This is a true story, and an amazing one. The "Ern Malley affair" was a famous literary hoax in 1940s Australia - without doubt, the greatest literary hoax of all time. It began when Max Harris, young editor of the Adelaide-based avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins, received a package from a certain Ethel Malley, containing the surrealistic poems of her brother Ern, a Melbourne garage mechanic, who had died recently at the age of twenty-five. Did Harris think they were any good? Did he ever! Harris at once pronounced Malley a genius, and a lavish special commemorative issue of Angry Penguins was devoted to Ern's poems. Then the truth came out. There was no Ern, and no Ethel either - Ern's "works of genius" had been cobbled together in an afternoon by two traditionalist poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in an attempt to discredit the avant-garde.
Up to a point, they did: Max Harris was certainly never the same again, especially after the South Australian authorities decided that the Malley poems were obscene and dragged the young publisher through a public trial. The one-time enfant terrible of the University of Adelaide ended his days not as the great novelist, poet, or even literary editor he had imagined he would be, but as a canting, boorish newspaper columnist, churning out opinion pieces for Rupert Murdoch. (He also, in fairness, ran a chain of bookshops that weren't half bad in those pre-Amazon days; Max, with his cane and floppy hat, used to trawl the world - London! New York! the dealers all knew Max - for remainders, often good ones, which he used to ship back to Australia to pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap, as you do. I still think about Max from time to time: I never met him, never even came close, but he came from the same town I did, and as a child I used to hear his name again and again. He was a legend.)
Meanwhile, hoaxer-in-chief James McAuley, following his youthful jape, became the sort of arch-right winger who would nowadays be a cheerleader for Bush-loving Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and started a horrible fascist (sorry, "conservative") magazine called Quadrant; Stewart, ever the more interesting of the two, eventually moved to Japan where he got into Zen, big-time, and made rather cool collages; interviewed in later years, he never wanted to talk about the Malley business, and said that his old life in Australia all seemed like a dream. (Hell, so does mine.) I rather like the sound of Stewart.
But the story of Ern Malley was far from over. If Ern's fame as a great poet had been brief, his fame as a hoax just kept on growing, and has not abated to this day. The Malley poems confront us with crucial literary questions. With Malley, we are by no means a world away from "exquisite corpse" poems, from The Waste Land (that great modernist echo chamber of allusions), from the cut-ups and fold-ins of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, from the whole panoply of surrealist techniques. When David Bowie glues together random strips of words to write his lyrics ("Serious moonlight, indeed!" as a friend of mine once exclaimed), he is very much in the tradition of "Ern." Are these techniques all to be condemned? And how much, in the end, does authorial intention matter, as opposed to the words on the page? There are lines in Malley that are better (more haunting, more simply memorable) than almost anything in "real" Australian poetry: "Rise from the wrist, o kestrel / Mind, to a clear expanse"; "My blood becomes a Damaged Man / Most like your Albion" (from a poem addressed to William Blake); "Princess, you lived in Princess St., / Where the urchins pick their nose in the sun / With the left hand"; "I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything." Are the Malley poems really rubbish - or did the compilers of this hasty oeuvre, in mimicking surrealist techniques, inadvertently liberate a deeper world of meaning? In any case, Ern took on a life of his own, and soon became a cult figure, the missing genius of Oz lit. The artist Sidney Nolan painted his portrait.
I've often thought that the Malley affair is a classic Australian movie just waiting to be made. Recently, the story has formed the basis of Peter Carey's very much fictionalised account, My Life as a Fake (2002); but that is an ill-focused, slackly imagined book, far less compelling than the simple truth about the Malley affair. Heyward's book is the one to read, not least because it also includes the full text of Ern's legendary manuscript. Almost sixty years later, the enigma remains. As Ern put it, "I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters."