The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry by David Brooks
University of Queensland Press, 2011
‘Ern Malley? Again?’ asks David Brooks at the outset of this new reading of what is, arguably, the central event in the history of modern Australian poetry. Brooks’s account is an engrossing, at times exhilarating journey through the landscape of early-mid twentieth century Modernist poetry, but it also leaves the question of the need for yet another volume about the infamous hoax more or less unanswered. This avoidance may be the result of unwillingness rather than inability on the author’s part; he perhaps wishes for the reader to reflect on the enigma of the hoax’s enduring appeal, while he himself goes about the task of unravelling the mystery of the famed poems’ origins and allusions. Brooks’s enthusiastic detective work and his explication of the poems’ notoriously abstract mechanics and symbols make for a fascinating and thoroughly readable work of literary scholarship; but he also leaves his reader unsure of the intentions and implications of this ‘secret history of Australian poetry’.
How much of a secret is the possibility of a direct connection between James McAuley and Harold Stewart’s creation and the earlier ghostly figure of Adoré Floupette? According to Brooks, in late 1980s he and his colleague and fellow poet-scholar John Scott detected a striking similarity between the 1885 French hoax’s oeuvre and the Ern Malley poems, and this discovery resulted in a third scholar, Michael Heyward, mentioning Floupette, albeit very briefly, in The Ern Malley Affair (1993). But, as Brooks observes accurately, Heyward’s study is one among many that ‘have taken the hoaxers – avowed liars – at their word’ by accepting that the Ern Malley poems were indeed nothing more than (in McAuley and Stewart’s words) ‘consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense’.
Brooks’s central thesis is that far from ‘consciously and deliberately’ rejecting Modernism and the avant-garde, the hoaxers were in fact earnestly immersing themselves in the experimental techniques of the very poets they were supposedly mocking. This is an original and in many ways provocative proposition, undermining much of what has already been assumed about the hoax and the conservative hoaxers’ intentions. As Brooks would have it:
there are good grounds to think the hoaxers quite simply did not do the things they claimed to have done in order to ensure the nonsensical quality of their product; indeed, they did far too many things to ensure what they produced would not be taken as nonsense. […] Had there been an actual, living poet to ground these poems, then it is arguable they would never have been seen as nonsense.
To prove that, against the hoaxers’ deceptive public statements, their poems were in fact sincere attempts at producing Modernist experimental poetry – written in the specific style of the Anglophone surrealist poets of the 1940s, the so-called New Apocalyptics – Brooks provides some of the most engaging close readings of poetry produced by an Australian scholar, evoking for this reviewer Cleanth Brooks and his seminal The Well-Wrought Urn. These readings alone could make The Sons of Clovis last year’s best book about Australian literature.
Brooks’s lively explorations of the intricate, and in some cases concrete intertextual associations between specific motifs and references in the Malley poems and the poems of Eliot, Mallarmé, Pound and the fictitious Floupette are extraordinarily erudite, suffused with intriguing possibilities and imaginative suggestions. For example, after noting the alphabetical similarity between the French word ‘trépas’ (‘a word for ‘death’ in French’) as used in Mallarmé’s ‘L’aprés-midi d’un faun’, and the English word ‘trespass’ as used in the famous last line of Malley’s ‘Sweet William’ (i.e. ‘I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters’), Brooks provides this inspired analysis:
[Ern’s line] goes (or leads us) in several directions. It has always made me think of a German U-boat entering the English Channel, or the Japanese miniature submarines off Bondi Beach and in Sydney Harbour: the knowledge that you are secretly entering someone else’s territory for destructive purposes. It’s the hoaxers, of course, entering under cover (one thinks also of the Trojan Horse) the pages of Angry Penguins with the intention of inflicting maximum damage, but it may also be something more. The ‘black’ of ‘black swan’ here suggests various things: it’s an Australian swan – black swans are native to Australia – but it also suggests evil and perhaps death (trépas). It also bring to mind the passionate swan/nymph of Mallarmé’s poem – the darker of the two – who escaped his rape through her vague trépas, and in doing so reflects Ern’s double nature.
Conceptual and aesthetic rapport between modern/Modernist Australian poets and French Symbolists has been discussed by other authors, most recently by John Hawke in his important Australian Literature and the Symbolist Movement (2009). Brooks’s exposition of at times undeniable, at other times plausible links between the work of the avowedly anti-Modernist Ern Malley hoaxers and the poets whom the hoaxers were supposedly setting out to lampoon (as Brooks has noted, the name ‘Malley’ itself could be seem as an attempt at mocking ‘Mallarmé’) has the potential to deconstruct much of the bitter opposition between traditionalists and modernists in contemporary Australian poetry, an opposition which was, of course, exemplified in the Ern Malley Affair. As such, one could describe Brooks’s perspective as postmodernist, an observation supported by the fact that the only appearance of literary theory in this book (a book which is, perhaps fortunately for the non-academic reader, almost entirely devoid of anything resembling literary theory) comes in the brief mention of one of the classics of postmodernist thought, Anti Oedipus.
I’ve made this remark – in my own way, ‘consciously and deliberately’ – to address what I described in the introduction as a perceived absence of an answer to the question of the contingency for a new book about the well-known hoax. To state what would have already become obvious, I’ve found The Sons of Clovis an enjoyable read, even a page-turner – thanks to, among other things, vivid portraits of the hoaxers and associated characters such as Christopher Brennan, US poets Karl Shapiro and Frank O’Hara, and that other mischievous Australian poet-hoaxer, Gwen Harwood – but I’m left wondering what the purpose and conclusions of Brooks’s deconstruction of the Ern Malley myth might be. Does the suspension of the opposition between the conservative hoaxers and their avant-gardist targets imply that the hostility between the two camps was simply an unfortunate and unnecessary misunderstanding, and that the opponents should have instead negotiated their differences and rejoiced in their common love of Symbolism?
Doing away with political and ideological antagonisms is, of course, one of the hallmarks of postmodernism, but achieving such a state of infinite deferral and flexibility comes at a cost; and in the case of Brooks’s argument, the price to pay is the exclusion of the political. Whether or not to avoid repeating what is already well-known, Brooks does not at all mention that McAuley was an insatiable Cold Warrior on the side of US capitalism, nor does he mention that one of the key objectives of the European avant-garde (including the Surrealists that McAuley and Stewart were so scornful of) was the destabilisation of capitalist bourgeois hegemony in concert with agendas of revolutionary communism. Furthermore, in his discussion of French Symbolists, Brooks ignores the single most disruptive and divisive political upheaval of late nineteenth century France – the Paris Commune – which, more than any other event, resulted in a break between the so-called Parnassian aesthetes and their future Symbolist adversaries such as the Communard Paul Verlaine and his radical protégé and lover Arthur Rimbaud.
Perhaps such omissions appear problematic only to a politically minded reader such as myself, but I wonder if Brooks’s presentation of Ern Malley hoaxers as repressed Modernists does not in many ways depend on – and if it does not in turn advocate – a distinctly, even excessively, depoliticised reading of the poems and their milieus. This is not to suggest that The Sons of Clovis is not a wonderful read; it is certainly that, even if it leaves this reader uncertain about its objectives. I unreservedly recommend it to all readers of Cordite, a journal which has had not one but two Ern Malley-themed issues.