“This place was to be our home on and off for the next year and a half. It was here that I tried seriously to write for the first time, here I brought my two or three girls, and here I met the woman with whom I at last fell in love and whom, however miserable the outcome of that love, I shall always remember in this setting as she undressed one night in a luminous haze of gas-light and moonbeams before we threw ourselves in ecstasy on one of Mr Boomhower’s straw-stuffed beds. It was the theatre of my youth.” ~ John Glassco in Memoirs Of Montparnasse
What an amazing place Paris was in the 1920’s, when, for an all too short period of time, an incredible group of mainly American, Canadian, English, Irish and French writers, artists and “Lebenskünstlers” fell together by chance and design and gave birth to the first great movements of 20th Century literature and art. Conceived between 1900 and 1914, it was the end of The Great War in 1918 that brought the conception to term and unleashed this strange creature like a hungry wolf onto the streets of Montparnasse. And there it thrived and grew.
The young men and women who were at the vortex of this “Lost Generation,” to use Gertrude Stein’s clichéd to death description of the writers and artists she met in Paris in the 1920’s, weren’t really lost. Like any young generation they were pursuing their dreams, as varied, complex and unrealistic as they often were. But it was within this amazingly connected circle of creative geniuses that the foundation was laid for modern art and literature. Almost all of the expatriates from America came to Paris because Paris at that moment in time embraced them, their ideas and their alternative lifestyles like no other place in the world, least of all in the United States. Yes, Paris had embraced them, coveted their creativity and provided them with the inspiration and the means to pursue their endeavours. Paris drank them all down deep. And by the time the party was, for the most part, over, after the crash in October 1929, Paris had spit the majority of them back out, some tattered, torn and dark, others successful and shining, but all devoid of their original dream. For Paris is a most beautiful yet cruel mistress, who will wrap you in her arms in the beginning, but in the end will do her best to suck you dry as youth fades and life’s mundane reality sets in, or as was the case at the end of the 1930’s when the crazed vision of a worthless Austrian artist plunged the world into madness.
It is a curious observation that one war was the spark that ignited the creative flame and another war was the bitter wind that blew the fire out. But that has been the pattern of history for ages, and no doubt will be the blueprint for future generations as well. Whenever I take time off for a sojourn in Paris I am searching for many things, but always a top priority is to find the few existing traces of the Paris that bloomed so richly between those two wars. A few can still be found, but most are no longer there and are only accessible when you close your eyes and let your imagination wander back. The many shelves of books I have at home filled with book after book documenting and analyzing those times, the personal memoirs written by the participants, their works of thinly disguised fiction that have now become standard reading in schools, my collection of original editions and other curious odds and ends have all, over the years, given me a good foundation and a keen sense of the spirit of that short golden period. But what I find most interesting are the works of the lesser known alumni of Montparnasse. Everyone knows and many have read Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle and Nancy Cunard, but who, other than a devoted student of the period, has ever read much by Robert McAlmon, Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), John Glassco, Malcolm Cowley, Harold Loeb, Mary Butts, Mina Loy, Man Ray’s autobiography or even the memoirs of the Queen of Montparnasse, Kiki, or the recollections of the quarter’s famous barman Jimmie Charters?
On my most recent trip to The City Of Light I picked up a copy Of Bob McAlmon’s “The Nightingouls Of Paris” (University of Illinois Press 2007) and upon my return home managed to dig up an old copy of John Glassco’s “Memoirs Of Montparnasse” (Oxford University Press 1970) from a book seller on the Internet. McAlmon’s book had lain in the archives of Yale University as an unpublished typescript since, having lost his notebook manuscripts upon leaving France in late 1940, he rewrote it from memory after his return to America and it found its way into the Yale archives after his death. Sanford J. Smoller has done a fine job of bringing the novel to light after its long hibernation. Glassco’s book, although he admitted fictionalizing parts of it, parallels McAlmon’s to some extent, covering the time both of them and Glassco’s lifelong friend and devoted partner Graeme Taylor spent together between 1929 and 1931. Both are interesting inner perspectives of life in Montparnasse as the great golden time was winding down and coming to an end. Glassco returned to Canada in 1931 after coming down with tuberculosis, eventually having a lung removed in 1935. He did have success as a Canadian poet and a writer of erotica until his death in 1981. McAlmon was not as lucky. The literary genius behind the Contact Editions of the 1920’s, who had written short stories and poems, published Hemingway’s first book and many others, the man who had been James Joyce’s financial supporter, occasional typist and regular drinking companion and the author of “Being Geniuses Together,” published in 1938, returned to the United States in late 1940, and went to work as a truss salesman for his two brothers George and Bert in their Surgical Supply Store in Phoenix, Arizona and died almost unknown in his native country sixteen years later. Only recently has his legacy found a new and well deserved recognition.
The young men and women who forged the modern era of literature and art in Paris in those two short decades from 1920 until 1939 pursued their dreams and their fantasies. They broke free of the puritanical restrictions of their homelands and celebrated life, art, literature and love in a city that would embellish, enhance and enrich their experiences. The combination of their creativity at that particular moment in time and the spirit that Paris breathed into their lives made them the starting point for all that would come after, something I always remember, honour and celebrate when I pursue my own dreams in Paris…
“What do I mean to do with my youth, my life? Why, I’m going to enjoy myself.” ~ John Glassco in Memoirs Of Montparnasse
“Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you…”
~ “Bookends” by Paul Simon ~
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