A Kind of Boswell

by Peter Craven

© all rights reserved

The Demidenko affair was, after all, a scandal about false identity; that was what fuelled the black comedy which kept us gripped even though the serious issues involved were upsetting or disgusting. Whether we like it or not, anything we can learn about Helen Darville as a person is potentially illuminating and Natalie Jane Prior’s book, The Demidenko Diary, has much to tell us, a lot of it compassionate rather than accusatory, about the pseudo-blonde, pseudo-Ukrainian who distorted the Holocaust, put a question mark round the literary prizes, traduced multi-culturalism and ripped off Brian Matthews in what looks like part of a history of filching others’ words as wantonly as she faked identities. Having variously seen her as a fascist witch and a sacrificial victim, the least we can do is look at any evidence that might tell us why.

Throughout Prior’s far from unsympathetic narrative, Darville comes across as the spoilt brat from hell. She proclaims to Prior that there are Demidenkos in the family the day after she has publicly disclaimed any Ukrainian ancestry. She bestrides the stage, sometimes stridently, sometimes poignantly, an extraordinary know-all who won’t shut up , whether she knows what she’s talking about or not; never, it seems, knowing what she has done or who she is. Always, always, she is ignorantly assured of a genius she is not quite wrong to believe in. And so too for Natalie Jane Prior: Helen Demidenko is the most brilliant person she has met.

Most people will have known someone like Helen Darville, someone for whom the untutored imagination is more mighty than all the facts in the world. The wonder may be that such behaviour, that last burst of ‘mad’ infantile omnipotence, with the narcissistic face of protracted adolescence, could persist as late as twenty-four. Helen Darville did not become anything. She was just a moderately talented young writer who was grossly overpraised. The self she put on was never tested except in the shadow world of literary publicity. How else could that silly and brilliant creation Helen Demidenko have survived so long?

We talk unthinkingly about our tall poppy syndrome but anyone who has been involved in journalism knows that, in fact, we are less intent on the cutting down of talent than we are on the exaltation of mediocrity. There is something both alarming and hilarious about the fact that in less than six months we have already produced three books about Demidenko.

Everyone was interested in Helen Darville for what she was not. Not historically accurate enough to write about the terrible events of twentieth century history. Not Ukrainian and therefore not entitled to a maybe inevitable anti-Semitism. Not talented enough to win the Miles Franklin and certainly not truthful enough to justify our interest in the personality rather than the book. For indeed The Hand That Signed The Paper is not very interesting; it is infinitely less interesting than the questions it throws up. For what seems an age now, Demidenko has looked like a symbol of the void around which our cultural life flitters.

“Who is she really?” the cover of Prior’s book asks. Well, somebody had to say it. Helen Demidenko is us.

Peter Craven is a Melbourne literary critic. This piece is extracted with permission from the March issue of Australian Book Review

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