EJANZH: Heyward reviewed by Brooklyn

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, University of Queensland Press, 1993. Reviewed by Bridget Brooklyn.

The way a society responds to or uses art and culture during wartime usually gives us insights into the normal, peacetime life of that society. We are familiar with the many examples of ghetto and concentration camp culture under the Nazis, where art was both a means of survival and an eloquent and poignant way of passing information to the outside world. In another part of wartime Europe, the libraries stayed open during the siege of Leningrad.

And in Australia? Our wartime experience on home soil has been far more limited, so the measure of both our suffering and our aesthetic response to it is far littler by comparison with Europe. Michael Heyward’s account of a literary hoax which reached global proportions during a time of global war emphasises this littleness. The issues surrounding the Ern Malley affair intersect those of the war almost coincidentally.

And yet the war is there. In covering the several bizarre aspects of the Ern Malley affair, particularly its final paradox – that Malley is now ensconced in the Australian literary canon – Heyward’s knowledge of both Ern’s literary heritage and his social milieu are well matched in a work in which one is aware of a lot going on. The Ern Malley affair is the play within the play of Australia’s reactions to the warring literary movements of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of Australia’s closest experience of actual armed conflict, albeit largely from the distance of the all-pervading suburban philistinism of the first half of the twentieth century.

One of the great qualities of the book (the first book-length account to emerge) is that Heyward is modest in the boundaries set in his discussion of the issue, but nevertheless thorough and comprehensive in his coverage, which assumes no background knowledge, is never dull in the giving of it, and is intelligent and thought-provoking in its analysis. And as with all good books, one finds oneself wandering from the author’s close analysis of his subject to ‘the big questions’.

Literary nationalism, modernism, neo-romanticism, symbolism, surrealism – all would have been part of the Australian cultural landscape if there hadn’t been a war on. Yet as I progressed through the literary reasons why Ern was concocted, I was still left wondering whether he would have been if Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart hadn’t had an afternoon to while away at the Victoria Barracks. The war impinged on Ern’s creators at a crucial time in their literary development. Heyward’s account of McAuley’s growing disaffection with romanticism and symbolism is juxtaposed with his growing self- image as a ‘disappointed radical’, culminating in his decision not to be a conscientious objector and to acquiesce in being conscripted into the army. The Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, under the ‘Svengali-like’ Alf Conlon, where Ern was hatched, ‘was the perfect place to construct a prototype of the invisible man, the self-propelled outsider, the gifted misfit.'(1)

The perversity of Australia’s reaction to art and culture in the 1930s and -40s has as its metaphor in the book the 1939 Herald exhibition of modern art. It is a symbol of Australian opinion divided, not just between the hoi polloi and the intellectual elite, but within elite circles. The Herald exhibition was Ern’s precursor. As Heyward says:

The arguments about art and culture in Australia in the thirties and during the war are legendary not for their originality or even coherence but for their sheer ferocity. And the contradictions between these two aspects of provincialism, flaccid imitation and savage position-taking, went unexamined in the hurly-burly.(2)

Another wartime antecedent of Ern’s was the 1943 Archibald prize, won by William Dobell for his portrait of friend and fellow painter Joshua Smith, which was later deemed by conservative colleagues to be a ‘caricature’. In this case, too, aesthetic judgment entered the public domain with a vengeance, with a court battle which resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for Dobell. Heyward again brings out the littleness of aesthetic thinking of the time in analysing the way in which the divisions in the world of the visual arts caused poets and artists continually to cross the floor in the chaos of position-taking. And, as was to happen with Ern Malley, art knocked the war off the front pages of the newspapers.(3)

These events were real, Ern was not. But Heyward puts his reader into considerable doubt about the truth of this as he tells his story with continual reference to the ‘hurly-burly’. Ern’s reality is asserted in the first chapter by extending the original persona of a small player in the drama, his sister Ethel. Heyward takes the Ethel character hinted at in the letters sent to Max Harris at the beginning of the hoax and improves on the work of her creators. He gives her a life and a personality and thoughts that occur to her as she arrives at the decision to send her imaginary brother’s poems to the real Max Harris. Michael Heyward’s Ethel is far more real than McAuley and Stewart’s, whose letter-writing is far too careful, too grammatical and too precise, for instance, in her recall of her brother’s interest in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. For me, it would have been Ethel who gave the game away.

Heyward’s work of historical verisimilitude is not just a clever device which reveals the author’s understanding of the literary and historical material with which he is dealing. It draws us into the paradox of Ern Malley’s non-existence. Ethel’s ignorance of the value of her brother’s poetry, her primness, her conscientiousness in trying to find a home for her brother’s work, foreshadows Heyward’s account later in the book of the Harris obscenity trial, when the affair takes a turn unexpected by ANY of the players in the drama. The joke is no longer on Max Harris but on the non-literary arbiters of Australian art, who, in the absence of a real poet to charge with obscenity, make do with dragging Ern’s publisher through the courts to give almost line-by-line explanations of his fictitious prot g ‘s works. It is also on the hoaxers.

The whole story seems less bizarre if we do think of Ern as real, as I caught myself doing increasingly as layers of existence were piled onto non-existence. The confusion between existence and non-existence is also evident in the almost universal tendency to refer to the fictitious poet affectionately as ‘Ern’, as if he were a friend of all of us. He is never ‘Malley’. Heyward plays up this confusion to good effect, free of postmodern archness: if the whole business of Ern’s existence wasn’t still – rightly or wrongly – open to discussion, why are his poems still being published, for God’s sake? Heyward seems inclined to find the answer in the love of sensation which put art on the same plane as the ‘Pyjama Girl’ murder of the same time. Maybe so, but there is more, which is more flattering to the life of the mind in Australia.

The reality of Ern also establishes that the hoax was a failure, a fact explored right at the beginning of the book – before the beginning actually, in Robert Hughes’s introduction. This conclusion is also underscored in the dignity Heyward accords the hoax’s main victim, Max Harris, and in doing so Heyward is being more than gentlemanly. As he peels back the layers of the hoax, Heyward steers us toward the conclusion that Harris’s mistake was valid. The crucial distinction is one between a valid aesthetic judgement and an incontrovertible one. We come full circle to the point raised (pre-empted, even) by Hughes in his introduction: to fall for such a hoax is not the preserve of fools.

In their attempts to debunk a style they had grown tired of, McAuley and Stewart injected too much of their own poetic talent into Ern, even borrowing heavily from their own works, to achieve success. Another paradox in this story chock-full of them is that parody depends not only on an understanding of the genre being parodied, but the ability to convince an audience of the distinction betwee the parody and its subject. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Australian popular culture, where parodies form some of our most enduring works. Edna Everage, whom Heyward sees anticipated in the character of Ethel Malley, was created by Barry Humphries ‘to remind Australians of their bigotry and all the things I found offensive’.(4) Yet Edna, before her overblown Dame-Edna phase, was often almost too real to be funny, as if Edna had taken Humphries over and established a right to exist beyond the parody. Similarly, by creating Ern to remind surrealists of their pretentiousness and all the things they found offensive, McAuley and Stewart allowed Ern to take them over and become real.

None of this really gets us any closer to the Ern Malley enigma and the enigma of artistic hoaxes generally. Heyward takes the creation of the poems apart piece by piece – the sources, the borrowings, the parodies, the jokes…… the clues. But even the anatomy of such a hoax cannot fully explain it, as his historical recreation of the events and characters, real and unreal, shows. We are left with this creation which, hovering between existence and non-existence, remains unexplainable because all the elements which go to make up the way we think about our culture are elusive. The figure of Ern, rather than the forces which produced him, remains perhaps the strongest image we retain of Australian literature during our involvement in the second world war.

And so we return to the war, that somewhat unrelated backdrop against which the Ern Malley drama was played. But if the war hadn’t created a paucity of reading matter that assisted in the voracious public gobbling of the ‘Ern Malley’ edition of Angry Penguins, the flames of the hoax might not have been fanned so rapidly. But if Ern hadn’t been a diversion for Australians briefly dragged from their defining hedonism and philistinism into global war and genocide, his non-existence might have been contained by the smallness of Australia’s ‘minuscule literary world'(5). But if the dragging on of the war hadn’t contributed to a situation where, as Hughes puts it, ‘[f]or the first and possibly the last time in Australian history, poetry became front-page news’,(6) Ern’s ‘obscenity’ might have gone unnoticed, thus depriving him of this further opportunity for fame – all of which might make the war more than a backdrop to these events. But, but, but ………

The conjecture which Michael Heyward’s book provokes makes it a fitting foundation-stone for Ern Malley scholarship, and for further explorations of the relationship between war and letters in Australia. And so Ern lives on.


1. Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair , p.88. 2. Ibid , pp.13-14.

3. Ibid , pp.145-7

4. Ibid., p.103.

5. Ibid., p.134.

6. R. Hughes, ‘Introduction’, in Ibid., p.xvii.