From the archives: this review was originally published as “Making It True” in The Antigonish Review #179, Autumn 2014.
Would John Glassco’s success as a writer have been greater had he not also been a pornographer (as opposed to an eroticist, which he did not consider himself to be)? Could he have exceeded his own artistic limitations if those did not include a passion for rubber, ménages à trois, flagellation, or literary hoaxes? These are two troubling questions John Busby, the author of A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer, puts to the reader in this discerning biography.
“This country has not treated Glassco well,” he informs us. Little wonder, perhaps. Glassco’s material was fetishistic pornography, rural poetry, the translation of French Canadian verse into English—hardly the stuff that would excite mainstream Canadian critics even today. Yet there is no Canadian edition available of Glassco’s classic Memoirs of Montparnasse. His brave, innovative The Poetry of French Canada in Translation has been largely supplanted by other texts. And the reaction to Glassco’s pornography in particular “has been one of ignorance, indignation, and silence” at home, even though Busby classifies at least two of Glassco’s novels in the genre as genuine works of literature: The English Governess and Under the Hill.
Part of the problem critics have had with Glassco is that he could be—was often, in fact—unscrupulous about enhancing artistic effect. If misdirection or prevarication would make, say, the origins of a story or poem, or the telling of a literary anecdote, more entertaining or appealing, he engaged in it readily. Busby’s stated intent with A Gentleman of Pleasure is “to correct the many varied misconceptions and misunderstandings about [Glassco’s] life.” Along the way, he produces some wonderfully informative notes, many drawn from letters he has since edited and published as The Heart Accepts It All: The Selected Letters of John Glassco (2013). Busby is also the author of Character Parts: Who’s Really Who in CanLit (2003).
Despite a habit of destroying journals and pages therefrom, Glassco left behind (consciously and not) enough evidence to set the record straight. Not without some sifting: from the start, Busby’s challenge in unravelling this life is separating fact from fallacy. “John Glassco was, in his own words, ‘an accomplished liar,’ ‘a great practitioner of deceit.’” Even in Memoirs of Montparnasse, there were “gestures toward the truth...hints that things might not have been quite as depicted,” that were ignored by most critics of the day. People, it could be argued—readers and reviewers alike—seemed to want or need to be deceived: to enjoy and believe with deeper conviction Glassco’s story of the Paris art scene just after the Great War. The harsh assessments of writers like Louis Dudek aside (he viewed Glassco’s literary pranksterism as dangerous), it’s doubtful Memoirs of Montparnasse would have been the hit it was had it been released “simply” as fiction.
Busby’s biography is as much forensic exercise as literary reclamation. He is only interested in the facts of Glassco’s life and work that can be corroborated. The level of cross-checking he had to do must have been drink-inducing. But it pays off with a book that gives a lively and accurate account of a Canadian writer who was at one point one of the country’s most significant translators and who remains iconic because of his famous fictionalized memoir.
Glassco was born in 1909 into the privilege of Montreal’s wealthy Golden Square Mile (though not directly in it, in his maternal grandfather Edward Rawlings’ wooden mansion, as he claimed). With a mother who was an heiress to a fortune made in fidelity guarantee insurance and a father who did well enough for himself that he was able to threaten to cut off his teenaged son if the boy didn’t give up his ungainly notions of becoming a poet, Glassco could never lie about coming from money.
This part of the story about Glassco’s early years is a little slow going and stiff with clichés (how spouses met are “lost to history,” homes stand “in stark contrast” to others), but it is still engaging. As with so many, the realities, misfortunes and odd circumstances of childhood would influence Glassco’s relationships, and his art. “Glassco could not remember a time at which he had not hated his father,” who had physically abused his brother David and him when they were young. “Toward his mother [who apparently did nothing to stop it] he felt little more than indifference.” By age 14, he was rebelling: playing truant, hanging out with older boys, drinking, and visiting brothels. He made it to McGill University, where he met William Graeme Taylor, with whom he would become strongly, unhealthily involved personally and artistically. Glassco was 16, Taylor 20. The two sailed for Paris in February 1928 to become writers.
Almost inevitably, the book truly begins with Chapter 2, when Busby attempts to recast the events of Memoirs of Montparnasse, separating what actually happened from what never could have happened from what certainly did not happen. He spends some worthy time, too, re-evaluating and rejuvenating other literary figures of the day, like Robert McAlmon, who “ranked among the most productive of the expatriate writers,” and whose Contact Publishing Company produced works “not likely to be published by other publishers for commercial or legislative reasons.” These works were by H.D., Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and McAlmon himself. The literary histories Busby traces throughout the book reveal much about the uncertainty of artistic endeavour. Memoirs of Montparnasse, whose language remains remarkably fresh, has probably aged better than Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Kay Boyle’s Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (with McAlmon).
What is certain is that Glassco thought his predilection for governesses who spank and ménages à trois got in the way of his work’s embrace sometimes. He seemed to see his life in that of the Decadents, especially men like J.-K. Huysmans and his masterpiece À rebours. Maybe Glassco’s avowed subject matter had to do with a desire “to write only books utterly divorced from reality, stories where nothing happens.” Glassco, a dandy and a profligate in his youth, was not interested in age or experience the way other men or artists were. He was 71 when he died in 1981; his creativity had been in decline for ten years. Glassco’s work took him decades to write, polish and publish. Memoirs of Montparnasse itself, that “loose and lying chronicle” of a “young man’s adventures in the Paris of the late 1920s and early 1930s,” was properly undertaken in 1964.
Had Glassco’s tastes been more along the lines of the erotic mainstream—à la Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller—his critical reception and acceptance may have been more enthusiastic. Glassco claimed “two features of my psychosexuality, the fetishistic and masochistic,” had a “fatal effect” on his development. He noted that “[o]nly in my poetry have I kept clear of them”—which is not to imply Glassco’s appreciation of written pornography was unwholesome. He believed its intent, “like that of all literature, is simply to please”; that it is “unlike ‘the …erotic, whose tone is mainly sentimental or lyrical’...rather pornography is a ‘deliberate attempt, by all the resources of the written word, to stimulate the sexual appetite.’”
Busby’s A Gentleman of Pleasure is entertaining as well as insightful. Part of the fun in reading this biography is figuring out with the author how much of Glassco’s story—as presented by Glassco—we believe, how much we don’t. Because we do come to admire Glassco’s overheated imagination; his ferocity in the face of perceived tyranny; his love for and devotion to Graeme and his first wife, Elma; his battle with tuberculosis; and his slow growth as an artist and desire to be an individual who lives and meets life on his own terms. Busby may be overly sympathetic at times, which is understandable given his subject, but there is something all of us—artist and not—can understand of Glassco’s very human doubts that he may be merely a “trifler, dilettante, petit-maître.”
Glassco wrote in his Intimate Journal in November 1960: “Face it, dear fellow. What you want is a smashing success, recognition, your picture in the newspapers, money.” The challenge may have been that he was writing stories that were unlikely to yield such results. Glassco suspected his “ambition has always been too widely diffused.” And yet he persisted in producing one lasting work in every form or genre he attempted. In some measure, as do we all in our lives, vocations or careers, he triumphed. Glassco was so like other Canadian writers, too, in ambition if not opportunity; seeking to do some great thing, modestly. Even if an “accomplished liar” who “took delight in deceit,” Busby convinces us the man was nevertheless true when “he lied, however unintentionally, in dismissing his talent.”
· Robert is the critically acclaimed author of the NBM Amerotica titles Attractive Forces, Stray Moonbeams and Great Moves. His other books include the novel And Sometimes They Fly; the story collections Fairfield: The Last Sad Stories of G. Brandon Sisnett, Intimacy 101: Rooms & Suites, The Tree of Youth and Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; and the memoir Sand for Snow: A Caribbean-Canadian Chronicle.
His graphic novels Great Moves, Stray Moonbeams and Attractive Forces are now available as e-books from NBM.