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In Conversation With: Brian Busby on John Glassco and the Pleasures of Reviving Forgotten Literary Traditions

In conversation with Brian Busby, author of the literary memoir A Gentleman of Pleasure, which details the life and artistry of poet and pornographer John Glassco.


Recently, I was visiting a friend. It was getting late in the day and she offered to make us dinner.

"What would you like to eat?" she asked.

"Whatever you put in front of me," I replied.

The same can be said of my gig as Host at Canadian Bookshelf, the foreknowledge that my reading interests are going to expand in ways I can't begin to imagine, and that's just how I like it.

Case in point, I was thrilled when McGill-Queen's University Press responded to our initial call for author interviews with the suggestion that I might like to chat with Brian Busby, curator of The Dusty Bookcase: A Very Casual Exploration of the Dominion's Suppressed, Ignored and Forgotten and author of Character Parts: Who's Really Who in CanLit and A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Translator, Memoirist and Pornographer. The more I read, the more I thought, "I can't wait to see what ends up on my plate."


Julie Wilson: In a recent interview with Trevor Cole about his podcast performance archive AuthorsAloud, I asked if he had a compulsion to both collect the voices he curates for the project. There's a pride in having all those recordings in one place and it serves a unique purpose by housing short readings by Canadian poets and fiction writers. Your blog—The Dusty Bookcase: A Very Casual Exploration of the Dominion’s Suppressed, Ignored and Forgotten taps into a similar impulse. As both fan and connoisseur, your exploration into many of the books goes into such detail as how a reader might access a copy of Satan's Bell, by Joy Carroll (Pocket Books, 1976)—five libraries carry it, with three copies available online—to providing scans of inside adverts and cover art, as well as your personal reviews and favourite passages. I should add, it's also quite funny. (For instance, the title of your post for Satan's Bell is "Ontario Gothic Romance (with a scent of Brut)".

What's your interest in these books: as stories, their place in Canadian writing, and as objects?

Brian Busby: I'd say the source of interest varies with each title. Reading Satan's Bell, for example, was a return to a book that I'd first owned as an adolescent. All these decades later, I was curious about what was likely the second or third Canadian novel I'd ever read. Carroll's book is most certainly "Ignored and Forgotten"—and, truth be told, deserves no other fate—but it is a part of our literary history. So much of our popular writing is simply not recognized by those who teach the canon. Take Brian Moore's early pulp novels, for example. There were seven in all, beginning with his Wreath for a Redhead (Harlequin, 1951), but you won't find these mentioned in most reference works prepared by our professors. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature holds up Judith Hearne (Andre Deutch, 1955) as Moore's "brilliant first novel". The Canadian Encyclopedia, repeats the error, adding that Moore "wrote his first three novels here." In fact, the correct number is ten. How to explain this ignorance?

Cheap and nasty, not designed to make it to the 21st century, the place of Moore's pulps in the Dusty Bookcase is in part a rescue effort, an attempt to save Canadian books that are in danger of disappearing. It's nice to think that our institutions do this for us, but I find my faith is so often shaken. Last year, for example, I came across a copy of No Tears for Goldie (Arrow, 1950), a pseudonymous novel written by pulp writer Thomas P. Kelley. The title is not listed on WorldCat or offered for sale on Abebooks—the only other copy I know of belongs to a collector in Nova Scotia.

Wreath for a Redhead by Brian Moore.

Novels like No Tears for Goldie are interesting—and can be good fun—but what I find more satisfying is the discovery of a forgotten gem. I'd say the best I've come across in this very casual exploration is All Else is Folly (McClelland & Stewart, 1929) by the wonderfully named Peregrine Acland. I should not have been surprised. Here is a book with a glowing preface by Ford Maddox Ford, cover blurbs by Bertrand Russell and Frank Harris. One of our very few Great War novels, published in Canada, the United States and England—that it has been out of print for over eight decades boggles the mind.

As an object, All Else is Folly is as handsome as No Tears for Goldie is garish. Are they not interesting to look at? With its inherent flexibility, the blog format seems particularly well-suited in sharing these discoveries.

JW: What is a book to you? Object. Container?

BB: A book is an object that serves to communicate the words within.

JW: If published today, some of these stories might be released as ebooks only. Could you see a resurgence of pulp fiction—even a revisitation to some of these past titles—if the container wasn't limited to a physical copy? Could pulp find its way into our institutions if more readily available?

BB: I can see a resurgence, but I'm not so certain that our old pulp novels would play a part. For one, there are some messy copyright issues. Then there's the simple fact that so few people know they exist in the first place. Sadly, recent reprints of Canadian pulps—I'm thinking here of titles by Martin Brett and David Montrose—have been met with indifference from this country's public and academic libraries. The good news is that the Montrose reissues, Crime on Cote des Neiges and Murder Over Dorval (both published by Véhicule Press in 2010), have garnered very respectable sales.

JW: What makes The Dusty Bookcase a "very casual exploration"? At any point did you begin to see yourself as a small 'a' activist or archivist?

BB: The description was very much intentional. I wanted the freedom to wander, to pick up the forgotten, discarded and ignored, to look under rocks for the suppressed, and follow-up on anything that interested me. For example, The Woman Who Couldn't Die (Bobbs-Merrill, 1929), the fantasy novel that introduced me to Arthur Stringer, led to a brief exploration of his work in Hollywood and, finally, a look at the dust jackets that adorned his books. Compare this with Satan's Bell, which sparked no similar interest. Frankly, I was happy to set it back down.

I don't consider myself an archivist in any way. What I buy, I buy because its of interest to me. And, of course, I fully intend to read it all.

JW: This past spring, you published the literary biography of John Glassco, A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco: Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer with McGill-Queen's University Press. While Glassco is best known for Memoirs of Montparnasse—an at least partially fictionalized autobiography—your look at Glassco reveals a multi-faceted creator many feel has never received his proper due as an extraordinary writer. His pornography, in particular, has been described as nothing short of poetic. What drew you to John Glassco and your exploration of his life?

"John Glassco was a one-man, literary underground. Impeccable in style and provocative in intent, his pornography is poetic, his poetry is arty, but all his writing has the precision and grace of beautiful lies. Yet, his genius has gone too long unheralded and unsung in his native land. Bravo to Brian Busby . . ."
—George Elliott Clarke

BB: I grew up at a time—one that hasn't really past—during which Canadian literature wasn't taught in public school. It wasn't until university

A Gentleman of Pleasure by Brian Busby.

that I was introduced to "the canon". To my 20-year-old eyes much of it seemed a bit stodgy and lifeless. You might say that my wandering began as a result. The early discovery was that one of our poets—a recipient of a Governor General's Award—had penned Harriet Marwood, Governess (Grove, 1967), considered a classic work of erotica. Intrigued, I tracked it down, read it, and found it fascinating for Glassco's skill in writing in a late-Victorian style. I might have left things there had I not been assigned Memoirs of Montparnasse the following year. A glorious account of misspent youth, I'm not alone in describing it as the finest book of prose that has come out of this country. And, I know I'm not alone in wondering what followed the adventures it describes. The answer was three decades of near-silence, followed by a flurry of activity that amounted to nearly a book a title a year, and included volumes of verse, novellas, translations, pornography, anthologies and, of course, the memoir. The mystery of this life, his unconventional lifestyle, his extraordinary books, his literary hoaxes, the beauty of his writing—and, yes, his sexual proclivities—all provided fuel for what was ultimately a seven-year project.

JW: What do you think Glassco would make of the James Frey controversy and the rise in popularity of creative non-fiction? Did Glassco consider himself a made-up self? I'm also trying to imagine what Glassco would do with social media, if he would subvert or embrace it.

BB: It's interesting to consider what relationship, if any, Glassco might have had with social media. He was, at heart, very much an Edwardian—though he was just four months old when that era ended. His own tastes were to a large extent rooted in the years enjoyed by Edward VII. We see this in his final fantasy, Guilt and Mourning, an unpublished novel set in a Montreal that has somehow avoided the technological advances of the 20th century. Had Glassco lived to be a centenarian—or even a mere nonagenarian—I very much doubt that he would have taken to social media except in one key area: his sex life. Here, the world would have become a less lonely place. I dare say it would be much easier to meet people who shared his interests over the Web than through personal ads.

As to Frey, I wonder how much attention Glassco would have paid the controversy; he had so very little interest in the prose of his own time. That said, he did enjoy a good hoax—and perpetrated some of the very best. We might get a sense of his reaction to the Frey controversy through his own memoirs. In a letter to Kay Boyle, he writes, "I look on the real value of 'memoirs' as being not so much a record of 'what happened' as a re-creation of the spirit of a period in time." So he telescopes and rearranges time, invents dialogue and encounters, dresses "naked facts" and in the end produces a work that Malcolm Cowley considered "the most accurate picture of Montparnasse".

One might say that he did something similar in life; choosing what and with whom to share specific details. We all do the same thing—though perhaps not to the same extent. Glassco wrote a beautiful and insightful passage about this very aspect of human life in writing about Casanova:

"We end, in other words, by loving him as much for what he really was as for what he tells us he was, and discover that the two characters complement each other and make an intelligible whole. In this way we grasp the truth that man is not only a living creature but the person of his own creation"

JW: Brian, thank you for your time and work. This has been a sincere pleasure.

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