From ‘Finding the Subject’
In Recognising Blues
by Herman Charles Bosman
When Leon Feldberg asked me to write, as usual, for the Rosh Hashanah issue of The South African Jewish Times, it seemed that it was going to be straightforward enough. All that was needed – so it seemed – was for me to find a subject, something with a kind of angle on the relations between Jew and Gentile – the rest to be left to the typewriter and chance. In the end I was to find that the only part of the article that was simple was to be the writing of it. Getting hold of a subject proved to be an almost insurmountable problem.
‘Jew and Boer on the Platteland?’ Feldberg suggested. Done to death, I thought.
Then: ‘How about The Merchant of Venice – a new interpretation of Shylock?’
But I remembered many long essays I had read on Shylock. Humbly, I felt that if I were some day, perhaps, to throw a small amount of new light on the character of Shakespeare’s Jew, it would not be in the course of a thousand words turned out on the spur of the moment. I had just seen an advance notice of Edith Sitwell’s A Notebook on William Shakespeare, to be published in England the next month. ‘A phrase is studied and will be found to hold the whole meaning of the play … a work which serves to illumine Shakespeare’s mighty and many-sided genius’ – so read the blurb to Edith Sitwell’s book.
Where would I be, among these writers of scholarly treatises, with my thousand-word dissertation on Shylock, dashed off at speed?
A little later Edgar Bernstein suggested that I write on the subject: ‘The Jewish Contribution to South African Literature’. Well, I could try, I reflected – especially as he lent me a little publication dealing with the Jewish Book Festival, containing a considerable number of informative articles from which I could crib. I paged through the booklet. Somehow the thought of rehashing the contents and dishing them up in a different form did not make a strong appeal to me. In any case, everybody would know that an article along these lines would not be the result of original research – they would all know where I had cribbed it from. I paged through the list of contributors. Ehrhardt Planjé, I read. Uys Krige. That seemed an idea. They had found subjects to write about. I would learn from them how they did it. I might get a lead that way.
I tried Ehrhardt Planjé first. He was out.
But Uys Krige understood my problem right away. I said: ‘If I have got to start now going into the genealogies of South African writers, to find out which are Jews and which are not …’.
‘That’s exactly what the Jews complain about the Nazis having done,’ Krige said. ‘In any case, to discuss a specifically Jewish contribution to South African culture could become something like special pleading. It’s an insulting thing to do to a people.’
He explained that he had written an article on Olga Kirsch because, latterly, she had improved very considerably, and he felt that after the way Greshoff had dealt with her, considerations of fair play demanded a more balanced assessment of her work, which had great and obvious merit.
‘What about David Fram?’ Krige asked. ‘Write about him. There’s a good subject for you. Fram has got a far bigger reputation in America than he has in this country.’
That seemed to open up possibilities. Meanwhile, I again tried to get hold of Planjé. The article he had written, ‘The Jew as depicted in the Afrikaans Novel’, was intriguing. Some years before he had written an essay, ‘The Elephant on the Monkey’. He seemed good at titles. Perhaps he would be able to think out something equally good for me. I learnt, however, that Planjé had not yet come home.
Accordingly I tackled David Fram, whose great drawback in the field of literature was his excessive modesty. And this time Fram was not only modest, he was also sick. He could hardly talk. But he was able to supply me with a number of statistics. His temperature was 104 degrees. Of his poems, 60 per cent had a South African setting. He would not be able to move around for another 14 days. His longest poem, ‘In Dorem Afrika’, ran to 83 pages. He was taking medicine every three hours. His poem, ‘The Boers’, was 3,200 lines in length. He had just taken three tablets, each containing 0.5 grams of Beta-phenyllisopropylamine sulphate.
There was not much doing there, it seemed to me. So I tried Planjé again. He had still not come home.
Thereupon I went for a stroll down Fox Street. I interviewed one or two Jewish businessmen I knew, explaining my difficulty. Couldn’t they perhaps help me find a lead? ‘What is the average Jewish businessman’s attitude towards culture?’ I asked the proprietor of a furniture shop. ‘Oh, just about the same as the attitude of the average non-Jewish businessman,’ the furniture dealer’s clerk answered, pointedly.
That gave me something to think about.
I mentioned the other alternative – an article on Shylock.
‘Well, why not say that The Merchant of Venice is true to life?’ the aforementioned clerk replied, his tone seeking to convey a light irony. ‘Look for how many years now writers have been apologising for Shakespeare, or for the Jews, and have been trying to explain Shylock away. Why not just say, well, the pound of flesh and all that – is life not life? That’s an original approach, isn’t it?’
‘It’s original enough,’ I conceded, ‘but, I mean to say, isn’t there enough anti what-you-m-call-it in the world as it is? No, I’m afraid your suggestion is out. Perhaps Planjé could put me on to something.’
But Planjé was also out. He had still not found his way home.
Shortly after that, I saw SA Rochlin. ‘Can you help me find a subject to write on?’ I asked him. ‘You know, I want to turn out something worthwhile, thought provoking and so on. Not just another goodwill potboiler.’
‘Do you know what I have to write about for the Rosh Hashanah issue?’ Rochlin asked me.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t. What?’
‘A survey of the history of the relations between the Jews and the National Party. That means I’ll have to go back to 1912. Think how much research there is in that.’
I shuddered. ‘You’ll have to mention the 1932 Germiston by-election,’ I said. ‘A Jew, Schlosberg, was the Nationalist candidate. I wrote a number of articles, at the time, supporting him. He didn’t get in.’
But I wasn’t any nearer to writing this article for The South African Jewish Times. And there was my photo going in, and all.
Suddenly I thought of Ignatius Mocke. I contacted him. And I regretted the fact, then, that I had not thought of him earlier. His conversation suggested to me not one article, but ten. Effortlessly and unconsciously, in practically every sentence he spoke, he produced a theme for something nice and chatty to write about.
‘I had often thought that, of the various races immigrating into this country,’ Mocke said, ‘the Jew would be able – and willing – to do most for Afrikaans literature.’ There was a great article for you, I thought, ready-made. ‘The Jews have the greatest capacity of any people,’ Mocke went on, ‘to appreciate and identify themselves with an indigenous culture.’ Again, something I could elaborate on, and expand into a couple of columns.
Mocke went on to say that he had been aware for a long time of how similar the Jew’s background was to the Afrikaner’s. ‘The struggle of these two small peoples for national survival and independence have many parallel features,’ he said. He added that, some years ago, when anti-Semitic propaganda began to be disseminated among Afrikaners, on an organised scale, he was in a position to know to what extent it formed part of a deliberate divide and rule policy, employed by interests antagonistic to both Jew and Afrikaner. He said that he was able to throw a good deal of light on various aspects of what he called ‘politieke kattakwaad’.
I realised that I should have got in touch with Mocke earlier. Perhaps I would remember him before the next Rosh Hashanah issue.
By the time of going to press, Ehrhardt Planjé had not yet got back home.