by Michael Heyward
© all rights reserved
Hoaxes attract the young. Chatterton, the marvellous boy, was seventeen when he wrote Thomas Rowley’s works for him. William Henry Ireland, who in 1976 gave the world a new and dreadful Shakespeare play called Vortigern, was nineteen. All the principal players in the Ern Malley saga were in their twenties. Harris was twenty-three, the same age as Demidenko. Perhaps you have to be that young to believe in imaginary worlds bigger than mere writing, more interesting than your own life – and to be so heedless of the consequences. McAuley and Stewart had no idea about the philistine intensity of the reaction to Ern Malley. By her own admission, Helen Darville failed to understand the implications of her actions, the astonishing sang-froid of her deception. The difficult thing is to measure the extent to which her Ukrainian fantasy was opportunist or compulsive, cynical or naive.
Hoaxes are like those old black and white films where a bolt of lightning illuminates for a split second the murderer in the upstairs bedroom with the knife raised above his head. The weird light they cast allows us to glimpse the cultural weather that let them happen. They’re like a polaroid of the period. But for those who get too near the centre of the storm the cost can be very high. Hoaxes are juggernauts. Max Harris made a brave fist of it but he was certainly marked for life by Ern Malley.
And hoaxes depend on excess, on a principle of disproportionate enthusiasm. I can remember Peter Porter once saying to me that we have to overvalue the writing of our time, because no one else is going to. A hoax snap-freezes the flavour of that overvaluation. Demidenko is a fluent, accessible writer. But we all have to live with the fact that a nerveless novel written in the dead phrases of airport fiction, peopled with stereotypes who talk in teledrama dialogue, has taken three major literary awards. You’ve got to admit that Ern Malley, who copped some pretty heavy flak in his time, is much the better writer.
There is one huge difference between the two hoaxes. Nobody ever shook Ern Malley’s hand. He never signed any copies of The Darkening Ecliptic, or stepped up to the podium to collect an award. Hoaxes are about fabricating not only cultural products but their origins. Helen Darville’s astonishing move to disguise the origins of her book was to step into the shoes of her fictional character, to dress like her, to talk like her, even to dance like her. What Darville wanted her readers to find was an image of herself as though she had stepped out of the pages of the book she had written. In becoming Helen Demidenko she would not so much promote her book as let it lend substance to her assumed identity. Helen Darville wrote The Hand the Signed the Paper but it made Helen Demidenko real. In turn this made the events in the book seem real, its characters actual. Fiona, the narrator of the novel, had, like Helen Demidenko herself, a Ukrainian father and Irish mother. The magic circle was complete. The upshot is that we now know rather a lot about a fictional person named Helen Demidenko but hardly anything about her creator Helen Darville. Helen Demidenko certainly seems the more vivid character. At least she talked to us.
And there’s another thing. No one ever accused Ern Malley of plagiarism. But he is, a shameless one. Ern brilliantly filches his way through his oeuvre, knocking off an American army report on mosquito breeding, burgling Shakespeare, breaking into Keats.
Your average hoaxer would have to be a bit stitched up not to do it. Part of the cunning that stumped Harris was the fact that Malley sounded like a real poet, and part of the reason that he did was that he pinched real poetry. But for Helen Darville, for her publishers Allen &Unwin, and for the judges of the Miles Franklin, the accusations of plagiarism made against her book were potentially catastrophic.
Demidenko and Malley are now with us forever. There will be no last word about them. You may think we’ve had Demidenko overload, but we’ve only just started to hear about her. The reason for this is obvious. Hoaxes are factitious events. They depend on irrational responses and dazzling coincidences. The course they take is strictly unpredictable. We’re not bothered by the fact that an American writer named Pound developed his own crazy theory of economics, or that we read a great romantic poet called Wordsworth. Real people are immune to such trivial associations. But in a hoax everything matters, nothing exists by chance. There’s still much about Ern Malley that remains mysterious, and even more about Helen Darville, and The Hand that Signed the Paper.
Michael Heyward is the author of The Ern Malley Affair. This piece is extracted from a paper delivered at the Melbourne Writers Festival and published in Australian Book Review. Reprinted with permission.