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John Glassco (Handout/Handout)
John Glassco (Handout/Handout)

Review: Biography

A legend of his own creationA legend of his own creation Add to ...

In middle age, he was a martini-sipping, balding dandy who was really a self-transforming fabulist with an elegant literary style, an English writer from Quebec who claimed to have written the acclaimed Memoirs of Montparnasse in hospital recovering from tuberculosis, who boasted of youthful adventures with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Robert McAlmon, and affairs with Peggy Guggenheim, Kay Boyle, Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s fatal “Bosie”), Jean Cocteau and black poet Claude McKay.

Literary scholars (such as Thomas E. Tausky, Stephen Scobie, Philip Kokotailo and Michael Gnarowski) discovered that he was a sophisticated liar: His memoir had not been composed in the early 1930s, put aside, rediscovered in the 1960s and then published almost without changes. It was written in the 1960s, probably in response to Morley Callaghan’s dismissal of him and his lover Graeme Taylor as vile, childish homosexuals in That Summer in Paris. Glassco’s subterfuge was by no means unique. In Canada, Frederick Philip Grove and Grey Owl had recreated themselves much earlier, so Glassco’s complex deceptions seemed to justify Louis Dudek’s assertion, “The best live among us in disguise.”

However, Glassco was a special case in his own right: Born in 1909 to a wealthy family in Montreal, he suffered physical abuse from his father that sexually aroused his mother. In school, his slight, fair, delicate, somewhat feminine look made him an easy target for bullies and sexual predators who sodomized him. Having a fetish for rubber and flagellation, he indulged his obsession with governesses, and with his lover Graeme Taylor entered into three ménages à trois, one with androgynous Sibley (Stanley) Dreis and another with a beautiful woman he called Sappho. Taylor married Sappho, and Glassco later married other women, one of whom was yet another femme fatale in his life and who almost drove him to suicide.

He learned to lie to rescue himself from unpleasant situations. At McGill (where one of his colleagues was Leon Edel, who would become a world-famous biographer), he used pseudonyms in university periodicals for his attacks on “old, fatigued, uninspiring, ‘wheezing pedants.’ ” He also invented fictitious literary work – a sort of precursor of other more elaborate literary and personal deceptions, such as his pseudonymous works of pornography ( The English Governess and Fetish Girl, for example) or plagiarisms (his erotic collage in Temple of Pederasty). Though he eventually settled in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where he cultivated the pose of a horse breeder, Glassco was far too cosmopolitan and unconventional for Canadian tastes. He was also far beyond the puritans: His odes to the joys of womanly sadism and boyish masochism would fatally wound all those who percolate with unction and virtue.

So, was he so tainted as to be totally untrustworthy as a writer? Or was he so brilliant in his literary and social masks that his falsehoods could be overlooked, or at least made subordinate to his deathless triumphs in memoir, translation (of Joris-Karl Huysmans and such French-Canadian poets as Hector de St. Denys-Garneau), Wordsworthian lyric and pornography in various permutations? It is a radical question that his latest biographer, Brian Busby, considers in this interesting and stimulating work.

Montreal-born and -raised, Busby himself practises camouflage, having been a ghostwriter and published several books under noms de plume. He is also guilty of at least one deception in this biography, for nowhere in his main text is there any acknowledgment of biographical spadework by other literary “detectives” (apart from Gnarowski) who uncovered many falsifications in Glassco’s memoirs prior to Busby’s sleuthing. Nevertheless, his book is well researched. In addition to Glassco’s readily available work, Busby draws on pseudonymous writings as well as unpublished and previously unknown poems, letters and journal entries to expose his subject’s vibrant yet problematic and provocative life. While it doesn’t evoke the glittering excitement of Glassco’s non-factual Parisian days, it rediscovers Glassco and places him in a proper light in terms of both his private and public lives: his many bisexual affairs, sexual kinks, literary friendships, struggles, feuds and various climacterics.

The biography’s subtitle is an intriguing entrée into the book and a radical motive for reflection. By calling itself One Life, is it suggesting a specific individuality out of a plurality? Or is it simply connoting a unity of the many selves of Glassco? Or is it a clever nod to Glassco’s own pronouncement on Giacomo Casanova: “We end, in other words, by loving him as much for what he really was as for what he tells us he was, and discover that the two characters complement each other and make an intelligible whole. In this way we grasp the truth that man is not only a living creature but the person of his own creation.” I tend to favour this third suggestion.

Other views

A Rebours (Against the Grain) , by J.K. Huysmans

A masterpiece of Decadent literature that was a major influence on Glassco, who bore similarities to its hero des Esseintes.

Being Geniuses Together , by Robert McAlmon

A memoir of the eccentric American’s time in Europe, but one that was an act of vengeance against Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and others.

That Summer in Paris , by Morley Callaghan

Reminiscences of Montparnasse and (as its subtitle proclaims) the “tangled friendship with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others.”

Under the Hill , by Aubrey Beardsley

A retelling of the Tannhauser myth that was not completed until Glassco finished rewriting it, while introducing two themes not in the original: flagellation and the touch of governesses.

A new edition of Keith Garebian’s The Making of Cabaret has recently been published.

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