Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Paris Memoirs: John Glassco

Seeing Midnight in Paris got me reading memoirs of the Lost Generation, the American writers who settled in Paris in the 1920s. I started with John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970).

Here's the cravat-wearing 'Buffy' Glassco, holding a martini. What an image of an aesthete! What a splendid author shot!

Glassco, a Canadian poet, was just eighteen when he arrived in Paris in 1928. He got to meet all the leading writers there, including James Joyce. More than thirty years later, he wrote this book, which he pretended he'd written at the time. Glassco was something of a trickster, and the book is partly fiction.

As a picture of bohemia, it reminded me of Julian McLaren-Ross's Memoirs of the Forties and Daniel Farsen's Soho in the Fifties. As an imaginative recreation of a writer's youth, it's as good as Patrick Leigh-Fermor's A Time of Gifts. Like Leigh-Fermor, Glassco makes his teenage self more erudite and sophisticated than he could possibly have been.

The result is a great book about being young, carefree and promiscuous, in what was then the world's most exciting city. Glassco, who also wrote pornographic novels, has lots of sexual encounters, with men and women. In the lesbian Gypsy Bar ('a little foul smelling boite on the boulevard Edgar Quinet'), he meets 'Daphne Berners' (Gwen Le Galienne) and 'Angela Martin' (Yvette Ledoux), who take him back to their studio, where they play records and make love.

Our amours, which were rather outré, were accompanied by an astonishing variety of music, from the happy melodies of Offenbach to the nasal breathy voice of Rudy Vallee and the silver snarling trumpet of Purcell. We all fell asleep soon after midnight, with the stove glowing softly and the stained moonllght silvering the high wall of the garden outside.

Robert McAlmon, Glassco and Graeme Taylor
In the Coupole, Glassco and his best friend, Graeme Taylor, are picked up by the charismatic bisexual writer, Robert McAlmon. Then Ernest Hemingway arrives.

A burly, moonfaced man, dressed in baggy tweeds and with his necktie clewed by a gold pin...came noisily into the bar and greeted our table with a loud, 'Well, Bob, up to your old tricks again?'
  McAlmon's sallow face turned pink. 'If it isn't Ernest, the fabulous phony! How are the bulls?'
 'And how is North America McAlmon, the unfinished Poem?' He leaned over and pummelled McAlmon in the ribs, grinning and blowing beery breath over the table....
  'It's only Hemingway,' said Bob loudly to both of us. 'Pay no attention and he may go away.'
 .... I found (Hemingway) almost as unattractive as his short stories – those studies in tight-lipped emotionalism and volcanic sentimentality that, with their absurd plots and dialogue, give me the effect of a gutless Prometheus who has tied himself up with string. 

Glassco is equally unimpressed by Gertrude Stein, whom he encounters while gatecrashing her party

Gertrude Stein projected a remarkable power, possibly due to the atmosphere of adulation that surrounded her. A rhomboidal woman dressed in a floor-length gown apparently made of some kind of burlap, she gave the impression of absolute irrefragability; her ankles, almost concealed by the hieratic folds of her dress, were like the pillars of a temple: it was impossible to conceive of her lying down.

At Stein's party, Glassco gets into a lively discussion about Jane Austen. 

I was suddenly aware that our hostess had advanced and was looking at me with piercing eyes.
 'Do I know you?' she said. 'No. I suppose you are just one of those silly young men who admire Jane Austen.'
 .... Already uncomfortable at being an uninvited guest, I found the calculated insolence of her tone intolerable and lost my temper.
  'Yes I am,' I said. 'And I suppose you are just one of those silly old women who don't.'
  The fat Buddha-like face did not move. Miss Stein merely turned, like a gun revolving on its turret, and moved imperturbably away.
McAlmon and Glassco in Nice
In another scene, McAlmon, Joyce's closest friend in Paris, takes Glassco to visit him:

One day he suggested we go and see James Joyce. 'He's all alone and there's some kind of eye operation coming up, so the old Irish tenor's not feeling his oats. He said to bring along anyone I wanted. But don't talk about his work; we'll just get a little stinko together. Now's the time, when Nora's not there....And whatever you do, don't ask him what he's going to call his Work in Progress. He has a bee in his bonnet that he'll never finish it if he tells anyone what it's called.'
  'I can't make head or tail of it anyway.'
 'Good, tell him that if you get a chance. He'll like it.' 
 'What do you think of it yourself?'
 'If he thinks it's good, it's good enough for me.' 

Here's Glassco's first sight of the great man:

He was almost as distinguished looking as in his posed portraits; but the thin twisted mouth was now little more than a slit, the bibulous nose was pitted with holes like a piece of red-coloured cork, and the little goatee looked affected and out of place; his eyes were almost invisible behind thick glasses.... he was reserved, charming, gracious, and his voice was music. He had a good figure for clothes but was wearing a very badly cut suit.  
  The chilled wine was a coarse Niersteiner – light, dry and aromatic. Joyce sipped it with gormandise.
  'I'm getting on well with the oeuvre grandissime,' he said. 'You'll be seeing another piece of it in Mr Jolas's little magazine soon. Tell me now, McAlmon, do you still like it?'
  Bob jerked himself around in his chair. 'It's great, sir, simply great. It has got a wonderful flowing quality of Molly Bloom's thoughts, only it's got more variety. In a few years nobody'll be able to write a book in English any more, the words will be out of date.'
 Joyce shrugged deprecatingly. 'Oh no.'

A wide ranging conversation follows, covering puns, schoolteachers, nuns, the English novelist Richardson (described by Joyce as 'a remorselessly cruel spider') and Madame Bovary.  
As we went home I told Bob I had never thought of Joyce as an original critic.
 'Oh the old Irish tenor's got sides to him that don't show in his writing,' he said. 'Too bad he's gone off the deep end with language.'   

I loved this book so much that I bought several more copies to give to friends and family.


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