Saturday, September 10, 2011
The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a Secret History of Australian Poetry By David Brooks
Published by UQP, September 2011, RRP $39.95, 384pp +8 pp pic section
The Sons of Clovis is an astounding literary history that will challenge almost everything you think you know about Australia’s most famous literary hoax, the Ern Malley affair, and the motivations of its creators.
More than 20 years in the writing, acclaimed Australian novelist, poet and scholar, David Brooks, has produced what will be the most talked about literary book of 2011.
David Brooks had long harboured suspicions about the Ern Malley Hoax; to his expert eye – as an accomplished poet and scholar of literature – something about the whole affair just didn’t ring true. So when he inadvertently discovered evidence of a precedent for Ern Malley in the Adoré Floupette poetry hoax of 1885, Brooks embarked on a quest to reveal the real story behind Australia’s most famous literary scandal. What he discovered not only challenges every accepted belief about the hoaxers’ motivations and inspiration, but charts the much neglected contribution of the French Symbolist movement to Australian poetry. In the mid 1940s, writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart submitted a series of poems to a magazine of experimental poetry, Angry Penguins,under the fictitious name Ern Malley. They claimed to want to demonstrate their disdain for experimental poetry by writing deliberately bad verse, hastily concocted by lifting lines from whatever came to hand – a dictionary, a report on mosquito breeding grounds, Shakespeare – blended with self-conscious hints at meaning. With the inclusion in their submission of an invented and tragic biography of ‘Ern Malley’ supplied by his fictitious sister ‘Ethel’, the hoax was complete.
In a flurry of excitement, the poems were published in a special edition proclaiming the discovery of an important new Australian voice. When the hoax was exposed, it occupied the front page of newspapers around the nation, and made international headlines. It is still Australia’s best-known and most talked about literary hoax, the inspiration not only of Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake, but of works by such artists as Sidney Nolan and Gary Shead, and of innumerable poetic tributes around the globe.
The Sons of Clovis is not just a fresh look at the Ern Malley deception. It is also a compelling study of literary hoaxes, both Australian and international, and a wide-ranging journey through literature, culture, philosophy and poetics: how Ern’s French ancestor changed literary history; his Irish and Austrian cousins; Gwen Harwood’s infamous Bulletin sonnets; American poets on the loose in wartime Sydney and Melbourne; Frank O’Hara and James McAuley on the island of Manus, and so much more. Written in an engaging narrative style, this fascinating and revelatory book combines the authority of an academic classic with the narrative tension of a thriller.
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