by David Brooks
Reviewed by MARTIN EDMOND
Clerks of Metamorphosis
A salient quality of the Ern Malley hoax is its incommensurability. There is something about it that, no matter how hard we try, how far we go, where we look, will never be properly explicated, never entirely understood. This quality is shared by the poems but this isn’t unusual with good poetry; whereas those works the circumstances of whose composition remain enigmatic are rather fewer: Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is the most famous example. It is the mysterium surrounding the writing of the Ern Malley poems, as much as the poems themselves, that has kept people coming back to them; and now we have, in David Brooks’ wonderful The Sons of Clovis, a sustained attempt at an inquiry into that particular circumstance.
Brooks says at the outset—and who could deny it?—that we would be foolish to take at their word admitted hoaxers when they describe the way they made their hoax poems. If they invented a poet and his poems, might they not also have invented the circumstances in which (they say) the said poems were composed? Of course they might. They probably did. Not that Brooks attempts to deny the Saturday afternoon in the Victoria Barracks alibi; he is after something larger and far more interesting: a genealogy for the poems themselves, their DNA perhaps: where, as poems, do they come from, what is their provenance, what their affinities and their contraries?
His suggestion, maugre the received version—the poems represent a kind of DIY antipodean surrealism mixed in with a bit of impromptu automatic writing indulged in by a couple of bored soldier-poets on a lark—is that their roots lie principally in the writing of the French Symbolistes; and that the means of their transmission can be traced, via Australian poet Christopher Brennan, into the early work of the hoaxers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. As the sub-title indicates (‘Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry’), Brooks feels he has discovered, in the French hoax poet Floupette, an actual precursor for Ernest Lalor Malley. Not the sole precursor—one of the most entertaining things about this very entertaining book is its discussion of other literary hoaxes, including an illuminating account of the Demidenko Affair—but certainly the main one.
It seems on the face of it an audacious speculation, difficult to sustain, let alone prove; but this is where the secret history becomes so fascinating. Christopher Brennan, it turns out, corresponded with Stéphane Mallarmé in the late nineteenth century. He owned a copy of Les Déliquescences by Adoré Floupette (Paris, 1885), perhaps acquired during his European travels in the 1890s and certainly the only one in Australia at that time; astonishingly, the original of two versions of the painting by Evariste-Vital Luminais that gives its title to the first poem in Floupette’s collection—Les énervés de Jumièges—is in the Art Gallery of NSW and has been since it was purchased on behalf of the gallery, for an unknown sum, by an unknown person, in Paris in 1886. This is the same work that, under its alternate title, Brooks uses for his book.
James McAuley, in the immediate pre-war years, wrote his MA thesis on the Symbolistes. At around the same time Harold Stewart was spending time in the State Library of NSW copying out, by hand, poems by Mallarmé and other French poets, which he then translated and published in student magazines. Whether either had in fact read Floupette, or even knew of his existence, is more difficult to establish but Brooks does show that McAuley, at least, could have done so: Brennan’s library, containing Les Déliquescences, was available to him.
The point of these connections is that they allow the speculation that, in creating Ern Malley, the hoaxers were, in part, indulging in a Yeatsian argument with their own younger poetic selves. This is a central point in Brooks’ thesis, one he develops in detail, and credibly, over the course of the book; and it gives a possible answer to the question as to why the Malley poems continue to emit such a strong emotional charge: they are not simply a hoax, they are not just parody. They stem directly from the chaos of two versions of the poetic unconscious where psycho-sexual battles are fought and lost or won.
As Brooks follows this line—with many twists and turns and a number of digressions, all of which are enlightening—a curious thing happens: one of the hoaxers, Harold Stewart, more or less disappears into the shadow cast by the other, James McAuley. It does seem likely that McAuley was the senior partner; it’s certainly the case that he is much better known in Australia than Stewart, who spent the second part of his life in Japan and whose later work is obscure and in some cases still unpublished. But you can’t help thinking also that McAuley, the tortured Anglo-Catholic alcoholic, the literary cold warrior, the politician of poetics, is more susceptible of analysis than the semi-retired, comprehensively veiled, homosexual Buddhist living anonymously in Kyoto.
McAuley, you come to feel as you read through The Sons of Clovis, is the sole clerk of [his, that is Malley’s] metamorphosis; while Stewart is not just hidden but, in Brooks’ own words, hiding something, perhaps even from himself. I put this forward, not as a criticism of the book so much as an index of how the Ern Malley imbroglio continues to elude explication, even in the consciousness of as sophisticated and erudite a commentator as Brooks. As I read on, and there was less and less about him, I found myself thinking more and more of Harold Stewart: as if he were yin to McCauley’s yang; the secret heart of the poems perhaps; the key to their darkness, their obsessive invocation of absence and loss.
Brooks is a superb close reader of texts and much of the interest of the book lies in his ability to get inside the words of poets—Malley is by no means the only one he eviscerates—and also in the way he casts his net wide enough to include in the discussion figures as disparate as Frank O’Hara on Manus Island and Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon; but there isn’t any mention of an intriguing adjunct to the Malley poems: the eleven, perhaps twelve (one seems to have been lost) Ern Malley collages put together by Harold Stewart some time after the poems were written. Perhaps they are too faux-surrealist to be of real interest, though I still like the iteration of wraithy, disembodied hands therein. They suggest the twinning of McAuley and Stewart: some kind of intrinsic relationship which meant that each supplied the other’s lack. And that together they made a third.
And twinning is the point: the sons of Clovis, two mutilated young men wounded and set adrift by their own mother on the waters of the Seine, recur as avatars through Brooks’ book; which, inter alia, is preternaturally alive to correspondences of many kinds. His language crackles off the page with a type of manic intensity that recalls the ticks of a Touretter. There are asides upon asides, parentheticals within parentheticals, footnotes on footnotes: indeed, early on he distinguishes, typographically, between crucial and non-crucial footnotes in an attempt to compel the reader’s attention towards the former.
He also suggests at several points that readers might wish to skip a chapter or two and obligingly informs you where you should go to pick up the main line of the narrative. These provocations, which I ignored (I read everything, including the non-crucial footnotes), are in a confidential tone of voice which, as it were, ushers you through a hall of mirrors pointing out reflections within reflections within reflections; and remarking on those junctures where the maze discloses a recursive, indeed infinite, regression.
Some of these lead to alternate (or parallel) traditions, including one in which Ern Malley influences Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury who then, in appropriately clandestine fashion, transmit the influence back, via Donald Allen’s epochal anthology, to Australian poets of the Generation of ’68: a kind of future in the past that is both credible and a revelation of the occult and serendipitous manner in which literary influence, skipping time, from self to fractured self, does in fact work.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed an excursion into Malley land as much as this; it deserves to stand next to Michael Heyward’s very different (and at one stage apparently definitive) The Ern Malley Affair (1993); and some other examples of a small but compelling genre: works like Nick Groom’s The Forger’s Shadow (2002) which take as their subject the always fertile field of literary forgery, frauds and hoaxes; and show us how closely skeined together, indeed Janus-faced, are the twinned acts of faking and making.