Sunday, 1 May 2011

Et Tu, Philip?

There are few critics I would trust more to give me the goods on a subject than Philip Marchand. But after reading his recent piece on A Gentleman of Pleasure, I’m struck, once again, by the sight of intelligent reviewer writing off a career he clearly knows nothing about outside of the biography he’s reviewing (the last person guilty of this was Stephen Henighan).

Marchand seems to have enjoyed Busby’s biography (as he should have: it's exemplary), but expresses some ambivalence about the man under the microscope. “Critical evaluation of this literary career,” he says of Glassco, “is difficult.” And it’s true: it is difficult to do justice to such multi-genre career. As a writer, Glassco was a quick study, adept at many forms and many voices. Part of Busby’s challenge is to reintroduce Glassco to a generation who likely remember him only from the memoir or, as Marchard hinself can’t help dwelling on, his sometime-louche lifestyle (threesomes!) and creative interests (pornography!). But Marchand’s attempt to tie Glassco to Robert McAlmon—as an example of another writer who “failed to develop” and ended up “a footnote to literary history”—is ludicrous. It proves that Marchand is taking his cues entirely from conventional wisdom and not the work itself.

Like McAlmon, Glassco was member of the expatriate circle in Paris, and like him he wrote in a variety of genres. But that’s where the similarities end. McAlmon broke no new ground with any of his literary ventures. His short stories and poetry are all period pieces, pungently florid documents of their time—and forgettable even then. Glassco was a paradigm-shifter. His anthology The Poetry of French Canada in Translation was the first of its kind, introducing readers to a vast swath of a then-unread body of work. It is still unmatched. His searing versions of Saint-Denys-Garneau's poetry and prose are mind-blowingly good: there is probably no better, or more definitive, translation of a Francophone poet anywhere in English-speaking world. Memoirs of Montparnasse can also be said to have sparked the first fake-memoir controversy (as such, he is a direct ancestor to James Frey). McAlmon also wrote a book about his time in Paris, but in terms of style, vividness and memorability it barely holds a candle to Glassco’s.

In short, Glassco is neglected today because he is at the mercy of a deteriorating taste for elegance and subtlety. McAlmon is neglected because he wrote boring books.

And I haven’t even mentioned the poetry. If all we had from Glassco was his memoir, translations and erotica, Marchand would have a case for applying the “petit-maître” moniker to his career. But someone responsible for writing obsessed, haunting poems like “Gentleman’s Farm” and “The Entailed Farm” (among others) deserves a lot more respect. Glassco’s best poetry is as good as anything by Scott, Gustafson or Smith. But this is precisely the dilemma of the literary dandy. Play the role too well, and it threatens to become the whole show. It might be hard to believe that Glassco was one of our finest poets—but believe it.

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