Out of Print)For two years of his life, John Glassco lived a life. The life you and I would give our nuts to be able to enjoy: in Paris --- 1928 - 1930.
He was young, smart, beautiful and adept in French. An encounter the first week with the lithographer Adolf Dehn (whose works, Glassco tells us, were filled with "ecstatic greed, cruelty, and joy") opened the door to his meeting, eating with, drinking with, sometimes sleeping with the hundreds of hungry, smart, opportunistic, charismatic characters who hung out in Montparnasse --- the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, Kay Boyle, e. e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Alan Tate, Marcel Duchamp.The meals. The drinking. The love ... And the literary talk: "Not that I'm wholly against boredom in literature," says Ford Maddox Ford, at a noisy party: "It has its place --- Arnold Bennett and Compton MacKensie have shown us that."
But they're not great bores, my dear fellow. Now Dickens, for instance among his other supreme accomplishments, can be tedious on a really grand scale. He has created at least two of the supreme bores in English literature, Mr. Peggotty and Stephen Blackpool. Like everything of Dickens, their stature is epic, mythological. Besides them, Jean Valjean and Lambert Strether are quite insignificant.
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Reading Memoirs of Montparnasse is like running into a dear, witty old friend, one with whom you spent many a long night, many years ago, over bad red wine and spaghetti, in conversation that raged over the world of ideas and experience, a time that left the two of you ecstatic, exhausted.
And you find him (or her) in a place you least expected, not unlike the way I picked up this book (I had heard of it for years; never found it until now). And you take up just where you left off, going on as you did dozens of years ago, reminiscing about sex and love and wine and music and food, art and literature.
The Parisian life came to John Glassco when he was but eighteen, and he captures us here in exactly the same way Paris came to own him. He can't walk down to Porte Saint-Denis without running into the painter Sidney Schooner who knows of a small bistro, "very dark," with "tarnished mirrors, filled with elderly respectable bottle-faced men, all bent over their plates, many of them wearing infants' bibs to protect their shirts from the juices and sauces."
There, in the café, with Schooner (along with the jealous reader) Glassco stops his musings as all of us would do at such a moment, to consider the treat before us, in this case, snails:
I had never tasted such snails; fat, tender and of marvellous flavour, they were swimming in a sauce of browned butter, parsley and garlic.
He asks Schooner how he ever found such a place: "The thing to watch out for in a restaurant is a head-waiter or a maître d'; as soon as you see one, turn round and walk out. Also, beware of chafing-dishes."
I've found that three good signs are a small menu, darned tablecloths, and an old dog on the premises.
Later, Glassco will go off, stop for a brandy and find one of his new friends and who has recently been thinking about the couplets of Cocteau,
Le nègre, dont brille des dents
Est noir dehors, rose dedans
which immediately puts Glassco in mind of Marvell,
Had he lived longer, he would have been
Lilies without, roses within...
In two years, the writer lives through twenty years worth of food, love, art-talk, parties, meeting the greats ... and prostitution (he works in a male bordello for a while). And walking, always walking, dazed by the glory that is Paris.
Once, destitute, kicked out of his hotel, Glassco has to spend the night out under a bridge. His decision leads him into a riff about history, and bridges, and Parisian bridges: "I tried to remember who had first built the Pont Neuf: Henri III or IV? Anyway, it had taken almost twenty years to finish. And still, with its ten or twelve laborious arches, it was the loveliest bridge in Paris,"
much better than Napoleon's Austerlitz and Iéna bridges, and still better than the Invalides, Alma, and Soloférino ones.
In the midst of his meditation on the bridges of Paris, "a bulky, bearded man entirely in rags, with a canvas wallet slung over his shoulder and carrying a camp-stool," said, "You have taken my place ... This is mine, by right." And the old bag tries to kick him out from under his lovely bridge. Glassco refuses to move.
The author, as we come to know him, has the luck to speak French, grew up with what was apparently a brilliant education in Canada. He has a father who supports him and his artistic ways for the first year in Paris, and, afterwards, charm enough to get whatever he needs whenever he wants it.
He is obviously an excellent drinking companion, a relatively temperate drunk, a connoisseur and an artist, who only manages to lose it twice: once when his lady love takes up with another man (Glassco ends up with a black eye and a terrible hangover); and finally when he meets Gertrude Stein at a party at the house she shares with her brother and Alice B. Toklas. Stein looks at him coldly and says, "Do I know you? No. I suppose you are just one of those silly young men who admire Jane Austen."
Already uncomfortable of 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."
And then, in Chapter 25, there is his meeting with James Joyce, and I am beginning to think that Glassco made all of this up, maybe never set foot outside of Toronto: one day he sat down to write a book, and he thought, "Why don't I make up some memoirs of living in Paris in the late '20s? I'll create stories of meeting Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Henry Moore and James Joyce, put it in believable form, as if it really were my story, and call it Memoirs of Montparnasse. So he does all his research in the University Library there, comes up with an artful fiction of being a young surrealist poet, walking the streets of Paris and falling in love with a nymphomaniac and writing bad poetry and eating wonderful meals, telling people what it is like to be on the top (and then in the dregs) of the City of Light.
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Fiction or no, Glassco's luck runs out at the end of 1929. The last part of this book was composed in a Canadian hospital, where he is to be operated on --- a possibly fatal operation --- for complications of TB. There is a "dreary round of boredom, pain, fear, and sobriety" of the hospital ward, along with grim thoughts of death and depression. His memoirs then become a work-in-progress, a story of a heavenly two years as a wanderer, and then it becomes the tale of one transformed into an invalid, one who is not sure, at all, whether he will live to see his twenty-second birthday. Thus the beauty ,and the woe of it ... made up or no.--- Robert Warfield