- The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward
Faber, 278 pp, £15.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 571 16781 0
Australia’s most celebrated Modernist poet was born on 14 March 1918, in Liverpool. His father, wounded in the war, died in 1920, and soon after that the family moved to Australia, settling in Sydney where his mother had relations. He left school at 14, and worked over the ensuing years at a random series of jobs, as a garage mechanic, an insurance salesman, a watch repairer. Most of his brief adult life was spent in Melbourne, where he was, in the words of his elder sister Ethel, ‘fond of a girl’ but ‘had some sort of difference with her’, a difference movingly reflected in such lyrics as ‘Perspective Lovesong’.
He was something of a loner, ‘always a little strange and moody’, to quote his sister again. In his early twenties he contracted Graves’ Disease, a horrific – though very rarely fatal – illness which causes sleeplessness, irritability, diarrhoea, muscular tremors, bug eyes and excessive sweating. His perverse reluctance to seek medical help aggravated his condition, and after a sudden collapse he gradually lost strength. He died at his sister’s house in Sydney on 23 July 1943. He was 25 years and four months old, the same age at death as the most famous of all doomed Romantics: ‘Yet we are as the double almond concealed in one shell,’ he broods in ‘Colloquy with John Keats’, going on to predict his own equally untimely demise in harsh demotic terms – ‘Look! My number is up!’ After his cremation at Rookwood Cemetery Ethel opened his trunk and set about disposing of his pitiably meagre possessions; in the process she came across a yellowing sheaf of typed papers bound together and titled The Darkening Ecliptic. For the first time it dawned on her that her brother had been a poet.
It is fifty years since the death of Ern Malley, and his ‘fidgety ghost’ – the phrase comes from one of his Pericles-inspired poems, ‘Young Prince of Tyre’ – still haunts Australian poetry. One pictures the poet lugging a battered second-hand typewriter from flea-pit hotels to temporary lodgings, watching through sleepless mosquito-plagued nights (‘Now/Have I found you, my Anopheles!’) under a single naked electric bulb; acidly noting the complacent routines of the city’s masses, ‘mechanical men posting themselves’, yet conscious that he is himself a mere phantom in their midst; taciturnly observing a faulty carburettor, but never quite meeting the customer’s eye. Corrosive despair at the impossibility of making his ‘obsessions intelligible’ alternates with a sardonic compulsion to puncture his own effusions. Like a Conrad outcast, he constantly questions his own reality, though even these doubts can only be voiced in a ‘No-Man’s-language appropriate/Only to No-Man’s-Land’. What existentialist ever interrogated the authenticity of his own being with such resonance?
And now out of life, permanent revenant
I assert: the caterpillar feet
Of these predictions lead nowhere,
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark ...
In the 18th century Paley deduced the reality of God from a watch: Malley, who, Ethel reports approvingly, ‘made a fair amount of money repairing watches’, is his dark modern opposite, uncertain even of his own existence. Like Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave he can declare only that he is no one.
The fact that Malley really didn’t exist has only increased his fascination in the Post-Modern era. It’s some time since Roland Barthes announced the death of the author, insisting that all texts should be seen merely as a ‘multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’. No texts could illustrate this idea of literature more neatly than those of Ern Malley, whose complete works were concocted in a single afternoon and evening by two young Australian poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, as part of a plot to expose the obscurantism and meaninglessness of what passed for poetry under the aegis of Modernism. The Malley oeuvre was composed, they were later to reveal,
with the aid of a chance collection of books which happened to he on our desk; the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a Collected Shakespeare, Dictionary of Quotations etc. We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions. We deliberately perpetrated bad verse, and selected awkward rhymes from Ripman’s Rhyming Dictionary. The alleged quotation from Lenin in one of the poems, ‘The emotions are not skilled workers’ is quite phoney. The first three lines of the poem ‘Culture as Exhibit’ were lifted, as a quotation, straight from an American report on the drainage of breeding-grounds of mosquitoes.
Their principles also stipulated that there ‘be no coherent theme, at most, only confused and inconsistent hints of a meaning’, and that no care be taken ‘with verse technique, except occasionally to accentuate its general sloppiness by deliberate crudities’.
At the time of the hoax McAuley and Stewart were both in their mid-twenties. They had attended the same high school in Sydney, and were now working together in an army think-tank in Melbourne. Each had flirted with Modernism before renouncing all experimental art, from Picasso to Joyce, and metamorphosing into ardent traditionalists. They especially despised Surrealism, reserving particular contempt for the New Apocalypse school (Dylan Thomas and Co), whose influence was just beginning to register on the Australian literary scene, mainly thanks to the only avant-garde journal of the time, Angry Penguins.