The Incomplete Circle And Straight Drop Of A Question Mark

On April 1st, it is customary to either create pranks or remember the best ones of years past.

One of the greatest literary hoaxes of the past century didn’t happened on April 1st, but in October 1943. Perhaps, it was the 16th of October, or a week later. It was Saturday in Australia.

WWII was raging everywhere but all was quiet in the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, land headquarters of the Australian army.

Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, the two uniformed noncombatants, were young poets from Sydney. Staunch traditionalists, they deeply resented modernist poetry. They disliked and despised surrealist versifying. They hated Angry Penguins, a lit magazine devoted to the spread of modernism in Oz, and they detested its editor, young and eager champion of modernism in poetry, Max Harris.

“[We hated] not Max Harris in particular, but the whole literary fashion as we knew it from the works of Dylan Thomas, Henry Treece, and others.” (from the interview with Harold Stewart)

On that feverish October afternoon, the two soldier-poets concocted a hoax. On a spur of the moment, they created a bogus poet, christening him Ernest Lalor Malley, and outfitted him with a tear-jerking bio. They also invented the bogus poet’s bogus sister, an artless simpleton Ethel, and wrote the entire body of Ern Malley’s ‘tragic lifework’– sixteen modernistic, surrealistic and altogether abhorrent poems.

They mixed in false allusions and misquotations, dropped ‘confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning’ in place of a coherent theme, and deliberately produced what they thought was bad verse. They called their creation Malley because mal in French means bad. He was Ernest because they were not.

Angry Penguins

The cover of Angry Penguins was illustrated by Sidney Nolan (1917 – 1992), who would become the most celebrated Australian painter of his generation.

The invention of the poet’s sister Ethel was a masterstroke. Lamenting her innocence of her brother’s bohemian ways, she sent Malley’s posthumous opus, ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’, to Max Harris, along with a cover letter describing her brother’s tragic demise:

 ‘The weeks before he died were terrible. Sometimes he would be all right and he would talk to me. From things he said I gathered he had been fond of a girl in Melbourne, but had some sort of difference with her. I didn’t want to ask him too much because he was nervy and irritable. The crisis came suddenly, and he passed away on Friday the 23rd of July.”

Max Harris was touched to the core by the poignancy of the poet’s life story: the cruel fate snuffed out the life of yet another young genius. A tragic hero! Another Keats!  

The pranksters made sure that their invented poet died at 25, Keats-like, and that his poems would be sufficiently ominous, filled with premonitions of early demise on the cusp of greatness.

‘Now in your honour Keats, I spin / The loaded Zodiac with my left hand… (E. Malley, ‘Colloquy with John Keats’)

Max Harris bought Ern Malley, his verses and his story, in spite of the hints that the poet have never existed in the first place:

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
And yet I know I shall be raised up
On the vertical banners of praise.

The entire issue of Angry Penguins was devoted to the newly discovered but untimely departed Ern Malley.

June 1944 was the month of the Normandy invasion. The liberation of France took place in August, the battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history… but in the summer of 1944, the exposure of this literary hoax, utter humiliation of Max Harris and a colossal setback for modernism in Australia still found its way into the newsreels and spread rapidly to England and America.  

The hoax was a decisive act of literary criticism, brilliant parody in the service of fierce polemic. If, as McAuley and Stewart insisted, the poems had no merit, then Malley’s champions had convicted themselves of unsound judgment and corrupt taste. (Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber & Faber, 1993)

ben geineBut the hilarity doesn’t end here.

The South Australian police impounded the issue of Angry Penguins devoted to “The Darkening Ecliptic” on the grounds that Ern Malley’s poems were obscene. In truth, they weren’t. The erotic overtones were rather muted, particularly compared with, say, Tropic of Cancer or Ulysses. The testimony of a police detective Vogelsang was outright embarrassing — he didn’t know the meaning of the words he thought were lewd.

Angry Penguins and Max Harris suffered a setback, all right, but the tragic poet, Ern Malley – not so much. Quite to the contrary, the poet who never lived, failed to die. His poems have been included in anthologies quoted and studied.

“The myth is sometimes greater than its creator,’ said Harris, who staunchly maintained his belief in Ern Malley’s genius.”

David Lehman, a poet and critic, visited Harold Stewart, the one half of Ern Malley, in Kyoto in 1990.  Stewart turned into a Buddhist and an autodidact. ‘I was born in the year of the fire dragon and I eat a modernist poet for breakfast every morning,’ he said.

“Considering the ease with which you produced Ern Malley, didn’t you ever have the impulse to write more poems in that vein?’ Lehman asked. ‘No,’ Stewart thundered. “It was a joke, a lark, a way of getting at ‘an arrogant group of modernists.”

“Much as I liked and admired Stewart, I think he was wrong in that judgment,” David Lehman writes. “The Ern Malley affair was the century’s greatest literary hoax not because it completely hoodwinked Harris and not because it triggered off a story so rich in ironies and reversals.”

“It was the greatest hoax because the creation of Ern Malley escaped the control of his creators and enjoyed an autonomous existence beyond, and at odds with, the critical and satirical intentions of McAuley and Stewart. They succeeded better than they had known, or wished.”

“Malley’s poems hold up to this day, eclipsing anything produced by any of the story’s main protagonists in propria persona.” D. Lehamn The Ern Malley Poetry Hoax — Introduction.


3 comments on “The Incomplete Circle And Straight Drop Of A Question Mark

  1. Another hoax of the kind was played by a physicist Alan Sokal. He called it “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, and published it in a leading postmodernist journal, by followers of the French postmodernist icon Derrida.

    • The difference here is that Sokal relied on the strength of his own authority and reputation to pull it through. Someone like, say, Bernard-Henri Lévy, could do it everyday, much to the delight of “sophisticated public” — no one would know the difference. Ern Malley, on the other hand, had none of that — the entire person had to be invented before the writing could be attributed to that “person” — that’s double hoax.

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