Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher
The Times, September 20, 2001

At a time when readers are so often asked to respect, admire and even to buy a vast number of memoirs and naively autobiographical novels whose only dubious merit lies in their sincerity, Peter Carey’s new novel comes like a monsoon after drought. It is a magnificent, poetic contemplation of the lying, fakery, and insincerity inherent in the act of artistic creation. This haunting fable is built around the idea that in great art, the sincerely meant truth may ring hollow; a meretricious lie may have the energy to girdle the earth before it can be retracted.

Carey has always been a mesmerizing novelist, but in his recent, superb novels like this one, Jack Maggs (about Dickens’s Magwitch, seen from the viewpoint of his Australian life) and the incomparableTrue History of the Kelly Gang, he has started to assemble a great Australian national epic in prose. With these subjects of the convict founders of Ned Kelly, the brutal bush-ranger, he has sometimes offended local sensitivities, and this marvelous novel, simultaneously sensational and meditative, may offend more with its subject of national fraudulence. But no one can doubt that one day Australian children will recite the Kelly Gang as children of Italy do Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi.

My Life as a Fake starts from a famous episode in Australian cultural history, without being constrained by it. In 1944 an Australian literary journal published the posthumous poetry of an unknown poet called Ern Malley: they were cryptic, but striking Modernist poems – or so the magazine claimed. In fact, they had been rapidly concocted and foisted on the magazine by two writers who thought Modernism rather a fraud. The joke, however, was rather unsuccessful. The inventors of Ern Malley were dull sorts of writers under their own names: the Ern Malley poems, however, have an undeniable energy and oddity

Carey doesn’t tell the story, but has constructed a wild and demonic fable which, through fantasy, explores the painful issues of artistic creation raised by the Malley affair. His poet, Christopher Chubb, is a constipated sort of writer, a creator of frightful villanelles and double sestinas. Living in Melbourne in the late 1940s, he decides to make a fool of his Modernist enemies, and sends the works of one “Bob McCorkle” to David Weiss, a literary editor.

Subsequently, the story leaves the detail of the Malley case for a fantasy of damnation and penance. The hoax comes out; the magazine is prosecuted for publishing the obscenity of the McCorkle. The editor if found hanged, but most horrifyingly, a man stands up at the trial and identifies himself. His name is Bob McCorkle, summoned into existence by Chubb’s bitter joke and a ludicrously concocted photograph and very resentful about it.

The novel is narrated from years later, as two English literati discover Chubb living an unendurable life in exile in Malaysia. The story is one of hellish suffering, and the moments of redemption are partial. The worst of Chubb’s suffering is that the creation of the McCorkle poems were the only moment when he began to truly write; with the arrival of the real McCorkle, the author, in him has gone entirely.

It’s a charismatically furious piece of work, brilliantly meshing its ethical and artistic debate with a rich human drama. The elements of fantasy rise unexpectedly but organically from the texture, and, just as surprisingly, the narrator and her companion stop being mere listeners and find their own lives entwining with the awful story.

It’s a wonderful extravaganza, something in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson, where startling revelations and bold excursions keep exploding across the deadly serious landscape of debate and ideas. It asks bigger questions than literary ones: whether any of us ever do what we mean to, not just whether a writer’s intentions are in control of his achievement. But it is never abstract, and the novel leaves an electric trace of imagery across the mind as the monstrous howling figure of McCorkle comes loping towards his terrified creator.

I don’t know what Carey is going to do next – an Aboriginal novel? A novel about Norman Lindsay? – but by now, he is in a realm of visionary nationalism, intensely physical in its rendering, and, whatever its seductively maintained ambiguities, his writing remains exceptionally clear-sighted towards the world. There are few writers who write books so unfailingly, shamelessly entertaining, or ones with so powerful a commitment to the life of the mind.

Philip Hensher is a British novelist whose works include Other Lulus, Kitchen Venom, Pleasured, The Mulberry Empire , The Fit.

He has also published a short story collection: The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife.

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