Angry Penguins, Fakes, and Other Monsters
What we write, like what we do, can take on a life of its own. And there are a lot of ways it can get out of control. I recently saw the DVD of Capote, a movie about writing and about the cost of being a writer. In the epilogue to the movie, before the final credits, we learn that In Cold Blood was Truman Capote’s greatest book and that it was also his last. He had the literary genius to recognize that ‘mining’ the story of Perry Smith, a cold-blooded killer awaiting execution, would make for a compelling narrative. What he couldn’t predict was that it would also change the way fictional accounts of real events would be written—and read. What he couldn’t imagine was that he would never again be able to live with himself for betraying Smith’s trust for the ‘story’. The movie shows an artist fracturing before our eyes and, in his place, we discover a sort of Frankenstein-like figure: pitiable, lost, doomed. A few short years later, Capote was to die of alcohol-related illness.
Helen Garner got it right when she wrote in one of her essays: “Writers will insist on writing about everything. We are voracious monsters, ravening beasts who roam the world seeking whom and what we may devour. There’s hardly a corner or cranny of life that hasn’t been zeroed in on, exposed to the light and relentlessly verbalised by some maniac with a biro and a keyboard.”
A couple of years ago on a trip to Melbourne, I arranged to meet B.D., a friend who had recently returned to that fabled city from what he considered to be the dreary exile of Brisbane. The trip happened to coincide with the re-opening of the Gallery and we decided to meet there. With sparkling eyes and a big hug, the first thing he said was: “It’s like I’d never left Melbourne. All those years in Brisbane seem like a long weekend.”
We wandered around the Gallery, chatting, catching up, stopping for a moment before the Jackson Pollack painting, Blue Poles. “It’s odd,” I said. “There is a bench here as if they expect crowds to sit in contemplation, yet the gallery is empty.” B.D. told me of the public outcry at their purchase. In 1973, the Gallery purchased the 1952 painting for $2 million, which was then the highest price paid for a contemporary artwork. “I suppose the bench is an artefact of the protest,” B.D. mused. “Something they put there to placate the public, to suggest its value, to create the illusion that the public would eventually get its money’s worth.”
We moved on to the Gallery café, where I quickly became intoxicated on too many strong coffees. I chattered on, enthusing about “the sleek look of the Gallery, how absolutely lovely it was to have a weekend away, how fascinating I found public outcries—indeed, how I would so like to write a series of one-act plays about them, isn’t that a great idea?” (I have since cut back on coffee and never have written any such plays, but even sober, I still think it’s a good idea). “If you think that’s interesting,” B.D. said, pausing to sip the last of his flat white and raising an eyebrow, “let me tell you about Ern Malley.”
Most Australians grew up hearing about this great literary hoax and the outcry surrounding it, but it was new to me, and I found it delightful. I’ve thought about it often since that conversation and even did a little research. Ern Malley has his own website after all (http://www.ernmalley.com), which I suppose shouldn’t be so surprising given his larger than life dimensions. For anyone who’s forgotten, Malley’s creators, two bored young soldiers, decided to prank an old University mate. Max Harris just happened to be the editor of Angry Penguins, a literary journal the hoaxers considered to be pretentious, self-glorifying, and a bit ridiculous.
One lazy, wet Saturday afternoon, they sat down to write poetry according to a few explicit rules: there must be no coherent theme; no care was to be taken with verse technique; and they must only use phrases from the books that happened to be on the desk at the time (which included a military manual on mosquito control). The two later described the result as a “literary experiment”, “a wonderful jape!”, “a free association” test”, “utterly devoid of any literary merit as poetry”, simply “a grab-bag of plagiarised lines and snippets of bad verse.” Harold Stewart and James McAuley fabricated the poems the way Frankenstein was put together, without method or thought, but merely combining bits and pieces that were lying around.
Much later, they confessed: “Having completed the poems, we wrote a very pretentious and meaningless Preface and Statement, which purported to explain the aesthetic theory on which they were based. Then we elaborated the details of the poet’s life. This took more time than the composition of his Works.” Thus Ern Malley was born.
Peter Carey resurrects the Ern Malley ‘affair’ in his novel, My Life as a Fake. His version of the story results in a provocative, compelling and mysterious novel—almost a detective fiction—about layers of literary creation, about literature and reputation and the creative process itself. Setting the story within the dark framework of such a hoax, his novel explores how literary creation can take on a life of its own and lead to unexpected and dangerous outcomes.
My Life as a Fake is about the tension between truth and fiction. It shifts between seeing first one and then the other as the monster of the story. Truth is shown “dismembered and scattered” in the dead figure of Chubb, whose “substance, the blood that had coursed through his heart” is splattered over Sarah, the story’s narrator.
Carey most definitely has monsters on his mind. The novel opens with a quote by Mary Shelley. Later, the narrator recalls Milton’s fascination for Satan at the expense of the epic’s ‘hero’. And McCorkle’s journal, his work of genius, is described in various passages as though it were a living thing, with descriptive words like “rough and slippery”, and as a creature having “foreign stippled skin” and “claws”. When Chubb gives it to Sarah, she observes, “…when he laid his square hand on it and his cracked nails and liver spots made contact with its weathered skin, both book and hand seemed to be related parts of the same creature.”
Truth and fiction become intertwined, interchangeable. Literary reputation is called into question. At every level, life insinuates itself into literature, and literature insinuates itself into life.
There is a ‘twinning’ going on. There is the person who writes. Someone much like you and me. Someone who sleeps, eats, works, gets bored, worries, cooks, shops, reads to his children, laughs, and gets headaches. And there is the ‘author’. This is someone who exists as a separate being on a higher plane. We think of him as descending occasionally to launch books or give interviews; otherwise, he exists in a place apart from the rest of us, breathing in the rarified air of inspiration, nibbling the manna of creativity, producing one beautifully crafted passage after another.
Another of Carey’s novels—Theft, A Love Story—is about a different kind of artist, a painter whose reputation has floundered. I couldn’t help but think that Carey’s revisiting the question of artistic reputation, but from another direction. Is it that he’s exploring his own ambivalence towards success? Towards constantly playing the role of ‘author’? And who can blame him really? It’s something that every successful author must face, and it is a kind of monster. After all, how does one reconcile the private individual with the public persona? How much of oneself can one afford to give away? How much of real life is it safe to draw on? Even if characters are entirely made up, how does one keep them under control when they take a breath and begin to move, to act, to take on a life of their own?
I don’t blame Carey for this resistance. He is perhaps the most likely Australian novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in coming years. That prospect may be a thrilling one, but it must also be terrifying. Maybe in dealing with these themes, he’s battling with the monsters Reputation and Persona and Literature and Career. Because in the modern context, the journey of the artist in search of his art, his story, and his career can be perilous.
The Ern Malley website has a section called Ern Malley Today. Although the hoaxers are dead, Ern Malley is proclaimed to “live on!” Apparently, “his light is undimmed.” The page lists the books and productions and compositions he’s inspired. Indeed, some consider Malley’s ‘poetry’ to be among Australia’s finest.
Some creations refuse to live in the cages their creators have written for them. They burst off the page and out of the story. The Ern Malley affair has a happy ending. Indeed, it’s a playful and charming footnote to Australian literary history, summoning up an era of personalities and friendships not unlike America’s Brook Farm and England’s Bloomsbury. Carey’s version, however, is much darker. The editor commits suicide, the hoaxer is driven mad and eventually murdered. And don’t forget Capote’s vehement pursuit of “the story”, which created another kind of monster. One that resided within. One that led him to alcohol and eventually killed him.
I think Carey is doing it right. He seems aware of the danger and is facing it in his art, creating versions of literary monsters, playing out the possibilities, battling them over and over, and in doing so, keeping them under control. Just.
By Adair Jones.
(First published in Arts Hub in 2006.)