Aegidius Jean Blignaut. My Friend, Herman Charles Bosman.
1981. Johannesburg & Cape Town: Perskor Publishers.
Review by Muthal Naidoo
1 April 2009
Aegidius Jean Blignaut, in his book, My Friend, Herman Charles Bosman, makes it clear that Bosman knew that he was an exceptional human being. Herman told the court he knew God in a special way, for he was the final product of evolution. (106) ‘No matter how unfortunate a man may be to have his dream smitten with fairy gold and blue allurements, genius needs no defence.’ (107) ‘I see Mr Malan, you do not want a child.’ Herman explained that he did not think he could reproduce himself. (202) The knowledge that he was a genius set him outside the bounds of ordinary social conventions and he lived his life true to his whims, impulses, feelings and thoughts. Since Blignaut and Bosman flouted all social conventions, they were difficult to live with and made many enemies. This may possibly have been a reason why Bosman’s work was not fully recognised for its superlative quality until after his death; certainly the murder of his brother and his spell in prison cast a shadow over his writing. During his lifetime, most of Bosman’s work was self-published. It is fair to say that almost the whole nation tripped over moral criteria in their literary judgement of Herman’s work. They averted their eyes from the proof of his genius in his incomparable stories.’ (111)
Bosman and Blignaut challenged all conventions that denied human freedom and dignity, were vociferous in their beliefs and openly and fearlessly denounced violations of human rights. They rejected the civilised veneer that puts a polite face on obviously execrable behaviour. They heckled at political meetings, stated their true opinions in their publications and vigorously exposed people who did not live up to their word. Consequently they were constantly being sued and having to appear in court. As they showed little respect for court proceedings, they were often fined or jailed. Once, they were even charged with blasphemy.
Summons against Bosman and Blignaut in the first blasphemy case
in South Africa. (They were charged with blasphemy for the
following passage from the story “Gardenias”)
‘God is merciful & He has got a kind heart. It is only his hands that
are so damn rough.’ …
‘With his feet on the shadow God spoke to me. ‘Hold out your hands’,
God said, ‘Here are a few loose jewels I didn’t want to waste by making
stars out of.’
‘But they are my jewels, God,’ I said, ‘I don’t know where you got
God sighed. ‘Ah well, I must be drunk again,’ God said. (102 – 3)
‘Genius is mad and irresponsible and frightening.’ (155) Sometimes belief in their superiority led to perverse behaviour. They never followed the crowd and often looked for ways to oppose general attitudes and beliefs. This is evident in Bosman’s ambivalence towards Hitler and Fascism and is made clear in the Daisy de Melker trial. While the whole community condemned De Melker, Bosman chose to inveigh against capital punishment.
Bosman seems to have equated genius with madness and he used the word ‘mad’ as a term of praise. A Londoner described him to Blignaut as follows. ‘He was a little mad,’ she said, ‘he wore green corduroy trousers, you know.’ I told her I had no quarrel with her assessment of Herman’s mental state …I did not mind, nor did he because the highest praise he ever bestowed on anyone was to say ‘he is really mad.’ He agreed absolutely that there was nothing more objectionable than reasonable madness. (134)
Bosman once said, ‘I have much in common with the lower order of simians…’ (125). This suggests to me that madness derives from a total integration of the divine and the animal; there is no denial of the instinctual self in favour of the spiritual which is what constitutes civilized behaviour. Such madness leads to authenticity in being and that is what Bosman was, an authentic being, and, therefore, was deemed mad in the conventional sense.
Though Bosman was a teacher for a short time, he was contemptuous of teachers and educators in general. Herman was apt to arrive at his estimate of people on their sense of humour … No one who lacked it could hope to become really friendly with him. He eschewed didactic people, especially those, he let it be known, who had spent so much time with school children that they served up a melange of drivel and recherché lore. He could not brook nonsense without a faërie accent. (234) One of the chief complaints against him as a teacher was that there was excessive laughter in his classroom.
Though we know Bosman mostly for his short stories, ‘Herman always described himself as a poet … he was the finest poet since Keats.’ (142) We cannot dispute Bosman’s designation of himself as a poet. In his short stories, the events are intriguing, but so is the language. It is clearly poetic, finely nuanced and not reducible to final statements or sentiments. And remarkably, he was not writing in his mother tongue. Herman chose to write in English, not because he despised his mother tongue, which he thought a fine language, or was incompetent in it, but because he had an uncanny feeling for English. He had been nurtured on incomparable writers in it. (109) And he had extensive knowledge of English, French and Classical Latin literature.
And Bosman wrote because he loved to write. He couldn’t help writing.
He said to me, ‘I am happy doing this.’ And indeed, his joy in creation
was absolute. He knew that would be his only immediate reward; but
for the indomitable artist that he was it sufficed. He smoked a lot but
his main opiate was writing. He could write admirably in any circum-
stances, yet during the years spent immured behind grim grey walls,
abused by moronic illiterates because he behaved differently from most
of the inmates, except the lunatic fringe, he did no writing. Herman had
only to be himself to leave them in no doubt that he too, was mad or
Somehow the word ‘driven’ does not seem applicable to Bosman; writing appears to have been as natural to him as breathing. Even as a schoolboy, he was submitting stories to newspapers. He wrote spontaneously, joyfully and did not believe in revising what he had written. That would have dulled the initial spark of inspiration. There were only two periods in his life when he seems not to have written, in prison and in London. Blignaut, however, suggests that in prison, he probably wrote and destroyed what he had written; in London, Blignaut found work scattered about in Bosman’s Shafstbury Avenue apartment after Bosman had returned to South Africa. Much of Bosman’s writing, thrown off effortlessly, was not scrupulously set aside and saved. As a result, some of it has been lost to us, according to Blignaut some of his finest pieces. As Bosman died young, at the age of forty-six, he never arrived at the stage where his inspiration had dried out. I once diffidently suggested that he should write an auto-biography. He rejected the idea out of hand, assuring me only writers with nothing more to say fell back on their life stories – writers he scornfully called piece-workers. (198)
Despite his genius, and his repudiation of social convention, when it came to women, Bosman seems to have accepted the conventional idea of the opposite sex. In his life, women were for pleasure. Though Blignaut claims that Bosman’s numerous liaisons were only with intelligent women, nothing much comes through of the women as interesting individuals. Daisy de Melker, the murderess, is the most interesting woman described in the book. The one woman to whom Bosman took a definite dislike was a prosecuting lawyer at one of his trials. He ridiculed her for being single and having ambition. ‘… we always referred to Hannah Greenberg – a girl with some talent, a hankering after equality with men and obvious, obdurate virtue – as a lawyeress. (210) One reads contempt for her in the words ‘obdurate virtue’ and ‘lawyeress’. Today, a man like Bosman would probably be regarded as a male chauvinist.
But Bosman, the genius, had total faith in himself. He believed about people like himself and Blignaut, ‘We’ll be ruling the world yet.’
1 April 2009