Obituary: Mark Behr, charismatic academic, novelist, spy

06 December 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Mark Behr, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 52, wrote perhaps the most searing novel yet about the hypocrisy and moral rottenness at the heart of the Afrikaner establishment that imposed apartheid on South Africa. It was published in Afrikaans in 1993 as Die Reuk van Appels and in 1995 in English as The Smell of Apples.It was an immediate sensation. It made him famous in local and overseas literary circles and garnered several awards, including for the Afrikaans version the Eugène Marais prize and for the English version the M-Net Award and the Betty Trask Award for the best first novel published in the UK in 1996.But what really made him famous, and undoubtedly added to sales, was his extraordinary announcement at a gathering of writers in 1996 that he had been an apartheid spy while a student at Stellenbosch University in the '80s.Although some thought his confession glib, self-serving and a publicity stunt for a forthcoming book, the fact is he found this aspect of his past deeply traumatic.In spite of running away to Norway, where he taught international peace studies for four years, and to the US, where he taught creative writing and had therapy, he never overcame his sense of guilt and shame. He realised eventually that the best he could hope for was to live with it.He was more comfortable writing in English, and wrote his second two novels in English, partly also with an eye on international sales.Although he loved the creative aspect of writing, he found the actual writing itself grindingly hard work. He used to think the idea of being a writer quite glamorous and romantic, but he found the reality anything but.He believed it was only after getting the "shitty first draft" down that the real work began. Revision, revision, revision, he told his creative writing students, informing them that the great Annie Proulx wrote 64 drafts of Brokeback Mountain.He learnt this lesson from his close friend and unofficial editor, Professor Gerrit Olivier, who advised him to axe a third of the manuscript of The Smell of Apples, which he felt was marred by his fondness for florid and sentimental prose. Behr followed his advice and the resultant starkness of the prose was key to the novel's terrific impact.He did not follow this advice with his second novel, Embrace, in 2003, which Olivier advised him to cut by half. It shows, and he always regretted it.He was in full revise mode with Kings of the Water in 2009, which writer Christopher Hope praised as "one of the most moving novels to have come out of South Africa in many years".As well as being an extraordinarily talented writer Behr, an engaging, charismatic, larger-than-life character, was also an inspirational, perceptive, sympathetic and highly popular teacher of creative writing.He spent a few months a year teaching the MA creative writing course at the University of the Witwatersrand, and at the time of his death of a heart attack was on sabbatical from Rhodes College in Memphis in the US, where he was a professor of creative writing for 10 years.At the time of his death he was working on a thesis for a PhD in English literature, revising his latest novel, The White Rhino, and planning an autobiography.Behr was born in Tanzania on October 19 1963. His family were farmers and they left for South Africa when Julius Nyerere started nationalising white farms.His father, Mike, became a game ranger in KwaZulu-Natal. Behr attended the Drakensberg Boys' Choir School, which was a setting for Embrace, in which a 13-year-old boy pleasures his choirmaster (it was his coming-out novel as a gay person) and matriculated at Port Natal High in Durban before doing his national service in the South African Navy.He and his father had a complex relationship, which Behr hoped a trip to Tanzania would help to heal.When his father cancelled at short notice, Behr gave up on the relationship.Things were easier with his mother, Bets, although she never quite understood him.He is survived by his mother, who lives in Potchefstroom, his father, who lives in the UK, and his sister, Elize.1963-2015

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