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The Ern Malley Affair: Introduction by Robert Hughes Paperback – 16 Oct 2003
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The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward investigates the amazing true story of what is perhaps the most famous literary hoax in history; a successful Australian publisher receives a package of poems, written by the recently deceased modernist poet Ern Malley. Or are they?
When the young, successful and beautiful Australian literary editor, Max Harris, received out of the blue a package of poems by a recently deceased poet, Ern Malley, he was convinced that he had stumbled on the work of a young genius.
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Australia in the 1940s had an uneasy literary culture, riddled with groups and cliques and movements. There were poets who insisted on using as many Aboriginal words as possible, but who then ruined the effect with their doggerel rhyme schemes; there were classicists, Sinophiles, embattled conservatives, tortured Catholics, and there was at least one surrealist, Max Harris.
Harris was very young and a bit derivative but he had a lot of energy, and by his mid-twenties he had not only published a novel and a fair amount of poetry, he'd also founded Australia's most self-consciously avant-garde literary magazine, 'Angry Penguins'. Many of his slightly older or less gullible contemporaries considered him a fool and a blowhard and two of them, by no means untalented or unserious writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, resolved to play a trick on young Max.
They took some of their own rejected poems and tarted them up a bit, then wrote a few new ones over the course of a long afternoon, making sure that they were as 'avant-garde' as possible by fiddling with grammar and sense until the poems defied analysis. Then they invented a very serious and conveniently dead young author called Ern Malley, attributed the poems to him, and wrote to Max Harris in the persona of Ern's very sensible sister, asking him if he thought the poems were any good.
McAuley and Stewart's fake avant-garde poetry was taken by Harris to be the real thing, and he immediately set about publishing them in a special edition of 'Angry Penguins', despite the misgivings of some of his older friends. One of his circle, the painter Sidney Nolan (who would later become one of Australia's greatest modernists), was so taken with the romantic, doomed figure of Malley - Australia's modernist Keats! - that he began painting imaginary portraits of Malley.
It didn't take long for the truth to get out, and Harris became the target of massive derision in the generally rather philistine Australian media for thinking that McAuley and Stewart's self-confessedly sloppy poems were in any way the product of true inspiration. McAuley and Stewart themselves were a bit startled by the fuss, and began to feel slightly sorry for Harris - especially when, in a bizarre twist to the whole thing, Harris was charged with publishing obscene material! Harris himself behaved with some dignity, claiming that McAuley and Stewart, whose 'proper' work he didn't much rate, had written much better poetry when they weren't trying to, than they normally wrote when they were taking the stuff seriously.
It all fell out rather sadly. Stung by the humiliation of it all, Harris began a slow retreat into a rather cantankerous distrust of avant-garderie, and in later life he claimed that his favourite pastime was 'poppy-lopping'. McAuley relied ever more on his fierce Catholicism and died fairly young, and Stewart got more and more fascinated with the quietism of Japanese culture.
The peculiar feature of the Malley poems (reprinted at the back of the book) is that, as Heyward observes, both sides were right. They are both sloppy and inspired, silly and brilliant, incoherent and vivid, fake and authentic. I personally know at least one Australian writer who considers them a major contribution to her country's literature, and she's not the only one. This is the story of how Australia came to produce perhaps its greatest avant-garde writer - and he never even existed.
Peter Carey drew on the Malley story for his (to me) disappointing novel 'My Life as a Fake', but this should be read by anyone who loves poetry.
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That would be it, except for the bewildering irony that the Ern Malley poems aren't nearly as bad and incoherent as their authors suggested. Well, not all the time. (Heyward helpfully reprints them as an appendix so you can judge for yourself.) They oscillate in the strangest way between genius and gibberish; I have one highly-educated Aussie friend who thinks that they're the most genuinely avant-garde poetry Australia has ever produced, and Heyward is inclined to agree. The Angry Penguin crowd claimed as much, saying that the authors had surpassed themselves in their attempt to turn off conscious control over their own work. They certainly contain some haunting, extraordinary lines ("I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters", "I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.") The fact that these lines were never meant seriously by their authors raises important questions about the usefulness of discussing intention in matters of literary criticism.
Heyward's story is lucidly and wittily told. There are no clear-cut villains and heroes. Max Harris comes across as appealingly open-minded and imaginative, as well as gullible. The hoaxers weren't cynical hacks but talented and serious poets in their own right. Amongst those taken in by Ern was Australia's greatest modern painter, Sidney Nolan, who (perhaps rightly) said that it didn't matter whether the poems were "authentic" or not, so long as they worked on some level.
A remarkable book, not only in its picture of mid-century Australian cultural history but also in the tricky questions it asks about sense vs. nonsense in art and the motives behind cultural battles.
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."