Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco

Life’s been a whirlwind lately and in addition to catching up on sleep, I’ve been trying to catch up on some reading. A few months ago I passed a table with a “for free” sign, a stack of science textbooks and Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. Of course I snatched up the memoirs and left the textbooks behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t read Glassco’s work right away as I was bogged down by schoolwork but, having wrapped up the semester on Friday, I ended up taking yesterday’s rainy day to curl up in bed and read, or, rather, devour Glassco’s memoirs.

They were exactly what I’d been missing in life as of late and they examined many of the topics I’ve been contemplating over the past few months, namely hedonism, chaotic youth and the extent to which we rely on fiction to portray “the truth.”

Memoirs of Montparnasse epitomizes the 1920’s and the Parisian literary scene. Glassco is, of course, his own main character, and I say “character” because even Glassco admits to straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. While the book is a collection of memoirs, three quarters of the work was produced some thirty years later. In fact, before it was published Glassco admitted to his friend Kay Boyle that: “It has the form of fiction- i.e. with lots of dialogue, speed, rearranged and telescoped action; never a dull moment- and is more a montage of those days than a literal truth.”

The book begins with eighteen-year-old Glassco in Montreal. It is clear from the offset that Glassco is set on pursuing a literary career despite his father’s lack of support, thus he and his friend Graeme Taylor set off to Paris to become writers.

Nowadays, the 1920’s are highly romanticized. Of course we read books like The Great Gatsby or watch movies like Midnight in Paris and are exposed to an era seemingly defined by partying, an abundance of tightly knit literary figures and beautiful women. In essence, we are exposed to excess. The argument most commonly raised in regards to why the 20’s were so “fun” is because the decade was preceded by World War I and followed by the Great Depression. This is frequently touched on by Glassco, who often comments on the impacts of the Depression and the number of expats living in Paris during the 20’s.

What struck me, however, was the way in which Glassco himself romanticized the era, the city, its writers, the women, the food etc… This led me to ask myself: how are the writer’s preconceptions reflected in the writing? To what degree can I trust this work? This, of course, is a question we are most likely to ask ourselves when reading a work of non-fiction. When I started university, I began by enrolling in creative non-fiction workshops and initially believed that I wanted to portray “the truth and only the truth.” Said every young writer ever? Perhaps. Nowadays I am beginning to gravitate towards an acceptance of more “representative truths”- perhaps less adherent to specific events or dates but work that nevertheless offers a truthful rendering of some identifiable human experience.

Meanwhile, Glassco’s experiences are certainly identifiable. They come off as almost cliché: rebellious youth set off to Paris wherein they meet a myriad of literary figures, drink too much, attend parties, are introduced to the world of prostitution and pornography, write the occasional chapter whilst hungover, gorge on food and smoke too many cigarettes. This brings me to question something I’ve been thinking about over the past few days… Hedonism.

Halfway through the book Glassco writes that: “the important thing in life was to have a good time.” This thought is then interrupted by a section of italicized writing (Glassco is awaiting a critical surgery and writing his memoirs in the hospital- he occasionally interrupts the memoirs with commentaries from his older, wiser self.) He goes on to write: “it is hard to say now whether I regret this reiterated choice whole-heartedly. Considering where it has led me- to the breakdown of my health, the failure of my hopes, the frightening prospect of an early death [….] and all I can promise myself at the moment is to be a little more careful in exploiting the resources of pleasure in the future…”

To me, “exploit” is the key word. To enjoy life is important, but then again it depends on the lens through which one views life, how wide it is, how much is captured. I personally spend a great deal of time considering the future and feel I can learn from Glassco’s sense of careless abandon… but this only goes so far, as he’s made clear in his later ruminations. Thus, the study of hedonism is perhaps most fascinating when the subject’s thoughts are contrasted. To compare those self-indulgent years with years to follow offers a depiction of hedonistic behaviour with its ensuing consequences.

Overall Memoirs of Montparnasse was a pleasure to read and I plan on seeking out more of John Glassco’s work in the future. I would certainly recommend this book, though the subject matter may appeal to a somewhat narrower audience than those following Heather’s Picks. As Michael Ondaatje writes: “Memoirs of Montparnasse is one of the most joyous books on youth- the thrill and the gall and the adventure of it. It is also one of the best books on being literary in Paris in the 1920’s.”

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