Biography of Mark Behr

Mark Behr was a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, perhaps best known for his first, and semi-autobiographical novel, The Smell of Apples (1993).

Behr was born October 19th, 1963 at the farm Mbuyu in Tanzania, but his family emigrated to South Africa as white-owned farms in East Africa were nationalized. He went to the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir Music School and Port Natal High School. He was conscripted into the South African Defence Force and fought in the Angolan War. He then attended the University of Stellenbosch before continuing his studies in Norway and the United States.

Behr was a Research Fellow at the international Peace Institute of Oslo in Norway. He also taught English and International Peace Studies at numerous universities throughout Africa, Europe, and the United States.

In 1990 Behr admitted he had been a spy for South Africa’s police while at Stellenbosch University, but underwent a political conversion and turned double agent and spied on the South African government from the African National Congress. In an interview with Andrew van der Vlies, he said of this experience: “Within a year of becoming an informer I had, unfortunately, allowed myself to be made the leader of the organization I was meant to report on. My sympathies had shifted to the left and I had become friends with people I was now concerned about disappointing, causing harm to and losing as friends if I were exposed. Almost from the outset of spying, even as I did it, I had been uninterested in the actual task I was doing for the state and began manipulating the information I gave. With the affirmation I’d felt at being ‘chosen’ to work for the police, my decision to spy had been opportunistic, to help pay for my studies, and not born from any conscious interest in espionage, political intrigue, or to cause anyone grief. Had I had money, I’m not sure I would have spied—even though I’d still have felt faltered by the invitation to do so. Very soon I became excited about what I was learning of the world and of myself from the Left. Amongst the small group of radicals and liberal hangers on, the notions and possibilities of resistance, rather than compliance or acquiescence, became important intellectual/political and psycho-social discoveries. Here, on the margin of the Left’s margin, I first began to imagine myself as living an openly gay life.”

Behr published The Smell of Apples, his first novel, in 1993 (it was translated into English in 1995); it immediately received critical and popular acclaim.

Beginning in the mid-1990s Behr started teaching Creative Writing at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He published the novels Embrace in 2000 and Kings of the Water in 2009. He also wrote short stories throughout his life, including “Boy” (2009), a response to Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.”

Behr died on November 27th, 2015 in Johannesburg, apparently of a heart attack.

Study Guides on Works by Mark Behr

The Smell of Apples is a semi-autobiographical novel by Mark Behr set in South Africa in the 1970s. The story is narrated by eleven-year-old Marnus Erasmus. Marnus is the son of a well-respected military hero who is regarded as a future member of...