Memoirs of Montparnasse

Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970) by John Glassco is a chronicle (see Autobiographical Writing in English) of the poet and translator's adventures as a young expatriate in 1920s and 1930s Paris.

Memoirs of Montparnasse (1970) by John Glassco is a chronicle (see Autobiographical Writing in English) of the poet and translator's adventures as a young expatriate in 1920s and 1930s Paris. Glassco, born into a prominent Montréal family and feeling intellectually stifled, cast off a promising future in the city's establishment for a life in letters. Seeking a less repressive atmosphere, in February 1928, at age 18, he left for Paris with companion Graeme Taylor. The two quickly established themselves as fringe members of the literary avant-garde. Candidly declaring himself a hedonist, "sunk in greed, sloth and sensuality," Glassco writes confidently and with sophistication in documenting his experiences, essentially composed of dazzling all-night parties, romantic trysts, shady employment and daring escapades. His memorable, if somewhat unreliable, impressions of encounters with Morley Callaghan, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle provide a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished era. Glassco's time in France ended abruptly in the autumn of 1931 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He returned to Montreal, where he spent much of the next three years at Royal Victoria Hospital under the treatment of Edward William Archibald.

Though Glassco writes in his Prefatory Note that Memoirs of Montparnasse was composed between 1928 and 1933, it was in fact written more than three decades later, in part as a response to an unflattering portrait in Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris (1963). While Glassco made no attempt to hide the fact from friends, and the memoir contains clues that things aren't quite as claimed, it wasn't until after his death in 1981 that the truth of its composition came to light. With the revelation has come a reappraisal; what was once described by literary critic Malcolm Cowley as "fresher and truer to the moment" than any other memoir of expatriate Paris has come to be seen as the vivid recollections of a wiser and older man. They are tinged with the writer's melancholic recognition of the end of his youth.

The best selling of Glassco's non-pornographic works, Memoirs of Montparnasse has enjoyed several editions, the most important being one heavily annotated by his friend Michael Gnarowski (Toronto, 1995). The memoir has been translated into German, Spanish and Japanese, and holds the distinction of being the only English Canadian book to have received two French translations.


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