Telling, Retelling, and Rebelling
- Brian Busby (Author)
A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Patricia Godbout
This biography is the result of a very thorough and time-consuming research. The recounted life of
Buffy Glassco is doubtless that of a man who had his own way of dealing with pleasure. As the reader soon realizes, the word
pleasure almost always contains its opposite, displeasures of all kinds—including guilt, self-doubt, and downright anguish. Thus, the
gentleman of pleasure of the title is a complex figure, as the slightly awkward combination of attributes in the sub-title indicates. One of the phrases that most aptly captures Glassco comes from Margaret Atwood, who described him as a
decadent aesthete. In those two words Atwood articulated the tension at the core of this man of letters, both fascinated and familiar with aesthetics of various kinds and the exploration of enjoyments outside of the realm of conventional morality. Atwood met Glassco in the late 1960s in Montreal where she had just accepted a teaching position at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia). In an interview with Busby, she emphasized the fact that, above all, being a
decadent aesthete was a role Glassco enjoyed playing:
He enjoyed being that person, she said. This interview is one of many conducted by the biographer, along with exchange of correspondence and queries of various types put to a host of people such as Barry Callaghan, Dennis Lee, and Peter Dale Scott.
Alongside the quest for pleasures and their undersides, there is a formidable search throughout Glassco’s life that Busby identifies and traces for the reader: that of the troubled relation between memoirs and memory, living and telling, the truth of an instant, and the requirements of narration. Almost as soon as he arrived in Paris with Graeme Taylor at the end of the twenties, Glassco started to memorialize and fictionalize his own
movable feast. Thus, the biographer’s endeavour consisted not so much in trying to separate fact from fiction as in tracking how Glassco constantly blurred the lines between them. With respect, in particular, to his encounters with Gertrude Stein, Peggy Gugenheim, or James Joyce, Busby writes:
There is no evidence that he was so much as in the same room with even one of these eminent expatriates. However, as the reader learns, Glassco actually crossed paths with important figures such as Norman Bethune,who was one of his doctors in the thirties when he came back to Montreal suffering from tuberculosis, and Heinz Lehman, an eminent psychiatrist who treated his wife Elma for mental illness.
As Busby shows, for Glassco, retelling sometimes amounted to rebelling. Of primary importance in this respect, of course, is the story of those Americans and Canadians in Paris in the summer of 1929. When reading other people’s account of the period, Glassco wanted to ascertain, to start with, that his own presence had not been overlooked. For instance, on first reading, in 1942, Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, he
was greatly disappointed that neither he nor Taylor figured among the grand cast of expatriates. And when he did appear in certain stories or memoirs, such as Morley Callaghan’s
Now That April’s Here (and, much later, That Summer in Paris), he took exception to the way he was portrayed and fictionalized. This is one of the reasons why he decided to offer his own take on the whole scene in Memoirs of Montparnasse, excerpts from which were published in The Tamarack Review in the spring of 1969. In a letter to Kay Boyle, Glassco doesn’t hide the fact that many of the events told in his memoirs were
re-arranged, telescoped, speeded up and dramatized. More than factual accuracy, then, what mattered to him was catching the spirit of the period—at least some of it.
Busby examines in detail the difficulties Glassco faced in order to become a published writer of erotica, which became a lifelong quest for an appropriate literary outlet. Translation is put to use more than once to help Glassco’s writing along. We learn, for example, that a French text, La Gouvernante, is at the source of Harriet Marwood, Governess, which means, as Busby notes, that
Harriet Marwood, Governess marks Glassco’s debut as a translator of prose. However, despite the importance of the erotic/pornographic element in Glassco’s aesthetics and literary activity and the expected titillated response on the part of the reader, the biographer’s extensive exposition of various versions of
flagellant literature produces ennui at times.
The importance of Glassco’s poetry—both for himself and for his readers—comes across very strongly in this biography. The role played by a certain form of socializing is also rightly underlined, for example the many summers Buffy spent, from the late fifties onward,
drinking with [A.J.M.] Smith, Frank Scott, and others by the shores of lakes Memphremagog and Massawippi, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. We are also reminded that it was at Frank Scott’s invitation that Glassco began to translate Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau’s journal and complete poems. However, the biographer doesn’t delve sufficiently, in my mind, into the very different ways in which Scott and Glassco approached the translation of poetry. Also, the reasons why Glassco would have felt such a pull toward the poetical and ontological universe of Garneau are left largely unexplored. Busby does quote, for instance, an excised portion of a draft letter to Scott where Glassco writes:
I detect in [Garneau] a curious vein of natural, delicate sadism, and I think his horrified consciousness of this was the real cause of his sense of guilt. One wonders whether the translator isn’t drawing the poet a little too close to himself here, but no further light is shed on the matter in the biography. In the same spirit, one feels that the description of certain events surrounding the October Crisis of 1970 treats the Francophone and Anglophone poets involved somewhat superficially. I’m not sure, for one thing, that when Glassco and Smith repeatedly refer to poet Michèle Lalonde as
la belle Lalonde in their letters from the period, they are simply using an
On the whole, however, the biography is stimulating. After having tracked Glassco’s own unashamed re-arranging of previously existing material, whether in print form or recomposed from memory, Brian Busby adds yet another spin to the narration of Glassco’s life, skilfully interconnecting the memoirist, poet, translator, and pornographer.
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MLA: Godbout, Patricia. Telling, Retelling, and Rebelling. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 1 Apr. 2012. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #214 (Autumn 2012). (pg. 141 - 142)
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