David Brooks: The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a Secret History of Australian Poetry

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2011, 384pp.

It is now clear, well into the twenty-first century, that the Ern Malley hoax and, perhaps more importantly the Ern Malley poems, are not going to disappear and that, if anything, they continue to grow in importance. When you consider the rate at which Australian poets and poems slide into oblivion, this is quite a remarkable fact. Even Vivian Smith who, in his essay on poetry in The Oxford History of Australian Literature of thirty years ago – “half a dozen suggestive lines do not make a significant, coherent work of art” – clearly wanted the whole thing consigned to the dustbin, has produced an Ern Malley sequence in his most recent book even though it derives, admittedly, more from Nolan’s paintings than from the poems James McAuley and Harold Stewart claimed to have assembled in an quiet afternoon at the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. The hoax itself is so well known that one doesn’t need to introduce it to readers of this journal but it has turned into a kind of Rorshach test. Some see in it an assault by the forces of conservatism on a fledgling Australian engagement with modern poetries, others as an expression of the unstable nature of Australian identity whereby Ern Malley expresses us perfectly because, in a sense, we all feel that we are frauds or, at least, fabrications. McAuley and Stewart said it was a blow against editorial sloppiness but, more likely, given his apocalyptic sensibility, McAuley saw it as a blow against an approach to poetry, derived ultimately from the French Symbolists, which was capable of corrupting entire cultures. I myself have always suspected that its core motivation was spitefulness, a resentment towards an over-the-top young poet, full of illusions about his own genius, felt by two poets, themselves in their early twenties and, as yet, unappreciated, egged on by A.D. Hope who, in the late thirties, was a particularly venomous voice. But, of course, spite is a motivation that is very difficult to establish. At any rate, like Michael Heyward in The Ern Malley Affair and David Brooks in this new book, I don’t place any faith at all in the accuracy of the document produced by the hoaxers after their cover was blown. Whatever they were doing, they certainly weren’t conducting any kind of “experiment”.

The Sons of Clovis is a brilliant attempt to read both the hoax and the poems; and though these are related they are slightly different tasks. It is a very beautifully structured book which moves sideways into chapters of context and individual readings. But the spine that gives it its strength is a quest, a quest for evidence that the hoaxers knew of a previous hoax creation, Adoré Floupette, whose book, Les Déliquescences, had been constructed by two poets and published in 1885 as a gentle mocking of the Symbolist poets. The probabilities, as Brooks registers at the beginning of his quest, are very high. McAuley’s Master of Arts thesis for the University of Sydney was, famously, on the Symbolists and Brennan’s library, which contained a copy, was available to him. The starting point of the quest (and the source of the book’s title) though, is the fact that the first poem in Les Déliquescences is called “Les enervés de Jumiegès” which is a reference to a painting of the time by Evariste Luminais better known as “The Sons of Clovis”. This painting has been owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales since 1886 and was undoubtedly known to McAuley and Stewart (as it was to Christina Stead and as a copy – made by Luminais – to Simone de Beauvoir). “How strange,” Brooks says it must have been for the hoaxers, “had one or other of them come across Les Déliquescences, whether in Brennan’s library or anywhere else, to find that the first poem of this French parody was a description of a painting in their own Art Gallery of New South Wales. And how could it not lodge that parody in their minds?”

Does the book succeed in establishing that the hoaxers knew of this previous hoax? Not, even Brooks admits, in any way that would stand up in a court of law because an overwhelming tissue of likelihoods still does not amount to a case proven beyond reasonable doubt. How much does it matter, anyway? Probably not a great deal. If a letter from McAuley to Stewart saying something like “Let’s do a Floupette on Max Harris” were to turn up in an archive tomorrow, it would only really establish that the hoaxers had a model and that the hoax was not a jeu d’esprit, dreamed up in a moment, but an act with a long maturation period. There is also an enormous difference between the two hoaxes. Ern Malley was aimed at an individual (as I read it) or at bad editing or at a trivial, uninspired poetic movement (as the hoaxers at different stages read it). Adoré Floupette and his poems seem to have had no motive beyond gentle parody and nobody seems to have been at all distressed by them. Indeed the French critics quoted by Brooks seem half in love with the idea of a virtual poet.

The virtue of the book is that the intensity of the quest (we learn that it has been an absorbing issue for Brooks since 1988) motivates both the excellent chapters of context and the even better chapters in which the Ern Malley poems are read. In the case of the former, there are two fine chapters on literary hoaxes; one on hoaxes, frauds and masks generally and the other on those specific to Australia – the Demidenko, Mudrooroo, Paul Radley and Sreten Bozic affairs. These “read” the situations very sensitively, looking for significances and connections – as one might read a poem. There are also a number of biographies both of the hoaxers and of figures significant to the hoax like Mallarme and Christopher Brennan. Reading is very much about teasing out connections and thus the book pulls into its orbit figures like Gwen Harwood (whose acrostics and fake identities are looked at carefully), and the American poets, Frank O’Hara, Harry Roskolenko and Karl Shapiro – all active in the South Pacific at the time of the Ern Malley hoax. There is even a brief section devoted to Georg Trakl who became a kind of alter ego for McAuley, late in the latter’s life. All of this suggests a kind of alternative way of looking at Australian poetry based on highlighting the figures who accrete around the hoax and this (together perhaps with a glance at the poetry of Ken Taylor) generates the book’s subtitle: “A Secret History of Australian Poetry”. I like this – though, of course, it is only one of many such possible histories. But I certainly prefer accretion around topics (the Symbolist inheritance, absent fathers, doubled poets, the history of a poetry of immediacy rather than retrospective understanding, etc) to the family model of descent which has plagued conventional literary histories.

The Sons of Clovis is, thus, a counterpart to Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair. Ideally you would have both on your shelves. The readings given in the Brooks are certainly more exciting than those in the Heyward which are there, really, as part of an exploration of the details of the hoax. If the Heyward makes one think about the limits of what can be historically established, The Sons of Clovis makes you think about the limits of reading. In almost no time at all Brooks’s reading of the Ern Malley poems puts them in intimate relationship with Eliot, Shakespeare, Pound and Dante through their allusions (and occasionally through chains of allusions). They raise two issues. The first is the question of sense/nonsense. The hoaxers wanted nonsensical poems to show that Harris would accept – in terms of meaning – almost anything. But given the ideologies of Surrealism and the Apocalyptics why shouldn’t he? They also needed to leave clues about Ern’s non-existence to prove that Harris was an insensitive reader of texts. This is fair enough but, of course, such clues cannot be nonsense – they are very good sense working at a meta-level. And this is just what you might expect in the oblique ambience of a poem. The word “nonsense” is really the problem. It is almost impossible to be nonsensical in a poem. I made up a poem by taking the first words of each line of a random page of Brooks’s text and, unfortunately, I had no trouble seeing some sense in it since the point of poetry is to demand that we see meanings that lie outside conventional prose paraphraseable meaning. No-one since Dr Johnson has demanded that the metaphors and sentiments of poetry be logically defensible.

The second issue is that of limits and it is one that Brooks worries about throughout the book. A good reader (as Brooks is) can see a great deal. To take a very hypothetical example: someone who carries the whole of Shakespeare in his or her head might see a parallel (a couple of repeated words, for example) between one of the paragraphs in this review and a scene in, say, the third part of Henry VI. Would this be intentional? No. But is it a possible echo (since my Reading Log or the textbook lists for my undergraduate courses would prove that I’ve read the play)? Certainly. As I have said, Brooks is acutely aware of this problem because the drive behind his readings is to uncover allusions which will establish the hoaxer’s familiarity with the Floupette affair. Even Brooks’s readings are not exhaustive. To choose, for a moment, the smallest example I can find – Ern’s name. I’ve always assumed Ern was also “urn” – the place where Harris’s reputation will be burnt and buried. I’ve also assumed, at various times, that it recalled “earn” and there was a touch of “You have to earn your Malley (ie your place in Australian poetry) rather than, as Harris does, simply assert it” in the choice. This might lead a reader like myself to Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest and to the observation that that play contains a famous, non-existent character in the form of Bunbury (a sick friend invented by Algernon so that he can get away) as well as a principal character who lives a fraudulent identity. Could this be one of the hoax’s warning markers? The play was, after all, written by a Francophile Irishman, well known to contemporary French litterateurs and his play appeared almost exactly on the tenth anniversary of Floupette’s poems. Commonsense says not but commonsense assumptions about limits, possibilities and probabilities need to be analysed and justified. And then there is the fact that Karl Shapiro’s hopelessly misremembered account of the hoax says that the name should have “carried some kind of hint to the avant-garde editor out there in provincial Adelaide, but avant-garde editors are not known for nuance or even a sense of humor”. What does that mean? Is Ernest Lalor Malley inherently comic? I’ve never thought so, but I could be missing something obvious that an American sensibility picked up.

At any rate, these are just additional lines of metaphoric and homophonic connections. At a more kabbalistic level there are the possibilities of anagrams. Of course McAuley and Stewart are unlikely, without the help of contemporary computer programs, to have got far along these lines and it would be reverse engineering anyway, moving back from a name to its anagrammatic variants. But Ern Malley is, among others, an anagram for “Really men” (and “Manly leer”); Ernest Malley is, interestingly, an anagram of “Lame lyre nets” – which might have made a fine newspaper headline at the exposure of the hoax. Ernest Lalor Malley is, less interestingly, an anagram of “Anally melts lost lore” and “Relearns all motley” among a huge number of alternatives. One can imagine – thankfully as no more than a thought experiment – tracing the significances of all of these recombinations, none arbitrary and all adding something to how we read the hoax and the poems. Brooks doesn’t go down this path – nor would I – but it does raise the issue of what the limits are, and how they are to be ascertained, when it comes to the almost infinite (Borgesian) possibilities of reading. One’s only conclusion is that literary hoaxes (like poems, sometimes) can be easy to concoct and impossibly complex to read. The nagging doubts about his readings and the way they combine to make a case, far from being a weakness, are one of the most valuable features of Brooks’s book.

In my case, the continuous drawing of connections and contexts ultimately led me into a kind of readerly paranoia. By the time Ernst Mally – a philosopher remembered as a student of Alexius Meinong whose work was devoted to non-existent objects – was introduced (he hadn’t appeared in Heyward) I was beginning to think that I could be reading a fictional hoax text itself. I wondered whether some of the minor factual errors in The Sons of Clovis (John Forbes’s Honours thesis was on Ashbery, his essay comes from an uncompleted Masters thesis on O’Hara; although Bruce Beaver thought O’Hara died when sunbathing, actually he was run down after stepping out from behind a car; it was Zeus not Apollo who raped Leda) might not in fact be traps cleverly set to trick careless readers. A positive counterpart of this paranoia was that a feature of the book which on initial reading was irritating – it is full of “advisories”, asides to the reader about what he or she might read next, and so on, all done in a faux-folksy style – now looks like a deliberate attempt to disrupt the elegant, even flow of scholarly discourse by introducing tonally discordant elements rather in the manner of the Ern Malley poems themselves. As I’ve reread it, I’ve made my peace with these “advisories” on those exact grounds.

And at this readerly level there are some disturbing features about the hoax which, while they are not dealt with explicitly in The Sons of Clovis, come into mind. One is the frustration that none of us can read the poems as poems. We read them in the knowledge that they are a hoax. In the same way, a poem written the day before its author was run over by a bus is always a tragic last poem. We can’t remove the hoax context from the Ern Malley poems. I find it frustrating that only Max Harris (and the Reeds and perhaps some early readers of the crucial issue) could read them “innocently”, or at least innocent of the knowledge that they are a hoax. They were given to us – as were Ern and Ethel (the latter, as Vivian Smith points out, is surely a great creation) – and then, in a sense, taken away. There are also the disturbing emotional perspectives on the hoax. I think, in the past, many took Harris’s side, not so much out of aesthetic conviction as because the hoaxers (and Hope) seemed so petty and vicious. Interestingly, McAuley, the most medievally intense of heresy hunters, is the one who, at the end of his life and facing his own judgment, made a moving accommodation with Harris, saying “I think Max naturally took a certain amount of hurt from it and I have never been in retrospect comfortable about that, but I think one could say, and I think Max would probably also say, over a long life, various things happen, that was one incident and you survive most things”.

Brooks belongs to perhaps the first generation which is able to look at the hoax in an objective way – these battles, after all, happened long ago. His (and my) love for these poems would have infuriated McAuley who would have seen us as people living in a world in which the demon of irrationality had triumphed, as though we were North Koreans who saw no reason not to love our leader. But that wouldn’t be true. We live in a poetic world far removed from the formalist period of the forties and fifties and our judgment on that period might be quite harsh. After all if you have a literary tradition made up almost entirely of Ricardo Reises, Alberto Caeiro looks very refreshing. When Australian poets use complex forms now, there is a postmodern, parodistic or playful edge to them and “craft” is not a set of judgments agreed upon by all decent poets and simply not understood by incompetents. It is perfectly reasonable that, in 2012, the poetry of Ern Malley is also seen as an historical phenomenon, one that those – like Brooks – who are as good at reading (and writing about what they read) as McAuley and Hope were, find to be interesting and to repay the sort of intense study that The Sons of Clovis is based on.

Published in Australian Poetry Journal, 1.2 (May, 2012), 90-96.