Max Harris – A Window at Night

In Richard Flanagan’s magnificent Man Booker Prize busting epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North, two young lovers meet in Adelaide in the early days of WW2 at a book reading.

In Richard Flanagan’s magnificent Man Booker Prize busting epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North, two young lovers meet in Adelaide in the early days of WW2 at a book reading. The author is Max Harris, a young tyro, who in real life was a modernist poet who founded the Angry Penguins magazine and was pranked by the surreal poetic straw troll that was Ern Malley – a hoax put up by two young poets, Harold Stewart and James McCauley, to entrap and hopefully shame the young Australian modern art movement and its critical cheerleaders. The poems were sent with a covering letter from ‘Ern’s’ sister, Ethyl, telling of his blue-collar life and its recent tragic end at a young age and the poems he scratched out after work. He was bought and pimped by the modernists as a self-taught, salt of the earth genius. The hoax worked; Max Harris and Sidney Nolan put Ern on the cover of their magazine and ran his poems all through it. Up jumped the hoaxers and Australia put poetry on its newspaper’s front pages for a day. The tables were turned by Harris and Nolan however, as they turned on the pranksters and adjudged them to have been taken and inhabited by the true spirit and voice of a poet by their donning of this elaborate disguise. Controversy raged and Harris was also taken to court in Adelaide for the alleged obscenity in one of the poems. Richard Flanagan’s book really took off for me with this pivoting of a lovers meeting at such an event. It put them in a live and electrically jumping and crowded room – staring across at each other – with real dust and noise coming from the reading in the other room. Energy, drama, sex and magic were charging the scene. Characters were fleshed out and the worlds moved truly within other worlds. It pulled me in. I’ve collected many books of poems by Max Harris over the years. Australian volumes of poetry are printed in the hundreds, so they’re always lovely artefacts, if nothing else. His story is so full of drama though. The Ern Malley affair seemed to be a total trauma of course, and the young modernist tyro seemed to be replaced by a rounder figure. His formerly wild and curly hair was still long but pulled back and held down with a palmful of Brylcreem. The girth wider and the face fuller. Growing up, I would see his face next to his by-line in the Sunday Mail. Seemed to be an incomprehensible world of slow adult concerns that were frankly not for me. A solid world of dry reputations, names and regular comings and goings. I was far away from all that. Decades later, I would read the Ern Malley poems and then the story of the characters involved. Young Max and his modernist tribe. Pictures of him at this period showed a wildhaired slim character who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the post punk scene in St Kilda in the early 80s. Then there were the two hoaxers. Harold Stewart seemed to have gone straight to Japan where he was reported, into the early 2000s, to be working on a single long poem. James McCauley became the editor of Quadrant, a conservative literary magazine, which still operates. I got to enjoy James McCauley’s epic Captain Quiros’s Journey, as much as any of Max’s middle and later work. What a fantastic drama! An art battle royale! Why has it not been made into a movie? Max’s early poetic works, such as his novel The Vegetative Eye, have remained elusive for me, though I have found his later, post Ern Malley volumes. All very distinctive and rich with life. I learned that he had grown up in the same South Australian town I did – Mt Gambier. He was said to have read every book in the old Institute Library in Commercial Street, as a challenge that he had set himself. He won a scholarship to study at St Peter’s in Adelaide and took off like a wild comet. In a collection of his columns published in 1977, he writes of Mt Gambier as being a place of mystery and mythology – a rare place where white people talked of, and took to be true, the stories of the Tantanoola tiger and the mystery of the annual colour-turn of the Blue Lake. He supposed that, for a brief period, it had a white folk vernacular of oral mythmaking to almost approach that of the Indigenous Australians. There were the sinkholes and water running everywhere, underground. Bodies were taken in at one point and washed out dozens of miles away at the sea. There were dramatic shipwrecks and the Adam Lindsay Gordon jump with his horse down the side of the beautiful blue lake. All this was local folklore. A place for born storytellers. His words suggested – or brought out in me – a warm smile, as he recollected the blowholes, sinkholes, pine forests, lakes, craters and ghosts of his youth. @davegraney

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