Monday, April 4, 2011

The Greatest Literary Hoaxster You've Never Heard Of

by Stephen J. Gertz

He was, by his own admission, “an accomplished liar” and a “great practitioner of deceit.” His (now very rare book in first edition) Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970) is considered by many to be the most accurate image of Lost Generation Paris ever written yet it is, to a large degree, a memoir of convenience, the chronicle of a young Canadian ex-pat's life in Paris in the late 1920s - early 1930s as he wished it to be, with an keen eye toward writing a best-seller and settling a few old scores. It was  one of a handful of  autobiographical works he composed, each an exercise in apocrypha. 

It's no accident that the new, one and only, must-read biography of the man is subtitled "One Life of..." rather than "The Life of..." Acclaimed Canadian poet, memoirist and translator John Glassco (1909-1981) never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Later edition.

Glassco was born into generous circumstances in Montreal, and, while never wealthy, was fortunate to enjoy a comfortable income from a family inheritance. His early years in Paris were recalled in Morley Callaghan’s memoir, That Summer in Paris and in Robert McAlmon’s The Nightenghouls of Paris. He began his career as a literary hoaxster in Paris, in 1928, when, with Kay Boyle (with whom he had a brief affair), he ghostwrote Relations and Complications (1929), the memoir of Gladys Palmer Brooke, the Dayang Muda of Sarawak.  (Yes, Virginia, there once was a Dayang Muda of Sarawak, to ne'er be confused with Jack Kerouac). The Dyang Muda’s memories were, apparently, so startlingly memorable that she, according to Boyle, was stunned to complete silence leaving Glassco and Boyle to pretty much make the whole thing up.

When your father subjects you to corporal punishment with a little too much gusto and afterward affection and your mother is sexually aroused by your pre-pubescent cries and screams it’s well nigh all but a certainty that erotic flagellation will become a deep-seated fetish that will haunt and inform your personal and professional life. It will lead you to write the most popular sado-masochistic porn novel ever written in English, an instant classic upon publication - anonymously in one edition, under a pseudonym in another - a book that, Glassco true to form, is actually two different books, variants of the same story with the same characters - and both books, in their first few chapters, his near word for word translation of a French flagellation novel from 1913!

The English Governess by Miles Underwood
Pirated edition.
Originally published Paris: Ophelia Press (Olympia Press), 1960.
A rewritten and abbreviated version of...
Harriet Marwood, Governess by Anonymous.
First edition, New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Originally written in 1954 as A Firm Hand.

He had a gift for stylistic mimicry, which came in handy when he decided to  complete, and seamlessly so, Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished work of erotica Under the Hill (aka Venus and Tannhauser). His   pornographic poem, Squire Hardman (which he mischievously ascribed to George Colman the Younger, a once popular British dramatist and writer of the late eighteenth- early nineteenth centuries), and Victorian porn  were composed in pitch-perfect period English meant to deceive the reader into believing them to be genuine eighteenth and nineteenth century works.

Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley & John Glassco.
First edition, Paris, Olympia Press, 1959.
First American edition.
New York: Grove Press, 1959.

So, too, with a seventeenth century pederastic Japanese novel by Ihara Saikaku,  translated by Hideki Okada, with an Introduction by Glassco. Temple of Pederasty was, actually, written  by Glassco in his “erotic collage” method: take a book, in this case, Quaint Stories of the Samurais, a 1928 translation, issued by Glassco’s friend and fellow ex-pat in Paris, Contact Press publisher Robert McAlmon, of a Japanese book from 1687 titled Nanshoku Okagami, and enhance, enlarge, and engorge  it with sex.

The Temple of Pederasty by Ihara Saikaku.
Translated by Hideki Okada. Introduction by John Glassco.
First edition. North Hollywood: Hanover House, 1970.

Let us not forget the now exceedingly scarce in its first edition (it took me five years to find a copy) Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer, Glassco's paean to male submission, female domination, and black latex-wear that "Sylvia Bayer" kindly, with tongue in cheek (or someplace else), dedicated "To John Glassco."

Fetish Girl by Sylvia Bayer.
First edition. New York: Venus Library, 1972.

Just now released, A Gentleman of Pleasure is the long-awaited biography of Glassco, one of the most fascinating characters of twentieth century literature in English yet one, for the most part, completely unknown. That should change with this thoroughly researched, engaging, and elegantly written book. Author Brian Busby, who has edited several literary anthologies, and is author of Character Parts: Who’s Really Who in Canadian Literature (2003) untangles the complex life and many literary deceptions of Glassco, whose  career as a writer tentatively began in the 1920s and continued with fits, false starts, and time off for bouts of tuberculosis and gentleman farming until, finally, in his 50s, the late bloomer began to blossom.

By the 1960s his poetry - ultimately in four volumes,  The Deficit Made Flesh (1958); A Point of Sky (1964); Selected Poems (1971); and Montreal (1973) - edited anthologies of Canadian poetry, and translations of French Québécois verse into English found their place in the first rank of modern Canadian literature, and Glassco was elevated to the artistic status he so long desired and deserved. Overtly, he was a highly respected Canadian man of letters. Covertly, he was a master of the literary hoax, thoroughly enjoying his deceptions. He moved from one world to the other and back again with the graceful ease of a shapeshifter to the manor born.

After reading the book it's easy to like the man; it may, also, be easy to dislike him. Masochists can be  very demanding. But  it is simply impossible, I think, not to be in sympathy with John Glassco.

And so “we end, in other words, by loving him as much for what he really was as for what he tells us he was, and discover that the two characters complement each other and make an intelligible whole. In this way we grasp the truth that a man is not only a living creature but the person of his own creation” (John Glassco on Giacomo Casanova, in Memoirs of Montparnasse, as cited on the bio's quotation leaf).

Glassco in 1976, shortly after his 66th birthday.

"Black-leather dandy, and elegant, martini-sipping beat, John Glassco was a one-man, literary underground. Impeccable in style and provocative in intent, his pornography is poetic, his poetry is arty, but all his writing has the precision and grace of beautiful lies. Yet, his genius has gone too long unheralded and unsung in his native land. Bravo to Brian Busby, then, whose exhaustively researched, exquisitely written, and endlessly interesting biography reveals Glassco's vivid complexity, intricate deceptions, and the convoluted genesis of his deathless triumphs in memoir, translation, lyric, and, yes, his odes to the joys of womanly sadism and boyish masochism. Busby gives us a detailed portrait of a grand bon vivant and a singular intellectual, who was likely English Canada's most gifted, truly radical writer" (George Elliott Clarke).
BUSBY, Brian. A Gentleman of Pleasure. One Life of John Glassco. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011. Tall octavo. Hardcover. 398 pp.

Booktryst readers may recall an earlier post of ours, Our Man in the Attic, concerning Mr. Busby.

Take a look at Brian Busby's The Dusty Bookcase, his blog devoted to Canadian literature, high and low, and his new blog devoted to Glassco.

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