Angry penguins, fakes, and other monsters

Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan

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 (, 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.)


  1. Knew all about Ern Malley but just caught up with this. Fascinating, thank you. We should never overlook that James McAuley was, at the very least, an extremely adept poet, by any standard. Capote’s act fills many of us with repugnance and there are quite a few creative people for whom “career” and “art’ are two mutually exclusive concepts. One of the biggest challenges facing creative people since the start of the 20thC, has been separating art and business and this is not much noticed. For instance, if you consider the records we have of Picasso’s business dealings (eg design contracts with the Diaghilev ballet), you soon see why he made the big name for himself and the money. I also sometimes wonder if the way his art evolved was more linked to what he could sell than to deeper expressive urges. Of course, Picasso’s art is contrary to popularly-perceived notions of what sells but one way or another, it is about sales.
    I also sometimes wonder if the way his art evolved was more linked to what he could sell than to deeper expressive urges. Of course, Picasso’s art is contrary to popularly-perceived notions of what sells but one way or another, it is about sales. For me the most fascinating thing about Warhol is how he managed to establish such a thriving business out of his efforts and I say that without taking anything away from his artistic contribution but I do wonder about the how Warhol managed the business, which was hugely lucrative.

  2. This is another of your really smart comments, Blazenka–deserving of a post of its own.

    (As an aside, in the old days in NYC, I used to see Warhol around the Village all the time. Always in the late afternoon, looking kind of like a ghost, half in this world, half in another, like he hadn’t been shot two decades earlier, but only the week before. Like Picasso, who cultivated the persona of bohemian bonhomme, Warhol always struck me as playing a role. The dissipated famous person, I think. Even when he was just walking past, he seemed self-conscious of his fame, with a dash of apology for stretching out his 15 minutes to so many years, but also not really caring about anything much at all.)

    • How interesting that you had personal experience of Warhol! As a writer, you would be a better observer and more astute judge of character than a trained psychologist. In my case, I’m only going by a few very public facts, which also include the details of the house he owned, crammed to the rafters with exotic and pricey treasures, which he shared with his mother, and his long-term phone relationship with – of all people – Capote. For me, fact has always been just as riveting as fiction and truth can be a thing apart from either.

  3. Fascinating article, Adair. The whole history of fakes in literature is intriguing, isn’t it, tied up with some of the notions you also explore in your article/s about George Eliot and the self-conscious creation of an identity to accompany the work she wrote?

    The unusual thing about Malley, of course, is that the work itself was ‘fake’ – self-consciously created with an eye towards the kind of randmoness that the dadaists (and later writers like Burroughs) cultivated on purpose, and openly. The difference between the dada cut-up and the work of Ern Malley is that McAuley and Stewart hid the way they created their work behind a false bio and name: pretending the work was composed in a very different way, and by an author whose name and history they created. I think it’s the dishonesty they practiced that made their creation notorious, rather than simply famous, rather like Helen Demidenko/Darville.

    But I also think it’s possible to think of their prank as quite radically conceptualist – like Duchamp placing a toilet bowl in a gallery and calling it an art work it calls attention to the sometimes artificial and absurd ways we decide what is art, what isn’t, where the border is between author and artwork. In some ways, I think that the Ern Malley hoax extends the notion of what a literary work is to beyond what’s on the page: the authors create an author and call his work poetry and as a result some of us, as readers, have to re-evaluate what we think of as an author, as poetry, as art. The whole hoax is a work of (literary) art: conceptual, performative, playful, open to endless discussion/debate.

    Just like your gorgeous portrait of Andy Warhol: the man performing (himself) walking down the street was as much a statement, as much a work of art, as his endless cans of soup or portraits of movie stars.

    I agree with you, too, Blazenka, that what’s partly being drawn to our attention in Ern Malley’s work, and in observing careers like those of Picasso or Warhol, is the messy border zone between producing art for art’s sake, and producing art for the sake of the market. I’m not sure Warhol did create work *for* the market; perhaps it was more that he found a way to create demand for his work.

    Isn’t Capote fascinating, too? It’s almost as if, in writing that book, he fell for his own mythologising about himself, and about the practice of writing his new form of Non-Fiction, how life was just fodder for his Great Work. He fell hook, line and sinker for those well-worn ideas about the absolute authority of the author, the way an author is answerable only to themselves and to their art, etc. Reminds me of Charmian Clift saying that a writer has to be prepared to tell all of their own secrets, and everyone else’s as well. But then, on the eve of publication of her husband’s semi-autobiographical Clean Straw for Nothing, she killed herself.

    This reply is already too long – sorry, Adair! A stimulating post, thanks 🙂

    • Never too long! Thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoroughly and so intelligently. Your comment and Blazenka’s enhance what I was trying to get at in my post.

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