“The art which embraces the whole of life, reproduces its rhythms, constructs grand syntheses and passes Promethean judgments, all that simply bores me... I have never asked anything of literature but materials for another world which I can assemble myself, “—from The Black Helmet by John Glassco
On an afternoon when seemingly all of Quebec’s Eastern Townships were lying shrouded and primordial under the kind of rain best left to literature, John Glassco poured a beer. Hearing about the beer several days later, Jim Polk, a friend of Glassco’s and an editor at Toronto’s House of Anansi Press, moaned: “God no, he’s becoming Canadian.” Although certainly one of
the unlikeliest ones, Glassco is Canadian, but for Polk he always belongs elsewhere: on a beach at Cannes, no later than 1901, an ice-cream-suited legend with a silk cravat, drawing cigarettes from a silver case and dazzling his companions with conversation while sipping, if not a martini, at least white wine.
But on that rainy day in the village of Foster, where Glassco assembles his world, beer seemed somehow better suited to the subject of the moment: a book he had just translated in which a hunter, in the backwoods of Quebec, has a relationship with nature that is permeated with sexual sensitivity and tension. The book is Jean-Yves Soucy’s Creatures of the Chase (published recently by McClelland and Stewart), and the sexual images are pure Glassco. Soucy calls nature an “all-powerful mistress,” and although Glassco himself would look as out of place in the backwoods of Quebec as a Ming vase in a flea market, his own fiction has tenaciously hunted the same mistress. For Glassco, the pursuit of this goddess has drifted, always with elegance and often with melancholy, through a sea of erotic obsessions, fears and nightmares for most of his 70 years. “I’ve always had them,” he says. “The fear of women, the fear of poverty and, of course, the fear of death.”
However, Glassco, once described as the last of the literary dandies, has pursued them, as he has his life, in a way that suggests that purely for his own pleasure he’s out to create his very own, one-man, un-Canadian belle époque, an époque paradoxically untethered by time. (“He’s an esthete of the 1890s living in Canada in the 1970s,” says Louis Dudek, a poet, critic and professor of English at McGill University.) Over the years, piece by piece, Glassco has added the elements: belletrist, memoirist, essayist, editor, translator, poet and pornographer. He’s now working on a full-length novel because “that’s one of the few disciplines I haven’t undertaken.”
The result has been a body of work so diverse and sometimes perverse that CanLit doesn’t quite have a shelf for it. “He’s our only eccentric,” says John Robert Colombo, poet, anthologist and collector of anything quotable. “He’s honored as an artist, but he’s an unread artist, and one of the problems is that he’s lived in Canada. A literary tradition that doesn’t recognize him and find a readership for him isn’t much of a tradition in my eyes.”
It was partly in search of a finer liter-
ary tradition and the remnants of a belle époque that Glassco went to Paris at the age of 18 and began writing his masterpiece, Memoirs of Montparnasse. Although he won the Governor-General’s Award for his Selected Poems in 1971, Memoirs is the work that will enshrine him, says Colombo. “It’s one of the two books that never got the award and should have. The other was The Stone Angel [by Margaret Laurence]. It was just regarded as a crying shame that he didn’t receive it.”
Next spring, with an expected budget of $2 to $4 million, Seagull-Persephone Productions of Montreal hopes to begin filming Glassco’s novelistic account of the three years he spent in Paris with what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation. Although he had barely started shaving when he reached Paris in 1928, he began writing the memoirs almost immediately. And perhaps because of that, Leon Edel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Henry James and author of Bloomsbury: A House of Lions, calls Memoirs of Montparnasse the most vivid and immediate of the many accounts of that “beautiful fool’s paradise” which ended with the Depression.
For Glassco it was three hedonistic years spent in decadent defiance of a sadistic father who thought him a fool for wanting to be a writer. Besides encounters with Stein (whom he refused to pay obeisance to and was consequently ordered to leave one of her parties), James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan (who satirized Glassco and his friend Graeme Taylor in his short story Now That April's Here), Glassco filled his days with endless drinking, an almost masochistic affair with an American nymphomaniac, employment as a sophisticated stud in a male brothel for bored and wealthy women, as a model for pornographic postcards and as a live-in secretary, typing the doubtful memoirs of a mad English heiress who wanted to be known by the world as Her Highness the Dayang Muda of Sarawak. He finished the book in a Montreal hospital in 1933 where he nearly died of tuberculosis, but it was not published until 1970.
After leaving hospital, Glassco settled in a large house in the Eastern Townships (near where he now lives) with Graeme Taylor and a beautiful young woman who had answered their advertisement for a housekeeper. Although Taylor eventually married her, “the locals called us the Dirty Hermits,” Glassco once told Maclean's.
None of Glassco’s protagonists ever holds a job, and like them, Glassco has never considered himself cut out for
one, despite his fear of poverty. In the ’30s he set about mastering the stock market, using a small inheritance from his grandparents. “I hated it but now I’m all fixed up,” he says. Except for several years as a rural postman and a term as mayor of Foster, Glassco has confined himself to writing.
While up to his cravat in reports from investment counselling services, he decided to write books utterly divorced from reality, where nothing happened, much in the style of the “so-called French Decadents.” The result was three novellas written over a period of 30 years and published in 1974 under the title The Fatal Woman to favorable reviews.
Like Memoirs of Montparnasse, the novellas (The Black Helmet, The Fulfilled Destiny of Electra and the satirical Lust in Action) had been all but forgotten about by Glassco, but for a different reason: Canada wasn’t ready for them. Says Jim Polk, his editor at House of Anansi: “He had sent two of them around to editors years before and they were shocked . . . appalled. They were saying, Tn Canada we do not do these things—or even think these things.’ ” Polk adds: “They’re not obscene at all.”
Glassco describes these reworkings of classical myths as long erotic reveries in which he tries (and fails, he says) to unravel an obsession that began to take form at the age of 5 or 6: the idea of woman as cruel goddess, to be worshipped; in short, the “fatal woman” of the title. “I believed the mysteries were all contained in her, but all I see now is the obsession, the fascination with a woman who was neither a goddess nor particularly fascinating.”
In 1960 under the pseudonym Miles Underwood, Glassco wrote a book called The English Governess, which in pirated versions has been published in several languages. Written in mock Victorian prose, it was his “first exercise in the field of aphrodisiac romance” and he says no work has given him more pleasure to write. Chapter after chapter, a beautiful governess spanks, straps, canes, flogs and humiliates her young charge before eventually marrying him. When The English Governess finally appeared in Canada in 1976 (under the title Harriet Marwood, Governess and under Glassco’s own name), Robert Fulford, editor of Saturday Night, wrote that while he thought the book was awful, “It’s delightful to think of one of our distinguished elder poets writing S&M porn...”
However there’s more to the idea of a cruel and merciless goddess than simply a vehicle for S&M porn. Glassco’s
known it all along despite Canadian publishers, and it now seems that he was well ahead of his time, or at least Canadian time. Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail in a weekly column called “Between the Sexes,” M. T. Kelly, author of I Do Remember the Fall, said: “The obsession, or quirk, Glassco talks about seems to be increasing by leaps and bounds; in fact one wonders if it isn’t galloping out of control.” At its root, Kelly suspects, is a desire for
unity, for oneness with another creature that all too often seems foreign and strange. “The perspective Glassco takes has nothing to do with real cruelty, on either side.”
Glassco’s pornographic work has been at times as wide-ranging and scholarly as it has been erotic. It includes the completing of Aubrey Beardsley’s novel Under the Hill, a translation from the original German of Leopold von Sacher-Mosoch’s Venus in Furs and his own Fetish Girl (written under the name Sylvia Bayer). His pornography is not at all of the “outhouse school of mishmash,” says poet Frank Scott. “It’s as well written as his poetry and he’s an excellent poet. He’s a classicist in everything he does.”
As a poet, Glassco—with his typical disregard for time and fashion —long ago turned his back on the surrealism he had experimented with during the Paris years. He turned back to the certainties of “Wordsworth’s emotions and technique. To me he’s the greatest English poet since Shakespeare.”
His poetry, which later came under
the heavy influence of W. H. Auden, isn’t written “in the most advanced style,” says Frank Scott, “but it has a lasting quality and I think it will be read for a very long time.” Glassco’s verse includes A Point of Sky and The Deficit Made Flesh, the two volumes from which his award-winning Selected Poems were drawn, and the 689-line epic Montreal. “It’s almost all entirely lyrical,” says Glassco, before adding with a laugh, “and gloomy.”
It was Scott, a respected translator himself, who encouraged Glassco to start translating poetry as well as writing it. Glassco began in 1962 with The Journal of Quebec poet Saint-Denys-Garneau, followed by The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, published in 1970, a project that took him five years.
It was a work that Glassco buried himself in following the death of his first wife, Elma, a former ballerina and daughter of an Estonian baron. “I didn’t do a great deal,” he says of the seven years in which he watched her go mad and eventually die in a mental hospital. “Perhaps it was her madness that drew me to her.”
At one point on that rainy day in Foster, Glassco said the fatal woman no longer obsessed him; it “passed quietly” shortly after Elma’s death. Later, however, after explaining that the novel he’s writing is, like much of his work, about the absolute power of one person over another, he smiled and reopened the door to his muse. “Of course it still comes back occasionally. When you see that kind of woman on the street you can’t help but say, wouldn’t she make a marvelous sort of goddess.”
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