BOOK REVIEW / The importance of being in earnest: 'The Ern Malley Affair' - Michael Heyward: Faber, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
PRACTICAL jokes almost always leave a sour aftertaste. The victim is exposed as a gullible idiot, sure, but we have to pay for our laughter by acknowledging (there but for the grace of God) that anyone can be fooled. Only the worst people - the most cautious, furtive and suspicious - refuse to be taken in by anything, and the superior smirk on the face of the prankster swiftly comes to seem cold and unworthy.

But the strange case of Ern Malley's poetry is a jest of the most transcendent kind, and it still has the power, in Michael Heyward's terrific account, to make fools of us all. The victim was Max Harris, a keen, slightly pretentious young poet in Australia during World War II.

Harris envied European poetry, which through Eliot and Auden had cast itself in a new idiom. He denounced Australia's devotion to old-fashioned jingling verse forms as shallow and empty, and used his poetry journal, Angry Penguins, as a forum for the development of a modernist note in Australian literature. One day he received a packet of poems written by a 25-year-old called Ern Malley, who had just died. The covering letter was written by the poet's sister Ethel, an untutored woman with a likeable ignorance of literary pursuits.

Harris was convinced that these poems were the real goods. At last] A home-grown modernist hero. He devoted the autumn 1944 issue of his magazine to Malley's work, and drummed up some influential support. The artist Sidney Nolan was dazzled, and produced two Malley-inspired paintings.

Then the false beard came off. It turned out that the complete works of Ern Malley had been cooked up - in a single afternoon - at a military barracks in Melbourne by two young poet-officers called James McAuley and Harold Stewart. They hated all this new-fangled modernist claptrap and wanted to see if Max Harris was, er, game for a laugh.

It was, in all its details, a beautifully pitched joke. Even the name is perfect: obviously it is important that he is Ernest, and Malley is an Oz-sounding compound of Mallarme and Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. The poet's brief life, it transpired, was exactly the same length as Keats's. He shared a birthday with Einstein, and was also a surreal artist: Max Harris received a batch of Magritte- style pictures - elephants riding through cloudy skies, hands reaching over alps, jugs of milk feeding a Lakeland waterfall.

The poems are stuffed with self-conscious zingers that look, in retrospect, like dead giveaways. And they are full of subversive flourishes. One begins:

'Swamps, marshes, borrow- pits and other

Areas of stagnant water serve

As breeding grounds. . .'

When it emerged that this evocative opening was the first sentence, chopped up, of a US military report on mosquitoes, the Australian press, not surprisingly, split its sides.

But the story ended, as these things often do, in tears. A hysterical reaction rose up in front of the gale of laughter, and crashed in on Max Harris with a ferocity no one, not even the mischievous authors of the fraud, had looked for. On the strength of a few genital images in the poems, Harris was prosecuted for obscenity, found guilty and fined. This would have seemed the purest absurdity had it not been so crushing and beyond-a-joke for Harris, whose only crime was a pompous excess of zeal. The final irony, of course, is that even though he didn't exist, Ern Malley became a superstar, Australia's most famous poet.

The whole trouble was: the poems really were, and really are, intriguing. Heyward publishes the complete portfolio at the end of the book, and they take your breath away. It is not just a question of realising that they are good enough to fool anyone. The poems are so effective - especially with the comic underlay we can now see so easily - that they raise some truly awkward questions. Does it matter what the authors had in mind? Does it matter that they are the work of a moment? Does their extreme plausibility mean that the genuine article (The Wasteland, for example) is no more than plausible? John Ashbery once set an exam asking his students to compare poems by Malley and Geoffrey Hill, warning that one of them was a hoax. Half the students fingered Hill as the hoaxer.

Heyward negotiates these tricky waters so well that the reader grows dizzy. The authors claimed that they set out to write nonsense, and took care to make sure that their verses were meaningless, but as Heyward points out, we do not have to take their word for it. Borges said that writers always judge the work of others by what has been achieved, their own work by what was intended. And it is one of modernism's precepts that the important contract is between the reader and the book, not the author and the book. Nobody would seriously judge a work of art great merely because it was laborious to do. Mozart wrote operas in about two minutes flat, and we do not doubt their seriousness.

Besides, it is plain from the poems that the authors did not quite succeed in writing nonsense. It sounds mad, but the work is made coherent by its clear desire to be incoherent - in seeking to satirise the spurious flavour of modern poetry, the two poet-officers borrowed its most telling weapon. Modernist work sets out to demonstrate that the world does not make sense, and that the old gods are unreliable - and this is exactly what McAuley and Stewart were declaring as well. What they produced was both a critique of modernism and an example of it, but this gets us nowhere, since modernist work delights in self-criticism.

There are several other contradictions. First, it is quite possible, as Harris was quick to insist, that McAuley and Stewart had produced great poetry by accident. Released from the dull, aesthetic conformity to which they were for some reason attached, they sent their imaginations on a joyous, uninhibited bungee jump, and surpassed themselves. Poetry intended to be merely unclear ended up as mysterious and suggestive. Several professors supported this idea. One declared that Ern Malley had 'lapsed into poetry' more often than he had intended.

It is hard, since there were two men behind Ern Malley, to buy the idea of a subconscious intelligence given a sudden free hand. But joint authorship generated its own marvellous effect: the writers did not bother to hide the joins, and thus reproduced another of modernism's most striking features: the sense of multiple voices that don't quite add up. And they were, after all, witty and ambitious men, eager to make the poems as brilliant as possible, knowing that they would deflate them later on. Ern Malley wrote not satires but parodies, and the line between a parody and its target is paper thin.

In the end they were able to prove not that the poems are rubbish: only that they are a joke. 'I had read in books that art is not easy,' Malley writes. But what if it is?

See also: the daily poem, page 3.