Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco

Paris in the spring
Click to follow

In 1929 John Glassco was 19 and in Paris. A Canadian expat with no contacts and no resources, except for a brains, a colossal dose of chutzpah and the self-confidence of youth, he set about storming the citadels of the literary scene. In a mere 18 months he had met everyone who was anyone. Even before reaching France, he and his friend Graeme Taylor secured an audience with the ancient George Moore; in Paris he made the acquaintance of Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Lord Alfred Douglas, Man Ray and James Joyce. He blagged entry to one of Gertrude Stein's soirées and quarrelled with her; on Glassco's account she appears to have been a poisonous and barely human character.

But this is much more than a succession of celebrity vignettes. It is a record of youth lived as it should be lived – a continuous round of debauchery, heavy drinking, frenzied sexual activity and earnest, erudite discussion about literature.

Glassco's own literary productions at the time were few: a handful of surrealist poems and the first chapter of this book were published in magazines. As he half-ruefully acknowledges, he was too much of a hedonist to make it as a full-time writer, though he had the talent to do so. Memoirs wasn't published until 1967, when Glassco's assertion that he wrote it in 1932 while recovering from TB in a sanatorium was widely accepted; in fact it was all (bar the first chapter) written from memory more than 30 years after the event. No wonder readers were deceived: the writing is marvellously fresh and alive with detail.

By 1929, of course, the Parisian literary scene was beginning to wind down; the Depression was making itself felt and the American expats were drifting back home. But for a brief and intense period John Glassco was part of it. It must have been bliss to be alive in that twilight, and very heaven to be 19.

New York Review Books £8.99