A Gentleman of Pleasure

This blog was originally intended to recount my thoughts on non-fiction I was reading, as the majority of things I read do tend to be non-fiction. However, I embarked on this right before I introduced a steady stream of fiction to supplement my diet. I’ll probably change the name of the blog sooner or later but for at least the next two reviews it’s appropriate.

Late last year I happened to win a free copy of The Dusty Bookcase from a contest held on Brian Busby’s blog of the same name, on which the book is based. Both the blog and book consist of reviews of forgotten pieces of Canadiana, including both lost treasures and the justifiably forgotten. I originally chanced across Busby’s blog while researching Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, one of a half-dozen screeds published in the late seventies and eighties by BMG Press, that I had found at used book sales in Ottawa. Busby had wrote an entry on the book, which was among the only explanations online of what exactly it was. That entry, and a follow-up on the author’s sequel Enough! both made it into the book of The Dusty Bookcase. Having read my copy through three times already, I’ll revisit it some-time in the future, but in the meantime it comes highly recommended.

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I have intended to read Busby’s earlier books for a while, and after recently reading I Do Remember the Fall motivated my choice of today’s subject. In discussing that book I made much of how well John Glassco’s quotation on the back cover captured the essence of the novel. As it happens, Busby’s had written a biography of John Glassco, titled A Gentleman of Pleasure. As a biography, the subject matter of the book is obvious, since it beings with Glassco’s birth and concludes with his death. Born to the wealthy daughter of a Montreal magnate, and a father who would become bursar at McGill University, John was an early achiever. Despite his early academic promise, his parents held him back from university at age thirteen and instead sent him to a miserable boarding school existence. Eventually Glassco would reach McGill at fifteen and meet other rising literary figures in Montreal, including F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and Graeme Taylor. Taylor, four years his senior, would become a life partner of Glassco’s and constant companion for the next several decades.

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Glassco and Taylor’s relationship is one the most tragic aspects of the biography. Glassco would travel with Taylor to Paris when he was seventeen, settling in the Monteparnasse district alongside many artists and literary giants. The two engaged in various menage a trois with a succession of partners, but nevertheless remained together as the different third partners came and went. One of these triangles, involving a woman from Western Canada, put stress on their partnership, and Taylor returned to Canada. Glassco and the girl soon separated anyway, and he returned to Canada after he contracted tuberculosis. After Glassco’s recovery he and Taylor moved to a farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. By this time Taylor career as an author was basically behind him; his nominal success as a novelist was over. Though Glassco had always looked to Taylor for literary mentorship, he began to see Taylor as holding him back as a writer. The tragedy of their relationship comes to a head when Taylor is diagnosed with berger’s disease and swiftly deteriorates. Upon the death of Taylor one gets the sense Glassco not only mourned him, but also felt Taylor’s death freed him from a presence which had been increasingly holding him back.

In many ways the subsequent years proved him right in this regard. The bulk of Glassco’s literary output came only after Taylor’s death. There are other worthy details of Glassco’s life, such as his subsequent marriage to a Russian emigrant who gradually lost her mind and came to believe herself the reincarnation of Nefertiti, or his ongoing struggle to find a publisher who would publish his erotica. However, it is worth drawing attention to the main contribution of Busby’s biography in particular. A Gentleman of Pleasure impresses by attempting to parse the truth from John Glassco’s lies, and tracing the presence of the man through the works of the many literary figures he encountered throughout his life. Not only did Glassco’s early years with Taylor in Paris’ Monteparnasse inspire Glassco’s own critically acclaimed Memoirs of Monteparnasse, but Glassco and Taylor make small appearances in a half-dozen books by other authors who lived in Monteparnasse around the same time. Busby tracks down many of these references, including the allusions that change their names, and compares the stories to each other and the sparse known facts.

This is an impressive scholastic achievement, and necessary, given that Glassco delighted in pulling a fast one on people. As Busby explains, it is well known today that Memoirs of Monteparnasse contain significant embellishments and some outright falsehoods all built around a the kernel of Glassco’s real experiences. What Busby has managed is to write as good a biography as is possible about someone who was continually throwing up smoke-screens and misdirection. The biography was also a pleasant introduction to Glassco the author, situating his works within the context of influence drawn from both his personal experiences and literary surroundings. Best of all, it interested me in John Glassco’s body of work, which is no mean feat given I have barely any familiarity with poetry or erotica.

Perhaps I’ll start with Memoirs of Monteparnasse. Regardless, Glassco himself could only have been pleased to have as good a biography on himself made as A Gentle of Pleasure.

Much Ado About Culture

Although this blog records my thoughts on the Canadian nonfiction I read in my spare time, the majority of books I read are academic works. Some of these might be worth discussing here.

Keith Acheson and Christopher Maule’s Much Ado About Culture was obsolete almost as soon as it came off the press. Focused on the cultural provisions in North American trade agreements, the book first appeared in 1999, just as the internet became more accessible. The academic reviews are unforgiving in pointing out that much of the author’s carefully constructed analysis was in the process of being upended by the new technology.

For this reason I’m reluctant to be too hard on Acheson and Maule’s book, as it remains one of the few monographs on the culture policies of North American trade agreements. The book assesses the cultural provisions in trade agreements like the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) and its eventual replacement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Article 2005(1) and 2005(2) of CUSFTA are intended to protect the Canadian cultural industries from American hegemony by exempting them from the agreement, and these clauses were carried over verbatim into NAFTA.

Acheson and Maule are economists by discipline, and their arguments are somewhat predictably critical of Canadian cultural protectionism. The general suggestion is that Canadians would benefit more from market liberalization in the cultural industries than they stand to lose by competing unprotected against American cultural products. This argument is mostly unconvincing because the author’s analysis of the nature and importance of culture is not as adept as their insight into particular economic cases.

Although the book laudably attempts an account of what culture is near the beginning, the authors make much of the fact national cultures are internally diverse and that individuals have multiple, sometimes transnational, cultural allegiances. This truism is reflective of the multicultural character of the Canadian nation but overlooks how these differences are constitutive of the particular Canadian nation, rather than evidence that we should be sceptical of there being a specific Canadian identity. The effort to consider the nature of culture is praiseworthy, but there is no engagement with the theoretical work on culture, despite Canada having produced some of the world’s foremost cultural theorists. An economist would be justified in ridiculing any cultural theorists who made such sweeping comments about economics without consideration of economic literature. (And I’ll admit to having encountered those books too).

This loose analysis of culture leads to strange examples. Consider this list of “Canadian” children’s animation offered as an example of globally successful cultural products: Madeline, Babar, the Richard Scarrey Stories, TinTin, The Little Lulu Story, Bettlejuice, Paddington Bear, Rupert, and Franklin. Only one of the series are based on a Canadian intellectual property: Franklin. The rest are American, British, and French stories, but were produced by Canadian studios. This is a bad standard of Canadian content, since by this standard the recent Stephen King adaptation of It is Canadian since it was filmed in Toronto, Port Hope, and Belleville. This is why cultural subsidies distinguish between products “made in Canada” and those which actually were conceived by Canadians.

In fairness, the authors are generally aware of this phenomenon, and have some critical thoughts about the points system used to determine whether a work is Canadian content. Nonetheless, the authors are uncharitable with nationalists they characterize as saying a “100 percent market figure for the Canadian [book] market share is desirable.” I’ve never encountered a Canadian cultural or economic nationalist with such a ridiculous position. The authors note this would preclude classics of English and French literature. Yet they have nothing to say about the fact most classics of Canadian literature are simply out of print, in large part because companies which kept them on the shelves, like McClelland and Stewart (“The Canadian Publishers”), were bought by an American corporations.

Here is one reason Acheson and Maule’s arguments against cultural protectionism break down: they say it limits consumer choice, but Canadians can barely choose to read books by domestic authors. Two Solitudes is out of print, and books like Wacousta exist only in expensive, limited run academic editions. One might object that the situation of present authors is different, but simply perusing the local Chapters should be sufficient to dispel any illusions. When the authors argue “There is no justification for the government to influence the content menu” of cultural consumption, they ignore how American market power already does exactly this. Despite their argument culture is so fluid policies meant to protect it are misguided, their analysis of culture is too shallow to justify this claim.

Acheson and Maule’s book deserves a more thorough response than my rambling, broad strokes criticism, so as an apology for not providing that today, I’ll conclude with a couple compliments. Despite my lengthy reservations about the analysis of culture as a concept and Canadian culture in particular, the economic arguments in the book are prescient and challenging. I found the meticulous discussion of NAFTA’s cultural provisions to be immensely useful for a current term paper, so I owe them an academic debt. As an examination of the place of culture within the trade agreements and case studies, the book remains invaluable despite its age.

As best I can tell Keith Acheson continues to teach economics at Carleton University. Christopher Maule has since retired and periodically records his thoughts on his own blog: Christopher Maule’s Blog: Economics and International Affairs.