I'm always pleased when a book that catches my eye in the stacks turns out to be not quite so "lost" after all. I had not hard of John Glassco before, but when my eye ran over the spine of this particular book and caught Memoirs of Montparnasse my curiosity was piqued and off the shelf came the book. It was originally published in 1970 by Oxford University Press and then reissued by NYRB Classics in 2007.
Glassco, or Buffy as he was known by his friends, was born in Montreal and was a poet who dropped out of McGill University in 1927 and did what every other self-respecting writer of that era seemed to do--he went to Paris. I suspect his memoir can easily be added to the shelf of famous literary exiles who wrote about that milieu--Sylvia Beach, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, Edmund White, et al.
The book garnered a favorable review in the NYT in November of 1970. It sounds as though Glassco met everyone worth meeting from Gertrude Stein to Ford Maddox Ford. He was unimpressed by Hemingway and thought Stein was pretentious. He worked with Kay Boyle on a set of memoirs of the Dayang Muda (it's amazing the things you pick up reading stray NYT reviews). I think Glassco's Memoirs might fit the category of literary nonfiction quite nicely, since it's not your conventional straightforward memoir (but then again, don't you think most memoirs must make use of creative devices? how many people remember conversations years and years after they occurred anyway?).
"It is quite possible that all the people John Glassco met and listened to actually didn't say everything he attributes to them with quite the same bright, polished assurance. But when he set down his memoirs, he was capable of such amusing flights of repartee, and that is all that matters now. For this is a delightful, on-the-spot report of the says when it was still possible to be very young, very hip and very happy all at the same time." (NYT 1970)
Glassco was only about seventeen when he went off to Paris. He wrote the first few chapters of his memoirs in 1928 and the rest in 1932-33 after he had returned to Montreal and was awaiting a "crucial" operation. It wasn't published until much later and with few revisions according to Glassco's preface.
". . . in spite of a temptation to suppress or at least soften many passages that expose the youthful memoirist in all his flippancy, hedonism and conceit. And after all, why change any of this? The young man is no longer myself: I hardly recognize him, even from his photographs and handwriting, and in my memory he is less like someone I have been than a character in a novel I have read."
I've had a good run of memoirs of late, each with its own slant, and this would make a nice companion to the rest of the books on my pile. I could even count it as one of my Canadian Reading Challenge books. I think I'll be leaving this one in the 'want to read pile' for a while and see if it floats up to the top before it's due back at the library.
"Considering the cultural changes of the last five decades, this precocious, witty, document from a long-vanished younger generation has both the freshness and remoteness of some ornate space ship found intact in a forgotten tomb." (NYT 1970)
I wonder if another forty years on it still holds up to the same scrutiny?