In the introduction to A Gentleman of Pleasure, his 2011 biography of John Glassco, Brian Busby points out that the flamboyant memoirist, pornographer, poet, and flâneur characterized himself as “a great practitioner of deceit.” “Among his greatest powers were those of mimicry and self-transformation,” Busby writes. “In private, they not only aided his survival but also allowed for the pursuit of relationships and interests not spoken of in polite company. His life and work were made fuller through deception, fabrication, and fantasy.” This makes reading The Heart Accepts It All, a selection of Glassco’s letters, something of an exercise in literary excavation, a careful sifting through accumulated gossip and personal detritus to try to separate truth from fancy.
Taken at face value, the figure that emerges from these missives is alternately playful, belligerent, witty, and ribald; he can also appear as a shameless self-promoter and selfish cad. Case in point: during a period of hospitalization for TB in 1961, Glassco wrote to Elma Koolmer, a woman he describes as his “one & only love” (they married the following year), about taking the virginity of a 20-year-old student nurse. “Dearest, there’s nothing to worry about: I didn’t finish, though I pretended to, with gasps.” Glassco closes the letter with the statement, “Otherwise no news.”
Glassco’s letters are addressed to a veritable who’s who of Canadian and international literati: the Margarets (Atwood and Laurence), Northrop Frye, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton, Malcolm Cowley, and Leon Edel, among others. Glassco enjoys caricaturing people based on their physical appearances, and can be vicious in his assessments (referring to a documentary about Leonard Cohen, he expresses shock that the National Film Board “was induced to collaborate on this indulgence of a 5th-rate poet’s megalomania”). Morley Callaghan, in particular, is subject to repeated salvos.
And yet the correspondence also displays the workings of an adroit and capable literary mind (his assessments of the Marquis de Sade and D.H. Lawrence are cogent and persuasive), and a man with a keen understanding of the business side of publishing. There is a certain amount of the quotidian detail and repetition one might expect from a collection of personal letters (Busby points out that none of the entries has been edited), but overall the book provides an interesting glimpse into the private world of one of Canada’s most enigmatic literary figures.