Buffy, Unmuffled

Reviewed by Hilary Turner

John Glassco described Memoirs of Montparnasse, the book for which he is best known, as a record of “the years in which [he] really lived—before the onset of death or the inevitable dullness of a mature outlook.” The reader of this collection may beg to differ. Composed between 1929 and 1980, his letters chronicle a full and interesting life, and culminate in an outlook that is mature, yet dignified rather than dull. Styling himself a world-weary aesthete with a sparkling past, Glassco was in fact a literary late-bloomer who did not write and publish seriously until the late 1960s. By the time the Memoirs appeared in 1970, the Paris of the early 1920s had become the stuff of legend, and Glassco could comfortably supplement his experiences with legends of his own. Yet this book was followed by at least a dozen others, including five volumes of poetry, a translation of the Journal of Saint-Denys-Garneau, as well as his edited collection, Poetry of French Canada in Translation. Always bearing in mind the distinction between living and writing, it is fair to say that it was Glassco’s last two decades, not his first two that witnessed more activity, satisfaction, and (modest) recognition.

The man of letters (“Buffy” to his friends) emerges clearly in this collection, in regards to both his signed and pseudonymous works. His epistolary tussles with Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press indicate the predicament of the pornographer whose books have no official status, yet who would like to be paid in official cash. When Girodias reissues Glassco’s sadomasochistic classic, The English Governess, unaltered but retitled, Glassco rebukes him and expresses his “determination to put our relationship henceforth on a proper commercial basis.” The following year, having sold the American rights to Under the Hill, another pseudonymous work, he handsomely acknowledges that, like Lolita, his earlier book would not have seen the light of day without the “original acceptance and beautiful production” of Girodias. The episode suggests that Glassco took all his work quite seriously, and that he was privately at ease with his artistic double life. He cheerfully catalogues his many noms-de-plume for an old acquaintance, Milton Kastillo, each one attached to a fetishistic study of delicately different texture. All the while, he is hobnobbing with the literary establishment at the inauguration of the Centennial Theatre at Bishop’s University, making plans to attend the 1967 World Poetry Conference in Montreal, and investigating the application process for a Guggenheim award.

Letters addressed to A. J. M. Smith, Leon Edel, and F. R. Scott, all of whom were Glassco’s lifelong friends, contain some fine literary gossip as well as amusing thumbnails of the doyens of CanLit. Robertson Davies “gives the impression of a magnificent but (possibly) spurious Rembrandt;” Irving Layton’s ideas are those of “the village atheist verging on the village idiot;” Morley Callaghan is “a confused altarboy’” and “Earl Birney’s star is fading; he’s become a bore,” while the poets of the West Coast “faithfully but belatedly reproduce the ’experiments’ of Europe in the 20s.” He is similarly withering on the subject of literary prizes: “a bad book will win one year when there’s no competition, and a good one will lose the next year when there is.” Ironically, in view of this remark, his Selected Poems was to win the Governor General’s award a year later. Editor Brian Busby is surely correct to observe “this country has not treated Glassco well,” and yet the evidence is here that Buffy was warmly appreciated by a good many of the well-connected, and enjoyed at least a few moments in the sun.

It is puzzling, as Busby also writes, that these letters in particular should have been preserved for publication when Glassco wilfully destroyed (and just as wilfully sold) large bundles of his personal papers. They would, on their own, portray a complicated, enigmatic man; under Busby’s able editorship, they do much more. In addition to supplementing Busby’s biography, A Gentleman of Pleasure (2011) with its subject’s own voice, they also reveal Glassco making the best of the indifferent hand of psychological cards he had been dealt as a child—through subterfuge, misdirection, and fairly transparent imposture. Yet, as Sidney said, “the poet never lieth, for he nothing affirmeth.” These letters testify to Glassco’s ultimate desire to set the record straight: to be known posthumously, as he knew himself, complete and without disguise.

This review “Buffy, Unmuffled” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 133-34.

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