My Life as a Fake
Peter Carey
Knopf, 2003, ISBN 0375414983, 288 Pages, Hardcover $24.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Blair Mahoney

Dear Sir,
When I was going through my brother’s things after his death, I found a review he had written. I am no judge of reviews myself, but a friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good and told me it should be published. On his advice I am sending you the review for an opinion.
It would be a kindness if you would let me know whether you think there is anything in it. I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel I understand what he wrote, but I feel I ought to do something about it. Blair kept himself very much to himself and lived on his own of late years and he never said anything about writing reviews. He was very ill in the months before his death last July and it may have affected his outlook.
Yours sincerely,
Ethel Mahoney

The world of the literary fake is a rich and strange one, and quite different from that of forgeries in the visual arts, which depends upon pre-existing well-known artists. The fake author bursts from nowhere, as in the classic instances of “Thomas Rowley,” Thomas Chatterton’s famous eighteenth-century creation, and the warrior-bard “Ossian,” dreamed up by the Scottish poet James Macpherson and championed as a great poet by, amongst others, Goethe, Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson.
Ern Malley, the Australian “poet” at the centre of what Robert Hughes has called “without question, the literary hoax of the twentieth century,” had quite a different reception, not least because he was conceived a long way from Europe in a country with little literary tradition of its own. Ern Malley was created (purportedly in one fevered afternoon) in 1943 by the Sydney-based poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart in an attempt to expose what they saw as the excesses and faulty critical vision of modernism. Their prime target was Max Harris, editor of the Melbourne journal Angry Penguins, which was strongly associated with the artists Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd. The hoax was successful – Harris fell for it hook, line and sinker, publishing the works of this “undiscovered genius” and championing him loudly. But when Max Harris was subsequently prosecuted for obscenity – for publishing the poems of a writer who did not exist – the hoax started taking on a weird life of its own.
The story of the Ern Malley affair is a fascinating one that looms large in Australian cultural history and made news around the world. It has been told definitively by Michael Heyward, whose book The Ern Malley Affair was first published in 1993 and has recently been reissued. Heyward wrote the book when he was in New York in the early 1990s, and one of his friends who looked over the manuscript at that time was the novelist Peter Carey, one of only two writers to twice win the Booker Prize (for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang). After tackling the Australian icon Ned Kelly with such success in his previous novel, Carey has now taken on another icon in Ern Malley, inspired by the peculiar afterlife of the hoax and its fictional protagonist. In My Life as a Fake, Ern Malley has become “Bob McCorkle,” his creators have been conflated into the single figure of “Christopher Chubb,” and Max Harris has become the editor “David Weiss.” Despite these changes, Carey’s novel still uses the original Ern Malley poems, excerpts from the fake letters written by McAuley and Stewart, and quotes from the actual court proceedings against Max Harris – which are much stranger than a novelist could ever conjure from his imagination while retaining notions of plausibility.
My Life as a Fake takes its starting point from two conceits. One is alluded to in an author’s note at the end of the book, where Carey acknowledges the Ern Malley hoax as the inspiration behind the novel and provides a long quotation from Max Harris who, years later, commented, “I still believe in Ern Malley.” Despite being deceived and humiliated several times over, Harris charmingly maintains that Ern Malley has a tangible existence. Carey takes this whimsical notion and makes it literal, having his fictional poet physically called into existence by the hoax. Taking it further, he imagines that such a person may not feel very happy, having been dragged into the world fully formed at the age of 24. Christopher Chubb becomes a Dr. Frankenstein figure (the epigraph to the novel is taken from Mary Shelley’s novel), creating a monster that he soon realises is out of his control. Carey plays with this notion, and the novel borrows the plot of Shelley’s work with the monster (McCorkle) pursuing his creator (Chubb) and then vice versa.
The second conceit is based on Carey’s admiration of the poems created by McAuley and Stewart, which he feels have attained a life of their own, outliving their authors’ other (and more serious) work. He is not alone in this opinion. When Max Harris learned of the hoax that had been perpetrated on him, he supposedly said, “Sometimes the myth is greater than its creators,” and in spite of their authors’ insistence that they were written to be deliberately bad, the poems have always had their admirers – including the poet John Ashbery. Thus, in My Life as a Fake, the poems written by Bob McCorkle are masterpieces that easily surpass anything else written by Christopher Chubb. Again pursuing his idea to its fictional limits, Carey proposes that McCorkle has written other, as yet unpublished, poems that clearly show the hand of a genius. This notion provides the springboard for the frame tale that enfolds the saga of Chubb and McCorkle.

My Life as a Fake is narrated by one Sarah Wode-Douglass, editor of a struggling British poetry magazine (is there any other kind?) called The Modern Review. The novel opens with her describing her apparently tragic family background and her rather strained relationship with a charismatic poet by the name of John Slater (described as “rather wild and windburned, as if he’d recently returned from tramping over the moors or following Basho’s path all the way to Ogaki”), whom she blames for the death of her mother. Despite her apparent dislike of the man, she agrees to accompany Slater on a trip to Kuala Lumpur. It is here in Malaysia that much of the action of the novel takes place, unfolding on several narrative levels. Meeting Christopher Chubb, Wode-Douglas hears his fantastic tale, which itself forms an embedded story, originating in Australia and moving to the jungles of South-East Asia. Upon glimpsing a manuscript in Chubb’s possession – a book of poems entitled My Life as a Fake – Wode-Douglass becomes intent on obtaining them for The Modern Review. As with the real-life editor Max Harris and his fictional equivalent David Weiss, Wode-Douglass is seduced by the dream of every editor: to publish a hitherto undiscovered genius. But is Wode-Douglass being hoaxed by Chubb just as David Weiss was before her?
Actually, despite assertions by Slater that this is certainly the case, Carey never lets the reader doubt his (and Chubb’s) fantastic premise that McCorkle did indeed take on physical form. What remains more mysterious are the contents of My Life as a Fake. The reader is never allowed to see the actual manuscript, and is forced to rely upon the narrator’s conviction that it is indeed great writing.
We do get examples of McCorkle’s/Chubb’s original hoax, however, which are in fact the actual Ern Malley poems that Carey has appropriated for his novel, including this excerpt from “Colloquy with John Keats”:

I have been bitter with you, my brother,
Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow
Was already on his face: “The emotions are not skilled workers”

Part of the intent of McCauley and Stewart with this poem was to expose the ignorance of their mark, who failed to recognise the fact that “The emotions are not skilled workers” is not a genuine quote from Lenin; but as Wode-Douglass points out in the novel, “The Lenin line is more witty than preposterous.”
It is not just Bob McCorkle who is a fake in Carey’s novel. In fact, the irony is that Bob McCorkle, who is portrayed as a wild but unaffected person, turns out to be more genuine than any of the other characters. As the novel progresses, Sarah Wode-Douglass gradually reveals a secret about herself, realizing that she has been deceiving both herself and others. John Slater is portrayed as something of a phoney, a literary personality who is keen to impress with his fame but is more style than substance. As the original perpetrator of the hoax, Christopher Chubb is a fraud in terms of presenting his work as that of somebody else. But Chubb also becomes somebody else. Like Harold Stewart, one of the real hoaxers who subsequently lived in Japan for many years, Chubb has “gone native” in Malaysia, sustaining himself as a bicycle repair man and speaking in Malaysian-inflected English (albeit with a still recognisable Australian accent): “Mem, I have something extraordinary to show you. Absolutely unique. One kind only-lah.” And of course, perhaps the biggest “fake” is Carey himself, who has appropriated the work of McCauley and Stewart and made it his own, recasting Ern Malley as Bob McCorkle.

Having recently reread Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair, the early parts of the novel – in which Carey puts his fictional spin on the real events –  struck me as somewhat superfluous. Heyward’s account conveys the sheer lunacy of the reaction to the hoax with great verve, and I found myself wondering why Carey felt the need to go over the same material in a different guise. Once the narrative gets going, however, the novel moves past the real events and fashions a life for itself beyond Ern Malley.
Peter Carey is quite possibly Australia’s greatest living writer, and the secret genius that remains unseen inside Bob McCorkle’s fictional My Life as a Fake seeps through the pages to manifest itself in Carey’s “real” version, the book that we readers hold in our hands. The novel is by no means Carey’s best work, but like earlier novels such as Bliss and The Tax Inspector, it successfully conveys the creeping, unreal horrors that can emerge unbidden from Australian suburbia. The author that Carey most resembles is probably his close friend Paul Auster – both have the knack of narrating highly improbable stories in a highly plausible manner.
Carey claimed in an interview that he has been working on a novel set in the United States, but that he put it aside to write True History of the Kelly Gang. It would seem that this “American novel” has once again been shelved in preference for an Australian subject. Like Salman Rushdie, who is perennially drawn back to India despite not having lived there for many years, Carey finds the richest veins to tap into are those stretching back to his homeland.

Dear Mr Ruch,
Thank you for your letter of reply and your kindness in giving your opinion of Blair’s review. I am glad to know you think it is so good.
Certainly you may publish it in your ‘web’ magazine. I had no idea it might be good enough to publish overseas. Do you think it would be a paying proposition? I don’t want any money from it myself because I don’t feel that it belongs to me.
I am sorry I can’t tell you much more about Blair, but as I said in my last letter he kept very much to himself. He was always a little strange and moody and I don’t think he had a very happy life, though he didn’t show it.
If there is anything else I can do to help please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Thanking you again for your interest and kindness,
I remain,
Yours sincerely,
Ethel Mahoney

Blair Mahoney
2 March 2004

Additional Information

Literary Hoaxes – Jacket Magazine devoted a special issue to literary hoaxes in June 2002. It includes the complete Ern Malley poems, contemporary press clippings, an excerpt from Michael Heyward’s book The Ern Malley Affair, recent commentary on the affair and the “Ern Malley poems” by John Ashbery and John Kinsella.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.