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Hall of Mirrors

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily,” Miss Prism informs her listeners. “That is what fiction means.” Perhaps because that used to be so true, it nowadays isn’t. The morality of most serious contemporary fiction is ambiguous, or elusive, or reliant on heavily discounting the views of an unreliable narrator. In literary fiction today you have to figure out who the good and the bad people are for yourself. One of the reasons for the wide appeal of Peter Carey’s work is that it isn’t like that: he always draws up a set of moral accounts for the reader. His last novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, has sold two million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful literary novels in years, as well as one of the best. One of the reasons for its power is that it is so uncompromisingly on Kelly’s side. The portrait of the outlaw has life and color and humor and tragedy and variety of tone, but it is not morally ambivalent: Carey sees Kelly as a good man and his enemies as bad, and the reader is not invited to disagree.

Ned Kelly has always been a totemic figure in the ongoing arguments over Australian identity. What story is told about him depends on who is telling the story: he is a kind of Australian Rorschach test. He has been seen as a romantic outlaw, as a coldhearted thief and murderer, as a prototypical revolutionary or displaced Irish insurgent, as an Australian Robin Hood—a classic “larrikin,” imbued with “authentically ‘Australian’ characteristics of non-conformism, irreverence, impudence”1—or as a predatory fantasist. The inspired choice made by Carey in his novel is to make Kelly himself tell his story. Carey stresses Kelly’s Irishness and family feeling, and also the extent of the social injustice prevailing in the colony of Victoria, where Kelly lived and stole and died; most of all, though, he does an utterly persuasive job of imagining Kelly’s voice:

Never having been a thief before I were surprised to discover what a mighty pleasure stealing from the rich could be. When it come the squatters’ turn to suffer they could not bear their punishment they was immediately screaming like stuck pigs calling public meeting about the outrage while all the time I lived on their back door more than once sitting on my horse to watch McBean eat tea & when his dogs was going wild he could do no more than stare out into the wild colonial dark. He did not own that country he never could.

Carey’s basic procedure in True History is to use his imagination to flesh out the skeleton of Kelly’s known story. A reader who was unfamiliar with its outline could acquire it from the novel. Even the voice of the book is a kind of extrapolation, drawing on a manifesto-cum-apologia of Kelly’s known as the Jerilderie letter. When I heard that Carey’s new novel drew on the Ern Malley affair, the most famous episode in Australian literary history, I thought that—given True History‘s great artistic and commercial success—Carey might be adopting a similar procedure, one of drawing its plot from the facts in order to imagine the inner world of its characters more completely. Carey, however, is a contrarian, and his new book draws on history in a way that is so unlike his last novel that it is close, in its imaginative procedures, to being that book’s opposite. Instead of supplying a voice to a set of facts, My Life as a Fake takes a creation who was all voice, and constructs an alternative universe around him.

The events on which My Life as a Fake draws began in October 1943, when a couple of bored Australian army poets-turned-clerks, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, spent a spare afternoon and evening concocting a set of poems by an imaginary figure whom they dubbed “Ern Malley.”2 Some of the Ern Malley poems were tweaked versions of their own works, some were hastily knocked-together streams of consciousness, and some were found fragments, such as an extract taken from an American report on mosquito breeding-grounds. (“‘Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other/Areas of stagnant water serve/ As breeding-grounds…’ Now/Have I found you, my Anopheles!”)

Stewart and McAuley’s intention, right from the start, was to create a hoax to deceive Max Harris, the Wunderkind editor of the aggressively avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins. The hoax followed the first rule of the successful con, which is to make sure that you are telling your chosen mark something he wants to hear. Harris badly wanted to discover a native Australian genius; and then one day he opened a letter from Ethel Malley, whose brother Ern had just died tragically young. Ern had left behind him a sheaf of poems. “I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel I understand what he wrote, but I feel that I ought to do something about them,” wrote Ethel, whose laboriously artless letters cost the forgers much more effort than the poems. Harris turned to the first poem, “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495,” and, well, that was it:

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters—
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Harris freaked out. It helped that this first poem was a genuine poem by James McAuley, and a good one too. “The black swan of trespass”—no literary Australian could fail to feel a twinge of recognition at that image of their black Australian swan, far from home on the great lake of European culture. In the sixteen poems of Malley’s complete oeuvre Harris found the great poet whom every editor dreams of finding: polymathic, virtuosic, insatiably curious, slightly crazy, and unquestionably brilliant. Malley’s works were “among the most outstanding poems I have ever come across,” Harris thought. After another long letter from Ethel, which told Harris that Ern was a garage mechanic who had died at twenty-five of Grave’s disease (“I still have the only book he brought with him though he was mostly too sick to read much, it is called Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen”), Harris published Ern’s collection, The Darkening Ecliptic. And then all hell broke loose.

There were two components to what happened to Harris, one of them unpleasant and the other horrible. The first was the public humiliation attendant on the exposure of the hoax, and the fact that Stewart and McAuley framed it as an attempt to expose pretentious nonsense. “For some time now we have observed with distaste the gradual decline of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,” began their stern public statement. Imagine what Harris must have felt when he read that. (Not that it was entirely fair, since a good deal of The Darkening Ecliptic was, like “Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495,” originally written in propria persona.) We could however think that this was harsh but not unconscionable, since Ern Malley was indeed a fake, and Harris would have done well to hire a private investigator to check his bona fides before publication, rather than after it. The second component of his humiliation, however, was something that the hoaxers did not wish for. It followed on the extraordinary glee with which the Australian press latched onto the hoax. Harris was prosecuted for obscenity, and—after a trial that was grotesque, even by the standard of literary obscenity trials—found guilty. Angry Penguins was banned, and Harris’s humiliation was complete.

Malley was a vivid creation to start with, but all this meant that he had taken on a life of his own. He was a Frankenstein’s monster, a golem. This is the idea which underlies the alternative universe of My Life as a Fake—a universe in which The Darkening Ecliptic was the work of an imaginary poet called Bob McCorkle, who in turn was the invention of another poet called Christopher Chubb. So the fake poems are the only items in the novel that fully correspond with our real world; but this is by no means the only reversal and mirror image in a vertiginous story, whose circling from the real to the imaginary and back is as happily perplexing as a drawing by M.C. Escher.

The narrator of My Life as a Fake is Sarah Wode-Douglas, the posh, prim, English, buttoned-up, closet lesbian editor of the Modern Review, who at the time of the main events of the story—1972—is forty-two years old. She is also, and not by chance, about as close to the opposite of Ned Kelly

as a narrator could possibly be.3 The novel begins with Sarah describing her dislike of the man she considers responsible for her mother’s suicide, the poet John Slater, “an appallingly unapologetic narcissist,” whose poems are “nothing so much as bowers constructed by a male in order to procure sex.” About Slater’s involvement with her mother, she is cryptic:

I cannot say that I understood his role in my parents’ marriage, and only when my mother killed herself—in a spectacularly awful style—did I suspect anything was amiss. In the last minutes of her life I saw John Slater put his arms around her and finally I understood, or thought I did.

London being London, however, Sarah and Slater bumble along in similar social circles, and he one day invites her to come to Malaysia with him; she accepts because she has always secretly longed to hear his side of the events leading to her mother’s death.

Once in Kuala Lumpur, Slater predictably dumps Sarah, and she is left to wander around the city on her own. In an alleyway bicycle repair shop she sees a white man in a dirty sarong with untreated sores on his legs; when she returns with Slater a day later, the man is reading Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus in the original 1923 edition. He turns out to be Christopher Chubb, an Australian poet profoundly down on his luck: according to Slater, “a very serious provincial academic poet, committed to a life of envy and disappointment.” Slater tells Sarah the story of the hoax committed by Chubb, “who gave birth to a phantom poet, a certain ‘Bob McCorkle,’” in order to hoax his former friend David Weiss, the brilliant young editor of the modernist magazine Personae.

Weiss killed himself after being prosecuted for obscenity, and it is clear that Chubb is something of a pariah; even in his Kuala Lumpur home, where he lives with a fierce middle-aged Chinese woman and a beautiful young woman of ambiguous race, he seems to be treated with contempt. Chubb is dirty and chaotic, and speaks a strange English-Malay pidgin; but when he goes to see Sarah at her hotel, he brings something with him, a fragment of a poem, on a page which

showed the signs of both mold and water damage, having become so very fragile that it seemed likely to break in half or even shatter. It looked to have been sliced from a bound journal.

Read, Mem, read.

I did so, and I doubt it needs saying that I read with a full consciousness of the old man’s history. I approached these twenty lines with both suspicion and hostility, and for a moment I thought I had him. It was a sort of Oriental Tristan Tzara, but that was too glib a response to something with very complicated internal rhymes and, unlike Tzara, nothing felt the slightest bit false or old-fashioned. It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien. I wondered if the patois—Malay, Urdu—was disguising something as common as cod [mock] Eliot. But that did not fit either, for you cannot really counterfeit a voice. All I knew now, in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion, was that my heart was beating very fast indeed. Rereading the fragment, I felt that excitement in my blood which is the only thing an editor should ever trust.

Who wrote this, I asked. I must have looked frightfully stern but in fact I was all atwitter. Where is the rest of it?

The answer to both questions is the story that consumes Sarah’s life for the next thirteen years, until she sits down to write this very account in 1985: for the poems turn out to be the creation of Bob McCorkle, who has, it seems, come to life off the page. He begins to appear in the aftermath of Weiss’s death—an enormous man, almost seven feet tall, with “piercing dark eyes” and gigantic features: “Chin, brow, nose, all huge.” His first demand is that Chubb procure for him a birth certificate. In Chubb’s account,

He was looking at me with such eyes, the stoutest heart would have been alarmed.

Tuan, I do not have your birth certificate.

At this he tightened his grip and I yelped with pain. And then he recited three lines from Paradise Lost in a voice which was very quiet, but terrifying: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man, did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” Give me my bloody birth certificate, he said.

Chubb and his temporary girlfriend Nousette Markson—a wonderful portrait by Carey of a self-reinventing artistic adventuress—manage to rustle up a birth certificate, but McCorkle’s demands do not end there. Before long he kidnaps Chubb’s baby daughter and disappears; it is the search for her which, years later, first brings Chubb to Malaysia. By the time Sarah meets him, he is in possession of McCorkle’s manuscripts, an extraordinary set of journals which contain, Sarah is sure, an incomparable masterpiece of writing about the natural world.

At the same time she has learned that the story of her mother’s death is different from what she had chosen to remember, or misremember. If anyone was responsible, it was her father, and specifically his homosexual infideli-ties, rather than John Slater, who, self-obsessed and insufferably vain though he be, is in truth a good friend. She has come to feel that the justification of her life will lie in securing McCorkle’s manuscripts and publishing them in the Modern Review. So she has to get hold of the journals in time for her unmissable board meeting back in London, and the clock is ticking…

My Life as a Fake is a novel which sounds great in short summary—and indeed is pretty great, if you ask me—but it has had a patchy reception in Britain and, especially, in Australia, for reasons which have essentially to do with what we might call the Interestingness Problem. This is something I stumbled across when writing a novel set in Hong Kong, Fragrant Harbor. In an early draft of the book I had a subplot involving a series of dog-poisonings which struck the colony just before the handover to China in 1997. The fact that there had been such poisonings was real, but everything else about this subplot was fiction, and did various things the novel needed done about introducing the reader to some aspects of contemporary Southeast Asia. In subsequent work on the book, however, I realized that there was an insoluble problem with this. In real life, one of the victims of the dog-poisoner had been Whiskey, who belonged to the family of the governor, Chris Patten. (Fear not, gentle reader: little Whiskey survived the strychnine.) I didn’t want to put the Pattens in the novel, not least because all its other characters were fictional, but at the same time to leave them out would be, to anyone who knew modern Hong Kong, distracting, and the story would have one crucial weakness: the fictional version of events would have been less interesting than the facts on which it was based.

The rule we can derive from the Interestingness Problem runs as follows: a fiction based on real events must be at least as interesting as those real events. Some readers have felt that My Life as a Fake falls foul of this tenet in that for them the story of Chubb and McCorkle is not as fascinating as that of Stewart, McAuley, Harris, and Malley. For them, McCorkle is in a sense a metaphor about Malley—the hoax who became a golem, a creature who took on a terrible life of his own. McCorkle draws on, or even depends on, the reality that the principals in the Malley story never fully got over him. Stewart became fascinated by the languages of the East, published two best-selling collections of haiku, converted to Buddhism, and dedicated his last years to a long descriptive poem about his adopted hometown, Kyoto. McAuley spent time in New Guinea, converted to militant Roman Catholicism, was a keen cold warrior, wrote anti-modernist, anti-individualistic poems, and became Professor of English at the University of Tasmania. Harris stayed in Adelaide and ran one of Australia’s best bookshops. But none of them ever escaped Malley: as Stewart late in his life wryly and bitterly observed, “one day someone is going to have a brilliantly original idea: they’re going to write a book about the life and works of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, or both, without mentioning Ern Malley.” But that will never happen, and Stewart probably knew it.

As for Ern Malley himself, a revisionist version of literary history now sees him as a major poet, a psychological and aesthetic device through whom Stewart and McAuley were able, to put it bluntly, to write better poetry than they ever managed on their own behalf. This is the set of circumstances that makes it possible for a reader to feel the McCorkle story is in a sense a gloss on the Malley legend, and therefore not to quite see the point of it.

I can understand why some readers might prefer the story of Ern to that of Bob, while also thinking it isn’t necessary to compare a plum with an apple in quite this way. (About the only point on which we should unequivocally prefer reality is to have Angry Penguins as a title for a cocky small magazine instead of Personae.) McCorkle wouldn’t exist without Malley, but that doesn’t mean he is subsumed by him. Besides, in the end, we don’t so much judge a novel as submit to it—or not. Fictions are either alive or dead. My Life as a Fake never fails to be full of life, which is not the same thing as full of incident, though as it happens it is full of incident too.

There is just so much life in My Life as a Fake, bursting as it is with mad Tamil poisoners, demented schoolmasters, feuding rajas, allusions to the story of Frankenstein and the myth of Orpheus, allusions to Paradise Lost, accounts of jungle flora, hantu or living ghosts, portraits of Malaysian street life, vivid injections of Malay English, literary in-jokes, the contrast between the prim intelligent narration of Sarah and the wild strange monologues of Chubb, not to mention the economy with which the novel delineates the different physical and intellectual milieus of London, Sydney, and Kuala Lumpur. And then there is also the hall-of-mirrors effect that comes from the novel being a fiction about a true story based on a fiction about an invented character, whose poems are one of the elements in My Life as a Fake drawn directly from reality. But the novel’s high-spirited postmodernism, its teasing games with fiction and reality, its range of voices and styles and places, its sadness and comedy, are all less important than the fact that Sarah Wode-Douglas, John Slater, Christopher Chubb, and Bob McCorkle all have the same deeply mysterious quality that Ern Malley has: they are alive. Carey can bring a character to life, give him a voice and a history and a psychological topography, in a single paragraph. Here is the back-story of Mulaha, his mad Tamil poisoner:

The first Japanese bombers came in over George Town at ten in the morning. My beautiful Rasathi and her maid were packing our trunks for Trinity College, Dublin, where I was to study law. Two minutes later my father’s chambers were bombed to dust, his clerk was dead, my steamer tickets shredded to confetti. He ran into the street to find our saviours and protectors, Australian and British, scattering like panicked chickens. Smoke, fire, awful looting all over George Town. They broke into our beautiful house—Chinese gangsters. Axe brand. That’s what they called these goods when they were sold.

  1. 1

    The definition comes from G.A. Wilkes’ Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms. Wilkes’s book contains my favorite definition in any dictionary: “‘Sniper, went for a crap and the ~ got him,’ Jocular reply to request for anyone’s whereabouts.”

  2. 2

    The best and fullest version of the story is in Michael Heyward’s superb book The Ern Malley Affair (London: Faber and Faber, 1993).

  3. 3

    She is furthermore—I can’t decide whether this is a joke or an accident—very similar in social background and milieu to Briony Tallis, the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which slugged it out with True History of the Kelly Gang on best-seller lists and for the Booker Prize in 2000. Editor Sarah (b. 1930) and writer Briony (b. 1923) would certainly have known each other. The themes of both novels, about the moral hazards of creating fictions, are related. There may be an in-joke (McEwan and Carey are friends) in the fact that while Briony gets a long letter of rejection from Cyril Connolly, entertainingly pastiched by McEwan, Sarah has occasion to write Connolly a note of apology after a social spat, and is mortified to learn that “my grovelling little letter” is “apparently amongst his papers in the British Museum.”

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