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Review: Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco


Pages: 236
Original date of publication: 1970
My edition: 2007 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox bookstore, Philadelphia, February 2012

In 1928, a young Canadian named John Glassco set out for Paris with his best friend. The two set out to explore all that the city had to offer: the cafes, bars, and brasseries that the Americans of the Lost Generation would have been familiar with as well. Glassco set out to have a literary career and along the way rubbed shoulders with some of the greats (at one point in this memoir a man walks into a bar and someone calls him “Ernie;” it took me a while to realize that yes, it was that Ernie).

Glassco wrote this memoir as truth, although it’s not completely factual. For example, Kay Boyle and Djuna Barnes, both important figures of the literary expatriates of Paris at the time, receive new names; and there is a certain sense of scintillism to Glassco’s account—probably because the author was so young. Glassco manages to drop names like bricks (at one point in this memoir a man walks into a bar and someone calls him “Ernie;” it took me a while to realize that yes, it was that Ernie).and brag shamelessly (especially about insulting Gertrude Stein to her face and getting kicked out of one of her parties, but I thought that was actually quite funny. His description of her: "a rhomboidal woman dressed in a floor-length gown apparently made of some kind of burlap, she gave the impression of absolute irrefragability… it was impossible to conceive of her lying down”).

Again, though, the tone of the book was probably a result of being so young at the time the memoir took place and was written (18-22). Glassco ran out of money along the way and certainly ruined his health, but he enjoyed every moment of his stay—despite, among other things, being treated for VD and repeated letter to Come Home from his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer. He describes his lifestyle with ease: encounters with prostitutes, affairs with famous writers, work as a pornographer’s model, and homosexual encounters are all detailed. Throughout the book, Glassco is carefree and hedonistic; unconcerned with responsibility; he flits through the landscape of literary 1920s Paris without a care. His story is entertaining, but not wholly believable.



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