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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Ern Malley Affair

Michael Heyward

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To purchase The Ern Malley Affair

Title: The Ern Malley Affair
Author: Michael Heyward
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1993
Length: 262 pages
Availability: The Ern Malley Affair - US
The Ern Malley Affair - UK
The Ern Malley Affair - Canada
  • With an Introduction by Robert Hughes
  • With the complete The Darkening Ecliptic-poems by 'Ern Malley'
  • With 36 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, thorough account of a great hoax

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 25/10/2003 Steven Poole
The Independent . 12/8/1993 Robert Winder
London Rev. of Books . 9/9/1993 .
The New Criterion . 2/1994 Robert Richman
The New Republic . 4/4/1994 Frank Kermode
New Statesman . 13/8/1993 Robert Carver
The Spectator . 14/8/1993 .
TES . 20/8/1993 .
TLS . 20/8/1993 .
The Washington Post . 6/3/1994 David Lehman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Heyward's reissued account of this celebrated affair (...) is a strange and marvellous tale." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "The view of Harris's defenders over the years -- that the hoax was a deathblow to the Australian avant-garde -- is rightly disputed by Michael Heyward (...) But there is little else Heyward is on target about." - Robert Richman, The New Criterion

  • "(I)ntelligent, thorough and only occasionally overelaborate (.....) He has done a good and even an important job; but all the same he misses some things. (...) Heyward is good at spotting sources, but occasionally he makes the mistake of believing that having done so he has demolished the dependent poem." - Frank Kermode, The New Republic

  • "Heyward's well-researched and intelligent book gives us the full story, which is more complicated than anyone supposed." - Robert Carver, New Statesman

  • "The hoax was, as Michael Heyward points out in his lucid and informative book, a decisive act of literary criticism, brilliant parody at the service of fierce polemic. (...) The best thing about The Ern Malley Affair is that it reprints Malley's 16 poems, though I wish Michael Heyward had included the prose "Preface and Statement." (...) My chief disappointment is that Heyward fails to mount a strong enough literary defense of Ern Malley's poetry." - David Lehman, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ern Malley is one of the greatest and most consequential literary hoaxes ever perpetrated. James McAuley and Harold Stewart invented him in Australia in 1943, specifically targeting a publication called Angry Penguins and its young editor, Max Harris. They submitted a sheaf of poems purportedly written by Malley to Harris -- pretending to be Ern's sister (Ern having conveniently passed away of Grave's disease at age 25). The poems were a send-up of the avant-garde stuff that Harris was championing, and he fell for them (and the background story) hook, line, and sinker.
       In 1944 these Ern Malley poems were published in Angry Penguins, in an issue commemorating the great Australian poet (with a Sidney Nolan picture inspired by the poems on the cover). The hoax was exposed fairly soon, and the writers behind it revealed. Compounding the farce, Harris was later tried (and convicted) for publishing the poems -- because they were allegedly obscene.
       Michael Heyward offers a thorough account of all this in The Ern Malley Affair. Beginning with profiles of those involved, he shows how it came to this odd literary game: the talented if unfocussed McAuley and Stewart, the precocious and ambitious Max Harris (whose novel, The Vegetative Eye, published in 1943, ("so breathlessly eager to do everything at once that its language suffers from a kind of oxygen debt") is just one of many amusing misguided literary dead-ends encountered along the way), the money-losing Angry Penguins. The Ern Malley hoax is also an Australian story, and the literary scene of the time (and the glee with which the hoax was greeted) is also nicely conveyed.
       Incidental figures play interesting roles as well: the painter Sidney Nolan (one of the Angry Penguins), who deserted from the army and shed his identity just as Malley's was being uncovered, or visiting professor J.I.M.Stewart (popularly known as mystery writer Michael Innes), who -- as the leading local literary authority at the time -- got dragged into the affair from beginning (asked to give his opinions on the poems before they were published, he was unimpressed) to end (he was a witness at Harris' trial).
       The obscenity-trial is covered in considerable detail, a farce from beginning to end -- but under the law of the time in South Australia literary and artistic merit could not be taken into account in deciding whether some obscenity was permissible, and so Harris inevitably was convicted. (The law was not amended until 1953, but it took two more decades until the poems were truly safe from prosecution; Harris moved to Melbourne after the trial, knowing he could never publish Angry Penguins in South Australia again.)
       The poems (which appear in their entirety in an appendix) are also closely examined throughout, from all angles (including, illuminatingly, in the court transcripts -- literary deconstruction ad absurdum). Interestingly, some had their doubts about the authenticity of the works from when they first saw them (one person believing even that "Harris had writen Ern Malley as a joke against himself"), but the hoax was right on target: Harris was blinded by them (and continued to champion them for decades after, certain of their merit regardless of their origins).
       Heyward doesn't go into great detail regarding the after-life and influence of the poems, but does offer some decent summary. Various contemporary Australian poets give their brief assessments and some of the publishing history is examined (the poems were later embraced by the Locus Solus crowd -- Johna Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, in particular). Among the many amusing anecdotes:

at Brooklyn College, John Ashbery would, in the exam for the creative writing course he taught, print without attribution one of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns -- densely constructed, massively serious, late modernism, if it ever existed -- beside a poem by Ern Malley
       He'd ask his students to identify which one was the "hoax originally published to spoof the obscurity of much modern poetry". Half the students picked Hill's poem.

       The Ern Malley hoax is a fascinating story, and Heyward's is a thorough account of it. From questions of authenticity to the importance of authorship (and mid-20th century notions of obscenity in Australia and the consequences thereof), as well as the role of the poet in society (worthy only of attention when shown to be a fraud ?) it's fascinating material. Certainly recommended, especially to poets and writers.

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The Ern Malley Affair: Reviews: The Ern Malley hoax: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian writer Michael Heyward was born in 1959.

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