The poet John Glassco lived in disguise, masquerading as a member of the gentry while writing pornography and reinventing his past.
As he approached his sixtieth birthday John Glassco might reasonably have thought that his life was a complete failure. He was a writer who had published almost nothing but two thin volumes of poetry and a couple of books of pseudonymous pornography. Living in isolation on a farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, he was unknown outside a small circle of Montreal poets. His wife was violently ill with schizophrenia and was starving herself to death. So deep was his despair that he was making plans to commit suicide once she had died.
Then, suddenly, his fortunes turned. Several literary projects that had been simmering for years reached a boil at the same time. In a single year, 1970, he published a bestselling memoir and an anthology of French-Canadian poetry in translation, not to mention another volume of pornography. What’s more, he met and fell in love with the woman who would become his second wife. And he followed up this string of successes the following year by publishing his Selected Poems, which beat out the collected poems of the much better-known Irving Layton for the Governor General’s Award. A decade earlier Glassco had confided to his journal: “I want the world to recognize me as something I suspect I am not, a man of real talent.” Now, much to his own surprise and at an age most people think of retirement, he had achieved the overnight success for which he had been struggling his entire life.
I encountered Glassco’s name for the first time when I was an aspiring young literato writing bad short stories in Vancouver and experiencing the conventional infatuation with the romance of expatriatism. Paris in the twenties was my dreamland. I read everything I could get my hands on by the usual suspects—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein—but Glassco’s book Memoirs of Montparnasse instantly became my favourite. As a nineteen-year-old aesthete on the lam from his well-to-do Montreal family, Glassco ran away to Paris early in 1928 in the company of his friend and lover Graeme Taylor. During the two and half years he spent in France he didn’t do much—hung around the cafés, met a few minor notables, drank a lot, had love affairs—but in the pages of Memoirs, Glassco seemed to evoke all the romance of the literary life. It was amazing to me that such a sophisticated, witty memoir—by a Canadian, no less—was written by someone who was the same age as myself when I was reading it. Except that it wasn’t.
When Memoirs appeared in 1970 the critics more or less accepted the author’s version of its creation. Glassco’s Parisian idyll had come to a sudden end in the summer of 1930 when he learned that he had contracted tuberculosis. He entered hospital in France, and that winter his mother sent a doctor and a private nurse to Europe to bring him home to Montreal, where he remained bedridden for many months. The fiction that he later invented was that he wrote Memoirs at that time, not knowing whether he would recover, then left the typescript forgotten in an attic for four decades before publishing it more or less unchanged. The fact that it was written under the shadow of death is what gave Memoirs its feeling of immediacy, even urgency, said the critics, most of whom greeted it with glowing reviews. The Montreal poet Louis Dudek called it “the best book of prose by a Canadian that I have ever read.”
Good it may be, truthful it was not. Glassco himself called the book “a loose and lying chronicle,” which is a fair description. It must have been difficult for a scrupulous biographer such as Brian Busby, in his new book about Glassco, A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer (McGill-Queen’s University Press), to untangle the facts from the deceptions, wilful and otherwise. Much of the Memoirs “is both inaccurate and fanciful,” Busby writes. Glassco claims to have had encounters with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Peggy Guggenheim, among others, but “there is no evidence that he was so much as in the same room with even one of these eminent expatriates.”
One of the biggest whoppers Glassco told was about the book itself. It was not composed in a hospital bed in 1931; it was written many years later during the 1960s. Glassco was prompted to revisit his expatriate years by the publication in 1963 of Morley Callaghan’s memoir, That Summer in Paris. Callaghan’s book was a great commercial success, which must have got Glassco thinking, but more important, it presented a portrait of the young Glassco as a shallow dilettante sneering his way around the Latin Quarter. A humiliated Glassco recommenced work on his own memoir at least in part as a way of getting his own explanation of himself on the record.
Rearranging and inventing is what most memoirists do, and part of the fun of Busby’s biography is to watch him wheedle out the truth from Glassco’s imaginative version of history. Glassco was not interested in a mundane recitation of events. As he wrote to a friend, “I look on the real value of ‘memoirs’ as being not so much a record of ‘what happened’ as a re-creation of the spirit of a period in time. The first approach is so often simply tedious, faded literary gossip, name-dropping, disconnected anecdotes, etc . . . ” Glassco aspired to re-create the feel of Paris, or at least his version of Paris. But, as Busby makes clear, there was more to it than that. Subterfuge seems to have been Glassco’s default position. He called himself “a great practitioner of deceit.” He wrote books under assumed names, donned and discarded different sexual identities, even lied about such an inconsequential matter as the house in which he was born.
As he emerges from the pages of Busby’s sympathetic book, Glassco seems a very Canadian figure in the way that he hid his secret inner life behind a veneer of social respectability. (I am thinking here of the priggish prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who, seemingly the blandest of men, attended seances to communicate with the dead and consorted with prostitutes.) A gentleman farmer in ascot and tweed jacket, Glassco hosted an annual horse show, sat on the local town council and displayed the reactionary political views typical of the Anglo elite, once dismissing Quebecois nationalists as “crybabies seeking a breast.” As a young man he affected disdain for middle-class life, then seemed to become its embodiment. But he was also a rubber fetishist who wrote pornography and hired rent boys to give him spankings. At the same time as his Selected Poems was winning Canada’s highest literary award, another of his books, The Temple of Pederasty, stories of “sentiment, sodomy and cherry-blossoms,” was intercepted at the border and refused entry to Canada. The writer George Fetherling, who met Glassco, described him as a “dissolute and bohemian Vincent Massey,” a phrase that might not mean much to younger readers but delightfully captures Glassco’s double nature, the patrician playing at being the outlaw, or vice versa.
How do you write an accurate life of someone who lied for the fun of it? Busby is assiduous in tracking down the facts but sometimes he has to acknowledge that they do not carry him all the way to the truth. Never mind. A Gentleman of Pleasure is a thorough and thoroughly entertaining study of Canada’s foremost literary charlatan and it is only appropriate if the reader is sometimes left wondering what’s the truth and what’s just the truthiness.