Text and Paratext: Ern Malley and the Function of the Author

By | 1 December 2010

The previous section of this essay provides one way of exploring Malley, but it struggles to explain other functions of authorial identity involved in the hoax. If Barthes’s notion of the ‘death of the author’ seems a logical way of analysing McAuley and Stewart’s authorial relationship to the Malley poems, it provides a less than satisfactory explanation for the role Malley himself – that is, the figure of Malley – played in deceiving Max Harris and ensuring the success of the hoax.

In addition to the poems that were Malley’s life work, the hoaxers needed to create an identity for their poet, one that would seem credible to Harris. The fictional identity that they produced included Malley’s sister ‘Ethel’, whose correspondence with Harris provided an account of the poet’s life and death; a ‘Preface and Statement’ by Malley for The Darkening Ecliptic; an incomplete poem written shortly before Malley died and a mysterious postcard from a woman named Lois, presumably the poet’s lover.

This material was obtained by Harris in the same way he received the poems; mailed to him by Ethel Malley. The first letter set the scene:

Dear Sir,

When I was going through my brother’s things after his death, I found some poetry he had written. I am no judge of it myself, but a friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good and told me it should be published. On his advice I am sending you some of the poems for an opinion.

It would be a kindness if you could let me know whether you think there is anything in them. I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel I understand what he wrote, but I feel that I ought to do something about them. Ern kept himself very much to himself and lived on his own of late years and he never said anything about writing poetry. He was very ill in the months before his death last July and it may have affected his outlook.

I enclose a 2 1/2 d stamp for reply, and oblige,

Yours sincerely,

Ethel Malley1

Ethel’s letters, providing details of her brother’s life, were necessarily vague in many respects; there was, after all, only so much information McAuley and Stewart could build into this fake life without Harris being able to trace the non-existence of Malley. And it is worth noting here that from the first reading of the Malley poems Harris expressed the possibility that the whole thing might be a hoax, although he was more inclined to believe they were genuine. In a letter to John Reed, his co-publisher at Angry Penguins, Harris wrote: ‘I’m certain that there is no gag in it … it’s too perfectly done’ and Reed’s response also contained doubts: ‘the general feeling it that the poems are genuine, though it is just possible that they are not.’2 This sense of doubt is not difficult to understand. The Malley poems – even coming to them armed with the knowledge they were concocted as a hoax – are impressive, if somewhat uneven, pieces of writing. For them to be written by a young poet who, according to the biographical information provided by Ethel, had left school early to become a mechanic was, to say the least, unusual.

However, what this lack of concrete information did was create a figure of mystery, allowing Harris, in his own mind, to foreground the figure of the poet, creating a larger-than-life character, despite Malley’s ‘tragic’ early death. The poet that the hoaxers created was undeniably romantic: the archetype of the artist as a tragic figure suffering alone with his art. Harris fell for it completely. Indeed, as Stewart recalled, the writing of the letters was a far more complicated process than creating the Malley poems:

The letters required much more literary skill and much more time and trouble – having been written over several weeks – than did the actual poems themselves. Not only did we have to create the character of Ethel Malley, the middle-aged, middle-brow, middle-class young lady of no great education, who had come upon these supposed poems of her imaginary brother, but also we had to create his character through her letters, and as he would have appeared to her, and so that required very delicate dislocations of grammar and spelling.3

Ethel was important to the hoax because she ‘proved’ Malley had relatives who knew and cared about his life. Additionally, as Heyward has pointed out, she ‘grounded the fantasy of the unknown, self-educated genius in the world of lower-middle-class suburbia … the true home of Australian philistinism: Ern Malley mocked the romantic myth of the proletarian artist but Ethel anticipated by a decade that formidable icon of the Australian suburban sensibility, Edna Everage.’4

Malley, as he is portrayed in Ethel’s letters, led a seemingly troubled life. Both his parents had died by the time he was sixteen and, as Ethel told Harris, ‘he was always a little strange and moody and I don’t think he had a very happy life.’5 The letters portray Malley as a poète maudit, yet one with a distinctively Australian touch. Despite the highly sophisticated poetry Malley produced, his formal education was not advanced; he left school at fifteen to take up work as a garage mechanic, and then later worked as an insurance salesman and also a watch repairer. His literary knowledge was apparently self-taught: as Ethel reported to Harris, ‘he was a great reader and he told me he did a lot of study in Melbourne … He said he often used to go the public library at night.’6

Then the hoaxers added another touch to Malley’s sad life: a mysterious romance with a woman in Melbourne that ended badly for some reason that Ethel did not know: ‘From things he said I gathered he had been fond of a girl in Melbourne but had some sort of difference with her’. And to build the poignancy even further the hoaxers added the final touch: Malley died at twenty-five years and four months, unrecognised as a poet even by his own [fictional] sister. This in itself should have triggered alarm bells for Harris, for Malley died at the same age as John Keats, placing him alongside other poets to die young such as LaForgue and Shelley. The hoaxers were deliberately inserting Malley into a romanticised tradition they hoped would bolster the credibility of his poetry and poetics.

The ‘Preface and Statement’ McAuley and Stewart concocted for Malley, while deliberately pretentious and obscure, also served to give the poems added substance. Nor is it entirely surprising that the young Max Harris was intrigued by the ‘Preface’; it was after all, designed to appeal to his modernist enthusiams:

These poems are complete. There are no scoriae or unfulfilled intentions. Every note and revision has been destroyed. There is no biographical data.

These poems are complete in themselves. They have a domestic economy of their own and if they face outwards to the reader that is because they have first faced inwards to themselves. Every poem should be an autarchy.

The writing was done over five years. Certain changes of mental allegiance and superficial method took place. That is all that needs to be said on the subject of schools and influences.

To discover the hidden fealty of certain arrangements of sound in a line and certain concatenations of the analytic emotions, is the ‘secret’ of style.

When thought, at a certain level, and with a certain intention, discovers itself to be poetry it discovers also that duty does after all exist: the duty of the public act. That duty is wholly performed by setting the pen to paper. To read what has thus been done is another thing again, and implies another order of loyalty.

Simplicity in our time is arrived at by an ambages. There is, at this moment, no such thing as a simple poem if what is meant by that is a point-to-point straight line relation of images. If I said that this was so because on the level where the world is mental occurrence a point-to-point relation is no longer genuine I shd be accused of mysticism. Yet it is so.

Those who say: What might not X have done if he had lived? demonstrate their different way of living from the poet’s way. It is a kind of truth, which I have tried to express, to say in return: All one can do in one’s span of time is to uncover a set of objective allegiances. The rest is not one’s concern.7

  1. Ethel Malley, letter to Max Harris, reproduced in Heyward, 2003, p 69.
  2. Correspondence between John Reed and Max Harris, in Heyward, 2003, p. 74.
  3. Harold Stewart, in Heyward, 2003, p. 182.
  4. Heyward, 2003, p 129.
  5. Ethel Malley, in Heyward, 2003, p. 78.
  6. Ethel Malley, in Heyward, 2003, p. 78.
  7. Malley, (Ern), ‘Preface and Statement’, in Heyward, 2003, p. 81.
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