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Memoirs of Montparnasse (Classics) - John Glassco ”It was henceforth to be the arena of our love, the scene, in the words of Victor Hugo, of our sublime combats; if I had known the toll they took of my strength and health, I might have made them less sublime. Here I should like to warn all young men against nymphomaniac women: these lovely succubi are still as dangerous as they were thought to be by the medieval clergy, their smiles will lure you to perdition, their loins will fit you for the bone-house within half a year. Drink to excess, stay up all night, walk around hungry, write poetry, smoke, take drugs, indulge in all the varieties of youthful despair, but do not squander your vital forces in the arms of a woman.”

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John Glassco

At age 18 John Glassco became fed up with the strictures of higher education so he abandoned his studies and left for Paris with his friend Graeme Taylor. His father gives him a generous allowance in the beginning to pursue this dream of writing, but his father expected results or more likely expected him to come to his senses and abandon this wild dream of being a writer. John was having a bit too much fun in Europe and as the writing failed to materialize his father started cutting back his allowance. His friend Sidney Schooner (in the book) who is actually the painter and nightclub owner Hiler Hilaire offered him some sage advice.

”In the first place without any money at all you won’t be a free agent. A civilized man must be able to divide his energies between three pursuits--society, art, and sex. This leaves no time for gainful occupation, and such occupation in turn leaves insufficient time for any of the basic activities I have mentioned.”

I would like to be able to embrace Hilaire’s advice, but unfortunately I’ve never been rich enough to be civilized.

This is of course the late 1920s and Paris is full of exciting, talented expats. Glassco has been accused of name dropping throughout this memoir causing some irritations for other reviewers, but I thought the mentioning of those people and the quick sketches of his impression of them made the memoir just that much more worthwhile to read. Sometimes he just brushes up against one of these artistic celebrities and other times they pop up again and again. Gertrude Stein was dismissive of him and some of his description of her may reflect some of his annoyance.

”Gertrude Stein projected a remarkable power, possibly due to the atmosphere of adulation that surrounded her. A rhomboidal woman dressed in a floor-length gown apparently made of some kind of burlap, she gave the impression of absolute irrefragability; her ankles, almost concealed by the hieratic folds of her dress, were like the pillars of a temple: it was impossible to conceive of her lying down. Her fine close-cropped head was in the style of the late Roman Empire, but unfortunately it merged into broad peasant shoulders without the aesthetic assistance of a neck; her eyes were large and much too piercing. I had a peculiar sense of mingled attraction and repulsion towards her. She awakened in me a feeling of instinctive hostility coupled with a grudging veneration, as if she were a pagan idol in whom I was unable to believe.”

Robert McAlmon a handsome homosexual American with a long Barrymore nose took in Glassco and Taylor and let them live with him in Paris. He took them around to all the hot spots and probably enjoyed being seen with two such good looking and interesting young men. He had an irritating quality that probably would have made it almost impossible for me to be around him for very long.

”I was soon to discover that Bob had in fact read absolutely nothing for over twenty years; he formed his critical opinions of books from reviews and personal contacts and his blanket condemnation of almost everything was mainly due to laziness and pique.”

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Graeme Taylor, John Glassco, and Robert McAlmon.

Glassco seems unable to spurn homosexual advances; and yet, has stated that he didn’t particularly enjoy them. There are subtle references to a relationship with McAlmon, but Glassco never overtly states that he is having sex with McAlmon. He does describe several sexual encounters with women including the obsession he forms with a much older American woman named Mrs. Quayle.

She has a lasting impression on him.

She gives him a venereal disease.

He meets Kiki, Queen of Montparnasse, and the woman on the cover of the book I read.

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Kiki by Medjinksy from 1921

”I was unaware of her status as acknowledged queen of the quarter; but there was no mistaking the magnetism of her personality, the charm of her voice, or the eccentric beauty of her face.... her eyelashes were tipped with at least a teaspoonful of mascara, and her mouth, painted a deep scarlet that emphasized the sly erotic humour of its contours, blazed against the plaster-white of her cheeks on which a single beauty spot was placed, with consummate art, just under one eye. Her face was beautiful from every angle, but I liked it best in full profile, when it had the lineal purty of a stuffed salmon. Her quiet husky voice was dripping harmless obscenities; her gestures were few but expressive.”

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One of Man Ray’s photo of Kiki de Montparnasse.

She certainly was not a traditional beauty, but there is no denying the impact she had on men and women. She was the companion of Man Ray for most of the 1920s and he produced hundreds of portraits of her. She also sat for dozens of other artists.

McAlmon introduces him to James Joyce.

”He was almost as distinguished looking as in his posed portraits; but the thin twisted mouth was now little more than a slit, the bibulous noes was pitted with holes like a piece of red-coloured cork, and the little goatee looked affected and out of place; his eyes were almost invisible behind thick glasses. Of the sarcastic bounderish air of the snapshots there was not a trace; he was reserved, charming, gracious, and his voice was music.”

Glassco paints many more incisive literary portraits of those now famous men and women of The Lost Generation. We see him buffeted around by a lack of funds inspiring sometimes a quick change in lodging. He at one point is so desperate he takes a job working for Kay Boyle, but soon finds, like a lot of his experiences in Paris, that funds are easily promised, but hard to actually obtain. His days of freedom end when he comes down with Tuberculosis and has to return home. He loses a lung, but lives to a reasonable age of 71.

Glassco does publish early chapters of his memoirs while living in Paris, but then the manuscript languished until the 1960s when he begins to work on it in earnest once more. It was not published as a complete book until 1970. If you love Paris or have a fondness as I do for The Lost Generation you will enjoy this quest by this youngster to live as a “civilized man”.