Book Review: The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward

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I’ve read this book before but The Ern Malley Affair is such a complex and interesting story populated by the most impressive array of real-life characters that reading it again is like reading it for the first time.

The Ern Malley Affair chronicles the mid-World War II literary battle between Australian writers exploring modernism and Australian writers convinced that modernism was a bunch of boo-hockey. In 1943, Max Harris, co-editor of the Angry Penguins literary journal, received a number of poems from a woman named Ethel Malley. She wrote in an accompanying letter that they were the work of her now dead brother and wondered if there was any literary merit in them. Max Harris was bewildered and ecstatic, believing them to be the stuff of genius.

Instead, they were the stuff of a hoax. Written in a single afternoon by poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley to expose Harris as unable to recognise truly worthy poetry, the poems and the non-existent poet nevertheless took on lives of their own.

The story of Ern Malley and Max Harris, if portrayed as fiction, would be dismissed as requiring too much suspension of disbelief. The fact that it is a true story makes it delicious, even as we wonder – seventy years later – how something that was intended to enable a moment of jumping up from behind a couch and shouting, “Surprise!” has managed to maintain such a grip on the literary industry of an entire country.

Probably because the poems, which were intended to be specimens of bad poetry display moments of evocative brilliance. “The black swan of trespass on alien waters.” “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.” “O far shore, target and shield that I now / Desire beyond these terrestrial commitments.” “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.” Good poets trying to write bad poetry might not be able to shed the influence of themselves as easily as they had hoped.

The story itself deserves five stars but the writing of Michael Heyward is dense at times and sometimes requires momentary diversions to the dictionary. In fact, sometimes his writing suffers from the same insensibility that some of the poetry of Ern Malley does, requiring the reader to ponder it much longer than would have been necessary had it been written simply.

There are also a lot of tangents explored as the author seeks to develop a wider sense of the literary community, the diverse literary feelings and the broader societal expectations of the time. It’s a triumph, particularly when you consider how far Australia and the world has come in terms of literary exploration. This hoax could not be perpetrated now and if it was, it would not receive anywhere near the same sort of attention as it did back then (broadsheet newspapers covered it with as much fervour as the Pyjama Girl murder trial happening at the same time).

This book won’t be of any interest to anyone who doesn’t care about or enjoy poetry. It’s very much for a niche audience. But if you fall within that niche, you’ll be fascinated by a story that enfolds John and Sunday Reed (patrons of the arts at the time), the famous painters Sidney Nolan (who deserted the army and changed his name for a time) and Albert Tucker, and a huge cast of supporting players. Special mention must go to Detective Vogelsang, who investigated Ern Malley under the obscene, immoral and indecent provisions of South Australian law at the time, and Magistrate Clarke who found some references to be indecent and thought it might be possible for certain plays by Shakespeare to be prosecuted under the same laws if anyone was so inclined.

The book includes all the Ern Malley poems, so you can make up your own mind about whether they are any good or not. I doubt any two people will come to precisely the same conclusion. Which is an apt description of how literature has evolved. It is a deeply personal thing and being asked to justify why you love a piece of poetry is like being asked to justify why you love your significant other. Why one poem (or one person) speaks to someone is a great mystery of life.

The events are also a cautionary tale for writers. Because once they publish, they will forever be associated with their writing. Harold Stewart and James McAuley were never able to shake their tags as the authors of the Ern Malley poems and they ended up resenting it. Perhaps they would have faded into obscurity without Ern Malley. Perhaps they would have gone on to develop reputations independent of him. But they never got to find out.

The Ern Malley Affair is a story that is greater than the sum of its parts and I have no doubt I will read it again because it made me think about many more things than simply poetry. And if this review seems vague, it’s not intentional, it’s just that it’s difficult book to do justice to within such few words.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 21 December 2015

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