(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In his author’s note at the conclusion of his first novel since True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) won England’s Booker Prize, Australian writer Peter Carey makes it clear he is not trying to fool anyone here. He acknowledges that My Life as a Fake is based on a real-life incident familiar to many Australians. The event took place in 1943, when Harold Stewart and James McAuley, two conservative Australian soldiers who fancied themselves poets and who hated the early twentieth century modernist movement, perpetuated a hoax on the pretentious editor of an avant-garde Australian literary magazine, Angry Penguins.

According to the legend that has sprung up around the hoax, Stewart and McAuley spent a weekend creating a batch of eighteen bogus surrealist poems by cutting and pasting words from the works of William Shakespeare, the dictionary, and other miscellaneous sources, even throwing in some quotes from a report on mosquito breeding grounds. They then invented a young garage mechanic/insurance salesman named Ern Malley as their author, who supposedly had died young, tragic, unpublished, and unappreciated. They also dreamed up a sister for Malley, who supposedly sent the poems to the editor, Max Harris, saying she had found the typescript when she was going through Malley’s things after his death.

Harris was so enthusiastic about the fake poems that he devoted thirty-five pages of his magazine to them under the title “The Darkening Ecliptic.” In an introduction, Harris wrote that he was convinced Malley was one of the most outstanding poets Australia had ever produced. As Australian literati had long labored in the shadow of Great Britain, lamenting that the country had never produced a prodigious talent with far-reaching influence, there were those who were quite willing to welcome this brilliant new poet, complete with a romantic story of having languished unknown and unappreciated until he died, perhaps of a broken heart.

Although Harris was mocked and ridiculed by the press and the Australian literary establishment when the hoax was revealed, he held fast to his original conviction that the poems were brilliant works of art. To make matters worse, when the poems were called indecent publications for their references to sex, Harris was further humiliated by being dragged into court to defend the nonexistent Ern Malley against obscenity charges. Harris was fined and released, vowing to appeal the conviction, but he never did. Carey, who has said he was always fascinated by the story of the hoax, seems to have been particularly inspired by the fact that years after the event, Harris still insisted that he believed in Ern Malley, not as a real person, for he knew he had been hoaxed, but as an embodiment of the pathos of his time. He said he imagined him as a kind of combination of Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke, lamenting that somewhere in the streets of every city is a brilliant but unrecognized Ern Malley.

The final irony of the hoax is that the poems of the imaginary Ern Malley have turned up in subsequent anthologies of Australian poetry and have been said to have influenced younger poets since then. As Carey has noted as a sort of justification for his fantastic take on the hoax story, Malley did assume a sort of independent life. On the surface, Carey’s novel manages to poke some fun at the provincial nature of Australian culture, while simultaneously refusing to take seriously the pompous stance of British high culture. However, as is usual with Carey’s fiction, he has more serious intentions in mind than an easy satire on colonial culture and British literary imperialism.

Carey’s novel is based on the premise that if an invented poem can take on a mysterious sense of reality, then perhaps an invented poet can also. Consequently, although part of the plot structure of the book comes from the real-life story of the Ern Malley hoax of 1943, another important part of its foundation comes from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novelFrankenstein. For in My Life as a Fake, the make-believe poet, named Bob McCorkle, invented by struggling poet Christopher Chubb, becomes a hulking physical presence who comes to haunt his creator, chastising him for making him an anonymous and lonely creature with no childhood and no family. The basic plot ambiguity of the book is the uncertainty whether Bob McCorkle is a Frankenstein monster who has come into being as a result of Chubb’s imaginative construction, or whether some poor, unappreciated hulk of a poet...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)