stephen Gray and Craig MacKenzie, concerning Bosman’s importance in the corpus of South African literature. Though not everyone is agreed about what that importance consists in, there is agreement that the works of this man who died in 1951, detached from the political debates which occupied the next four decades, remain amongst the most compelling and delightful documents of South African literature more than fifty years later.

Craig MacKenzie has written about him as the culmination and the end of the tradition of fireside tales (1999), and it cannot be disputed that much of his best work – the Oom Schalk stories, the voorkamer stories, much of what MacKenzie includes in Old Transvaal Stories (2000)comes into this category, extended in the way that he has argued for it. Others – and I count myself as one of them – believe that his masterpiece is Cold Stone Jug (1999 (1949)), comic, terrifying, episodic and completely convincing as a rendering of the atmosphere of a prison. There are people who believe that Willemsdorp (1998 (1977)), just about concluded by the time of Bosman’s premature death, and published many years after with significant excisions,1 marks what could have been a new and brilliant departure into long prose fiction.

There can be no doubt that such an artist deserves a biography: the first such was Lionel Abrahams’s short piece “Herman Charles Bosman: A Man Who Never Unmasked”, which appeared in 1957 as the introduction to the Dassie edition of A Cask of Jeripigo, a collection of Bosman’s non-fictional journalism. Gray calls this “brilliant and tantalising” and says that it is “the basis of all future biographical endeavours” (2005:16). It is clear that Abrahams was in possession of most of the facts about his subject, though in a fourteen-page introduction there was not space to pursue the puzzles which his title acknowledged. It is also clear that he loved and was grateful to Bosman, who had been his teacher, and whom he had known well in the last five years of his life. He describes Bosman in this period:

Upon me, and I believe upon many others (possibly even all) who knew him, he exercised an enchantment (I use the word aware of all that it suggests relative to magic) of extraordinary power. This charm, which was capable of becoming a really large thing in the lives of those it affected, was one of the special phenomena of Bosman’s personality. What did it consist in?

It had nothing to do with ordinary urbanity. Bosman’s positive horror of the obvious and pedestrian made him shy away from “serious discussion”. When a topic was broached for polite investigation “But look…” he would exclaim, pressing his knuckles nervously to his lips; and then, enthusiastically pounding his thigh, he would bound off into some joke or fancy wildly at a tangent to the track of the leaden-footed frivolity.

Related to this were his extraordinary sensibilities which rendered him susceptible to disturbance by things that leave most people unmoved …. He was the gentlest and most genial of men, unsurpassably warm in human feeling … And with it all, making it into sweetness, went laughter: the hugest laughter and the hugest things to laugh at were always in process in Bosman’s presence. So that we cannot think of him without thinking of laughter. (Bosman 1991:17-18)

This friendship with Abrahams was limited to the years when Bosman was married to Helena Stegmann, who gave him a peaceful domestic life, and helped him to be his most productive. He also had the highest degree of financial security of his whole life. With what now seems a prophetic sense of his subject’s importance in the future, Abrahams indicated his awareness that there were important questions about Bosman’s life that he had not space to answer:

I decided that some tremendous and terrible experience in the intervening years must have changed the writer of those “audacious boasts” into the man I knew. To an extent I was right, as I discovered. But now I know that it is not just as simple as that. Bosman and Herman Malan [the pseudonym used by Bosman in his early writings and during most of the period which he spent in Europe] are not two separate men with contradictory qualities and attitudes who replace each other as time passes, but one continuing personality in which many paradoxes are somehow reconciled. (Bosman 1991:12)

This last phrase acts as a challenge to all future biographers, who must offer a key to this enigmatic personality.

Whether or not it is legitimate to demand from a biographer a single theory of the life which is his subject may be disputed. There must be no manipulation or suppression of facts to support an explanatory thesis, but there must be selection. The mundane and the trivial will be omitted from any biography, but the author must at times judge whether an event or a habit is important or not, and that judgement must be based on a theory of the life which he is interpreting. Though the subject has “one continuing personality” there may be shifts in behaviour and apparently in motivation, as in Bosman’s case, and it is important to acknowledge that these took place. It may be tempting to demand coherence from the story of a life, but few lives, except at a very deep level, have tight coherence. Biographies are not lists of the events of lives – the subject’s vision and motivation are crucial, though the false starts related to misunderstandings of the self, the failures as well as the achievements must be recorded.

In 1976 Valerie Rosenberg’s biography of Bosman, Sunflower to the Sun,2 appeared, and its epigraph, taken from a poem of Bosman’s, in which a sunflower says to the sun, “You, yes. Huh! Where’s your stem?” suggests that she is aware of the defiance of facts which was part of his attitude to life. Sunflower to the Sun is, as Gray points out in Life Sentence, in many ways a biography for which Bosman scholars should be grateful, since she “visited Texas [where by then the Bosman manuscripts were kept], tramped the trail of Bosman’s career, winkled out interviews from sources overlooked and … even located … Bosman’s old partner and bosom friend, Aegidius Jean Blignaut, alive and well and willing to spill some beans” (2005:36). But the serious limitation of this biography was at once spotted by Abrahams: “for long passages … it was not adequate to have to rely on no more than Rosenberg’s word; apparatus of acknowledgement was lacking” Gray 2005:36 -7). Leon Hugo went into details: “no index, no bibliography; there is not a single footnote; there are no notes or appendices” (Qtd in Gray 2005:37).

This failure to acknowledge sources is a serious drawback in a work which advances a striking theory of an otherwise puzzling life. Rosenberg strongly implies (though, perhaps for legal reasons, she never directly says) that Herman Charles Bosman was the child of a brother-and-sister incest between his mother, Elisa Malan, and her brother, Charles Malan. The facts of the case, which Gray claims are different, may be less important than what Bosman himself believed. If he thought himself to be the son of an incestuous relationship between close relatives, he might well have believed himself to be prone to mental instability. His determination not to have children and willingness to perform abortions on women who conceived children by him might be explainable by fears of morbid heredity. His years of association with Blignaut, with whose activities as a con man and blackmailer he collaborated, might be accounted for by theories of his alienation from society. Even his championing of the artist as outcast, which in modified form continued to the end of his life, might be related to such a belief: he might have seen himself, though cursed in his birth, as born for a special role. Nothing, however, can be done with such suggestions: Gray tells us that when controversy broke out in the Star (25 February 1980) concerning Rosenberg’s implied allegations, the latter, though she did not retract, failed to produce any evidence.

It is therefore left to the reader to believe or disbelieve Rosenberg’s theory, or rather to decide to what extent Bosman believed it and allowed it to influence his troubled and at times violent life. This doubt extends to everything alleged within her biography which is not supported by outside evidence, and means that though the work may be suggestive to other biographers who are prepared to search out the evidence which she omits, the common reader will find it frustrating.

Yet it cannot be denied that Bosman’s life story contains huge questions: was the adolescent at Jeppe High School more than normally defiant and deliberately eccentric? Was his career at university more than evidence of an adolescent willingness to shock? Was the scam in his schooldays, in which people were invited to send him postal orders, the first attempt at the conning which was to be part of his life during his years with Blignaut? What about his marriage to Vera Sawyer when he was twenty? Whatever chance that union might have had was destroyed by his posting, after qualifying as a teacher, to the Marico bushveld – where Vera’s mother, according to Gray, would not let her go with him, and by his imprisonment, during which Vera did not visit him. Did she have other reasons for refusing to leave Johannesburg with him besides the remoteness of the Marico?

On his first holiday in Johannesburg from the Marico school, when his widowed mother had remarried and was living with his younger brother and her new family, real disaster struck, in that he shot dead his new stepbrother, David Russell, and was tried and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to imprisonment, and actually served four years. Did Bosman afterwards think of this killing as a manic act, evidence of permanent instability? There were sufficient pressures on him at the time to explain violence: his mother’s remarriage, the fact that he could not live with Vera, who was still refusing to join him in the Marico, the remoteness of his posting there and the strangeness, in terms of his life in Johannesburg, of the people and scenes. He seems not to have liked David Russell, who had taken his money to buy him a bicycle and spent it on drink. But there is evidence that Bosman’s violence was an extreme loss of control, in circumstances which were disagreeable but not such that they could justify or explain his act.

Cold Stone Jug cannot, of course, be seen simply as a prison memoir, though it is an interesting fact about Bosman’s artistry that that he was able to make an appalling experience into a wonderful and extremely funny book. Still, the four years in prison must surely have severed many of his ties to the workaday world and damaged his self-image. Gray depicts Bosman’s post-prison life, from December 1930, as a disgraceful association with an habitual criminal, Blignaut, until he left for Europe with his wife Ella in 1934. He was Blignaut’s associate in blackmailing as well as other discreditable activities. Gray does not articulate any generally explanatory theory about this period, though he gives hints:

“[he] seems to have sunk into the worst of company; instead of coming clean and making something of himself, he grew more criminal by the day … Blignaut, egging him on, was the worst compadre he could have chosen; and then there was Ella to come, surely an appalling wife” (2005:164).

The period which Bosman and Ella spent in England is not sufficiently closely documented for any theory of a life to be based on it, though their disappearance from South Africa is significant. We know that he wrote copiously and sent his material home for publication. There is one appalling episode, when the Bosmans informed Bosman’s mother of his (alleged) death and borrowed money for an (alleged) funeral. Mrs Russell’s bumping into her favourite son on a visit to England caused her to sever all connection with him and to cut him out of her will – and who can blame her?

It is unnecessary here to take the reader through the story of Bosman’s return to South Africa and his period in Pietersburg. The break-up of his marriage to Ella seems to have been inevitable, though Gray does not say, as he might, that Bosman was moving out of the long years in which he was determined to play the bohemian, and becoming the real artist. Ella, as Bosman’s tribute to her on her death seems to be acknowledging, had no role but that of bohemian available to her. He was fortunate in his remarriage to Helena Stegmann in 1944, and the eight years which followed before his death were rich in achievements.

There is little doubt that Gray has gone to great trouble to be accurate in his biography, and his method of indicating in his text sources to which detailed reference is made and giving a further account of other sources at the end of the work is clear, helpful and unobtrusive. The reader can have confidence in his facts. Yet his judgements are another matter: unlike Rosenberg, he does not offer any over-arching theory of his subject’s life; he does not even seem to understand that such a theory is desirable. And although it would be unreasonable to expect any biographer other than Abrahams to write with love of Bosman, at times Gray writes with a disdain, or even a dislike, which in my experience is always fatal to a biography.

I have explained elsewhere my own theory of Bosman’s life (Lenta 2003) and will only say here that in the anti-intellectual conditions of South Africa post-World War I when he was growing up and living as a young adult, it was understandable that he should choose self-consciously (and given his temperament, aggressively) to play the bohemian in his efforts to be the artist. Given his energy, the value system of the day, the relatively poor literary education available to him at school and university, and the thinness of literary circles, even in Johannesburg, in his youth it was understandable that the role models that he chose – Poe, Baudelaire, Wilde and the other gaolbirds – should be destructive of his life as well as immensely important to his literary output.

No doubt few details except those supplied in the fictionalised memoir Cold Stone Jug are available about the period of imprisonment, but Gray seems reluctant to relate Bosman’s prison experience to his behaviour in the 1930s, though he is very willing to condemn his subject’s behaviour in those years. Had he seen the crime as a ghastly accident (though one which could only happen to a tense and boastful man) which forced Bosman to embrace a particular sense of himself, which he was unable to shed before his marriage to Helena, and which impeded the normal processes of maturing, Gray might have been able to offer a better understanding of Bosman as artist.

A further problem in the biography is the style, at times mannered and at times over-colloquial, in which it is written, which tends to draw attention to the author rather than to his subject: “let us be fair to the unfortunate father of the scion of this foursome” (47) Gray writes. To whom? The two Bosman parents had two children. Examples of clumsy phrasing are ”˜their obsolete old printing press” (167), “Bosman’s liking for her back from the Congo paintings” (228), “the shortage in silk stockings” (231), and “[w]ith the greatest battle, she had to protect herself” (242). More destructive is the occasionally sneering tone: Gray calls Cry, the Beloved Country “Paton’s big, sloppy, emotionally driven story” (344), which besides being inaccurate in almost every detail is the cheapest of gibes at a work which is undoubtedly a landmark in South African literature. Perhaps the failing is on the side of Human and Rousseau – did they provide Gray with a decent editor? If so, why didn’t he or she know that Ramsay MacDonald was not the first British Labour MP – that was Keir Hardie, years earlier. And people recorded sightings (not “sitings”) (138) of Bosman when he came out of prison.

A final problem is the index, which is confined to names of persons, and actually omits that of Herman Charles Bosman, so that the events of his life and his writings are not to be traced by referring to it. There is no entry for Johannesburg, nor for the Marico; ”˜prison writing’ does not appear, nor does ”˜the short story’.

Gray is the editor of Bosman’s novels and journalism; he has written informative introductions to volumes of the Anniversary Edition. The information which he has gathered and which he presents here is invaluable, but the book as a whole could have been much better than this.


1- The 1998 edition of Willemsdorp, edited by Stephen Gray, has had the excised passages restored to it. Gray gives an account these deletions on p.216 of the edition.

2- Rosenberg’s biography was republished in a revised version as Between the Lines (Cape Town: Struik, 2005) after this review was written. As well as having an epilogue which deals with the fate of Bosman’s work since Sunflower to the Sun appeared, the new version gives a “List of Sources”. These however are largely “taped interviews” or newspaper reports, and they are unrelated to particular claims made within the work. My comments about the frustrating qualities of Rosenberg’s biography still stand.


Bosman, Herman Charles. 2000. Old Transvaal Stories. MacKenzie, Craig (ed). Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

1999 (1949). Cold Stone Jug. Gray, Stephen (ed). Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

1998. Willemsdorp. Gray, Stephen (ed). Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

Abrahams, Lionel. 1991 (1957). “Herman Charles Bosman: A Man Who Never Unmasked”. In: A Cask of Jerepigo. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

Gray, Stephen. 2005. Life Sentence: A Biography of Herman Charles Bosman. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

1999. “Introduction”. Cold Stone Jug. The Anniversary Edition. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau: 9-43.

Lenta, Margaret. 2003. “White South African and Latter-Day Bohemian: Two Editions of Herman Charles Bosman”, Current Writing 15(1): 109-122.

MacKenzie, Craig. 1999. The Oral-Style South African Short Story in English. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Rosenberg, Valerie.1976. Sunflower to the Sun. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

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