Sons of Clovis

David Brooks appears in several events at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival including creative writing workshops. Here, Brooks discusses his new book Sons of Clovis, and explains how hoaxes like the Ern Malley affair can liberate the writer.

By Tim Groenendyk

David Brooks

“I was determined to prove that there was a French precedent to the Ern Malley hoax. As I started to do that I began to look at Malley poems more closely as well. And then I started to get suspicious," Associate Professor David Brooks.

“People very often come to creative writing classes with a story they want to tell, of their ancestors, or of their schizophrenia, or their connection to certain horrors of recent history.

“But what happens? Writer’s block. Why does this happen? Because they feel such a tremendous responsibility to the truth that it stultifies them,” explained Associate Professor David Brooks.

For almost a quarter of a century Brooks has been on a mission to uncover the ‘truth’ behind the Ern Malley hoax, and connect it to a French precedent, culminating with his 2011 work of investigative literary history The Sons of Clovis.

In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart sought to prove that certain avant garde poets of the time, like Angry Penguins magazine editor Max Harris, could not tell nonsense from authentic poetry.

They composed a series of ‘fake’ poems in one afternoon and accredited their creations to one ‘Ern Malley’.

Harris, excited by the poetry, published a full issue dedicated to this amazing new artist.

The resulting scandal resonated abroad, hitting front pages of newspapers in London, New York and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, at home, Harris faced court, charged with publishing obscene material – leading to further public embarrassment.

Almost twenty-five years ago, Brooks stumbled upon the Adoré Floupette hoax from France, which predated the Ern Malley affair by 60 years. And was eerily similar: two conservative French poets created Floupette to satirise the Decadent Movement, and wrote the same number of poems as Malley.

“I was determined to prove that there was a French precedent to the Ern Malley hoax. As I started to do that I began to look at Malley poems more closely as well. And then I started to get suspicious.

“The closest readings these poems got were in the court cases in Adelaide in 1944. The police wanted to prove that the poems were obscene so they had to try and demonstrate that the poems were not nonsense.”

Upon closer analysis of Malley’s poems, Brooks wasn’t convinced they were nonsense either.

“McAuley and Stewart figure ‘Oh well, it’s nonsense’ and so they just put in whatever comes to mind. But what comes to mind, such as their obsessions, goes into the poems – so they’re full of the inner life of these two poets.”

Brooks refused to accept the notion that because the poems were regarded as a hoax they weren’t worthy of scrutiny.

“Because what you’re really saying is that the fiction has to stay within the covers of the book; it’s not allowed to spread out even to the title page.

“People love literature, but only when it’s in a sort of zoo, they don’t want it roaming outside its confines. We read as if we’re looking at things in a zoo. Now, I’m an animal person, and I hate zoos.”

As soon as Brooks began to suspect there was a French counterpart – during his tenure at the Australian National University – he went to the ANU library to see if there was a copy of Floupette’s work in Australia.

There was a copy at the rare books library not far away – a copy previously owned by Australian poet Christopher Brennan. That made Brooks even more curious.

“You’re not supposed to photocopy things from rare books but I waited till the librarian’s back was turned and I slipped out to the photocopier,” recalled Brooks.

Whilst attempting to translate the first poem, Brooks was led to a painting by Evariste Vital Luminais - Les Enervés de Jumièges – a painting which, when retitled The sons of Clovis II, hangs in Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW.

“Now, the very first poem in the French hoax is written about a painting that’s in the Art Gallery of NSW - that must have been known to the Ern Malley hoaxers. The mystery only gets deeper.”

Unpacking the full relationship between the hoaxes took almost 20 years and required Brooks to develop a whole understanding of late 19th century French poetry, which included teaching the subject for much of that time.

“At first I thought there was no textual cross-reference, because I couldn’t see it. But now I can see it very clearly.

“It’s fabulous when you start off with a theory and then 20 years later you actually realise you were right!”

In the creative writing arena Brooks believes hoax literature can help liberate the writer.

“Some really important Australian writers and artists – Sidney Nolan for example – have said the Ern Malley hoax liberated them creatively.

“They didn’t have to be responsible to the society in a traditional way.

“It’s as if the Ern Malley poems gave them permission to play, to invent - to reinvent themselves – to cut themselves free from the past and of an older idea of their artform that had been holding them back.”

“What some writers have found they have had to do is break that sense of tremendous responsibility to the past and to the truth.

“Once they do that then they can go back and very often they can do what they were finding difficult to do before.”