Sunday, January 02, 2011

Is John Glassco James Frey?

Remember John Glassco, that young snit who was lecturing us the other day about how we'd all be better off if we just passed our time in "greed, sloth and sensuality?"  Kind of stuff you expect from an 18-year-old, particularly one who is disporting himself round Paris and the Riviera with regular monthly checks from papa back home.

The quote came from his Memoirs of Montparnasse, apparently the only memorable residue of a literary life.  He crafted it in his 50s as the product of his teens and twenties.

But here's the thing: per Louis Menand (in his introduction to the NYRB edition) that "contemporaneous composition" stuff is all a pack of lies.  Well--the first chapter, says Menand, does appear to have been based on a piece he wrote in the 20s, but the rest goes to the mid-60s [Menand cites an account by Michael Gnaroweski, who wrote an intro to the earlier edition of the book, unavailable to me*].

Which inevitably raises the question: does disclosure of Glassco's "fib" (Menand's word) put him in a class with James (A Million Little Pieces) Frey, whose "fib" about his alleged druggy past put him crosswise with his publisher and, perhaps worse, earned an anathema from Oprah.

Oh, perhaps not.  Glassco does seem to have been in Paris on the occcasion describes.  And I suspect the chances are the he believed he was trying to recapture the reality that he remembered.  But the tang of mendacity persists.

Granted, Glassco does write with great brio.  And he can construct an anecdote--well enough, indeed, in itself to make one suspicious of his authenticity (some of the best parts of the book read an awful lot like Victorian soft porn).  One remembers Saint-Simon, of whom it is said, the lower sinks his reputation as an historian, the more we have to admire his talents as a literary artist.  [A qualification: Mrs. Buce, not previously tipped off, did see through the fraud when she encountered the "18-year-old" Glassco's pretensions to almost unlimited literary knowledge.  This, she asked in rhetorical perplexity, is a guy three years older than the oldest grandson?  The grandson is a great kid, but she had it nailed: a literary scholar he is not.]

Still perhaps the oddest part of the whole exercise is the utter conviction with which Glassco brings off the (highly unattractive) portrait of himself as a self-absorbed and self-regarding adolescent, always punching above his weight, brazenly unapologetic about his own underripeness.  In a real adolescent, provided that he is not too pushy, you can dismiss this stuff with wry amusement.  From an author in his 50s, you have to wonder what he has been doing all his life.  Mrs. B. again: this probably is the real Glassco we are seeing--a permanent case of arrested development, never so vivid as in recreating what is so long gone, forever panting, as the poet said, and forever young.

*The account appears to be the essay entitled "Fiction for the Sake of Art: An Introduction to the Making of Memoirs of Montparnasse."  What an odd title: I had thought fiction was art.

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