Like Lisa, I’m a Stephen Orr fan, but for some reason it took me forever to finish his latest book, Sincerely, Ethel Malley, partly I think because while its characters are engaging, it’s a novel that deserves concentration which I seem to have in shorter supply this year. This is not meant to discourage readers, because it’s a fascinating, and wryly humorous read that explores a range of issues, to do with art and society, against a backdrop of war-time 1940s Australia.
As those who know the story will have guessed, Orr’s novel takes as its starting point the infamous Ern Malley literary hoax. To summarise Wikipedia, this hoax was perpetrated by two conservative writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who created modernist-style poetry in the name of a fictitious poet, Ern Malley. They wrote the poems using random words from various reference books and rhyming dictionaries, and, in 1943 sent them, in the name of Ern’s sister Ethel, to Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, the journal of a modernist art and literary movement. This movement included some of the leading lights of the Heide art group, which was the inspiration for Emilly Bitto’s novel, The strays (my review). They were modern, confident, and prepared to tackle head on conservative Australia. It wasn’t long before the hoax was exposed, but that wasn’t the end of it, because Max Harris was then tried for publishing the poems, on the grounds of obscene content.
I have written about literary hoaxes earlier in this blog, and made some points about what hoaxes tell us. Among these are that they raise some fundamental issues for readers and critics about the nature of literature, about what we mean by authenticity and how we define quality. Is a work, for example, somehow less “authentic” and of less literary quality because the author isn’t who we believe s/he is? In other words, is the work the thing? These are some of the issues Orr explores in Sincerely, Ethel Malley.
The novel’s intent is also suggested by the four epigraphs, the first of which – with its own in-joke – is “ascribed” to Aeschylus. It suggests that Prometheus is the source of “every art possessed by man”, so, perhaps, why worry about anything but the art? Then there’s Frederick R. Ewing’s suggestion that the problem occurs from a misunderstanding over where “the truth left off and imagination began” – which, in a way, is the idea underpinning this book. The third comes from Max Harris arguing, essentially, against “playing god”. And finally, there’s Donald Crowhurst’s “it is the mercy”. I’ve never heard of Crowhurst but, according to Wikipedia, he was an amateur sailor who disappeared during a race. Wikipedia says that this statement, which he left behind “is obscure, [but] most commentators have accepted that it signifies his relief that, at last, he is leaving an unbearable situation”.
All this will tell you that Stephen Orr has big ideas in his sights. Fortunately for us, they are wrapped up in the engaging character of Ethel. She carries the novel. It starts in 1981, with her death, and then flashes back to 1943, which begins the main body of the novel and tells the story of Ern and his poems from Ethel’s (first-person) point-of-view. The novel’s last chapter returns to 1981, with Max hearing about Ethel’s death. Ethel (and Ern) are Sydney-based – which is where McAuley and Stewart were based – but most of the action takes place in Adelaide, where Max Harris was based.
In the 1970s, Adelaide was a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, but back in the 1940s it was a very different place. Orr is South Australian and captures the ambience of the place and time beautifully, as our Sydney-suburban housewife, Ethel, makes her way between the iconoclastic Max, the lively bookseller Mary Martin, and Adelaide’s conservative establishment.
I thoroughly enjoyed the explorations – many of them done with wit if not downright cheek – about truth and authenticity, about poetry not being meant to be understood but to be “interpreted”, and about the art versus the artist. It’s subversive in self-consciously confronting some of the things we say and think about art and literature. It tackles conservatism, our resistance to innovation – “Originality. If your writing’s worthwhile, most people will hate it”, Max tells Ethel. Early in the novel is a discussion within Harris’ theatre group about what play they will perform, one by Shaw or one by Cocteau. Most of the players argue that people won’t come to Cocteau, because they “want a story”. For boundary-pushing Max, “that’s their problem”. He wants to do something “modern” (hence, also, his interest in Ern). This dilemma is not confined to 1940s Adelaide, but is one arts communities grapple with constantly. What will audiences tolerate?
Orr’s skill is in presenting his “big” issues through “authentic”, engaging characters and strong narratives which draw us into their reality. Orr’s characters are always warm and authentic (even when fictionalising an already made-up person like Ethel) and his dialogue is so natural. The story of Ethel as she struggles to prove that Ern is real, and his poetry not obscene, is entertaining – particularly when people start questioning her existence too. It can get mind-bending some times, and quite rollicking other times, as Ethel flips between present and past, but it works.
All of this is in the service of issues Orr thinks are worth thinking about, but it’s the thinking and the questions that are, in the end, more important than the answers, with Ethel, of course, being our guide. Early on, she’s never heard of Sid Nolan, but by the end she can hold her own with the best of them as she struggles to defend herself, Ern and his art against those who question. It’s both heartfelt and funny.
There is a lot to this book, but fundamentally, I see it as being about conservatism. In addition to the whole modernist poetry debate, Orr makes pointed comments along the way about the press and academia, not to mention Australians themselves. Ethel tells Sid Nolan, she’s learnt that “Australians hate anyone who claims to be creative”. In Sincerely, Ethel Malley, Orr is teasing us, goading us even, into being open to new ways of seeing, just as Max Harris wanted to do in the 1940s – and he has done so with his usual skill combined with a good dose of fun.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book and covered its essence very well.
Sincerely, Ethel Malley
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2021
Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.