Lust in the dust jackets

The Olympia Press and the Golden Age of Erotica

Published September 29, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Some years ago, I acquired an unusual copy of "Ulysses." It is unfortunate that James Joyce never lived to see this edition, for there is reason to believe it would have given him a good chortle. A fat, innocuous white paperback published by "Collector's Publications," it initially drew my attention because of the words "Complete and Unexpurgated" displayed on its cover. That seemed an odd pitch for the major novel of the 20th century, but still odder things waited inside. For at the end of the book, right after Molly Bloom's soliloquy, there appeared several pages of advertisements for products of a highly personal nature, including a suction-activated penile enlargement device (complete with handy ruler), as well as numerous small, blurred reproductions of books rejoicing in such titles, if memory serves (the book has mysteriously vanished from my collection), as "Her Naughty Maid" and "Sailors in Heat." These books were available to the reader, if his onanistic needs had somehow not been satisfied by Joyce's sexciting, sexplosive tale of a middle-aged man wandering aimlessly around town.

The idea that "Ulysses" had been marketed as a stroke book was troubling. Who knew, I thought as I walked away from the store carrying Joyce in a plain brown wrapper, how many hapless souls the duplicitous Collector's Publications had duped over the years? With pity and terror I imagined them sneaking their prize home and eagerly opening its pages, only to realize, around the second paragraph (the one that goes "Introibo ad altare Dei") that liftoff would not be attained. Poldy Bloom himself, that old wanker, would most certainly not have been amused.

But there was one man -- besides Joyce himself -- who would have fully appreciated the delicious irony, not to mention the colossal chutzpah, of this peculiar tome. That man was Maurice Girodias, founder and founderer of the legendary Olympia Press, literateur and scam artist, publisher of masterpieces and dirty books, jack-off of all trades and trader in all jack-offs.
A fascinating recent book, John de St Jorre's "Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and Its Writers" (Random House), tells the story of Girodias and the merry band of starving bohos and not-so-merry geniuses who helped his press change literary history. "Venus Bound" takes us back to that exuberant, ridiculous, at times tragic era, not so long past, when moronic prudery gripped America and England and the likes of Nabokov, Beckett, Donleavy and Burroughs were forced to take their manuscripts to an off-the-wall Parisian publishing house, where they rubbed shoulders with such non-canonical works as "There's a Whip in My Valise" and "With Open Mouth."

Above all, de St Jorre's book captures the spirit of that silly, strange, intense time when literary modernism, societal repression and writerly rebellion came together, forming for one brief moment a sexual literature that was holy, dirty, and, in the midst of legal bondage, free.

Pornography may be (mostly) legal now, but that doesn't mean it's mentally legal. Perhaps that's what gives those old Olympia books their charge: Their aura of the forbidden connects up with an inward shadowiness we're loathe to lose, because we sense that its obscurity is powerful.

It was, perhaps, preordained that Olympia Press should cross my path again. For in the course of researching this piece, I discovered that the Press and I have a long and, to speak frankly, lurid history. Olympia not only came into existence the same year I did, it was associated with my first orgasm -- an almost inadvertently self-induced event that occurred one afternoon while I clutched a copy of John Cleland's "Fanny Hill," an 18th-century erotic classic republished by Girodias in 1954. Somewhat later in adolescence I acquired (not at the same bookstore where I got "Ulysses") two books which proved most serviceable to the needs at hand: "Sarabande For a Bitch," whose plot I have forgotten, and "I'm Looking for Baby K," the story of a woman looking for her runaway daughter in an irritatingly sex-crazed Haight-Ashbury. Both of them were not only chock full of the Good Parts, they were better written than the run of porno pulp -- and both, it turns out, were published by Olympia.

The world of dirty book readers may be usefully divided into two camps: gourmands and gourmets. I confess to falling into the former category (although I can appreciate the superiority of Georges Bataille's erotic writings to that of, say, Joanne "Baby K" Stonebridge's, just as a gourmand can also be a gourmet). The latter, snootier group is represented by Martin Seymour-Smith, author of "Funk and Wagnall's Guide to Modern World Literature," who finds Henry Miller's writings about sex "disappointingly pornographic." I find this statement meaningless, for the simple reason that it seems to me that in large part sex itself is pornographic. There is no pre-lapsarian sexual realm, no ideal purity which is later polluted by decadent and depraved images; lascivious images and thoughts are hard-wired into the thing from the beginning.

Sex is, after all, a physical act, and a certain repetitive concreteness of description is necessary to evoke it. Even the most abstract or lyrical writing about sex, writing in which vulgar descriptions of pricks and cunts are dissolved into the unique quiddity of the writer's personality, must touch base with physical reality or risk becoming utterly vaporous. A certain pornographic quality -- by which I mean the repetition of certain images or rhetoric whose titillating power has become somewhat formulaic -- is inescapable, both in the act itself and in the writing of it.

The best erotic writing, like the best sex, however, pulls free from time to time of the gravitational force of the known, opening more interesting trapdoors in the brain and its related appendages. And some great erotic writing (along with some not so great) is found in the two Olympia anthologies, published in 1965 and 1970 by Grove Press and Blue Moon Books, respectively (the former is out of print but available in many used bookstores). The earlier anthology, which bears the familiar green cover of Olympia's famous "Traveller's Companion" series (of which Girodias wrote "the d.b.'s fans were as fascinated by the ugly plain green covers as the addict by the white powder, however deceptive both may prove to be") is drawn from a much wider and deeper pool. Featuring the Press' heavyweights (Miller, Donleavy, Beckett, Genet, Bataille and my old pal John Cleland, among others), this collection is vastly superior, on literary grounds, to the later one, which contains only works written between 1967 and 1969, during Olympia's brief final tenure in the U.S. The virtuosity and daring of the writing here recalls the creative ferment at the birth of bebop, when Charlie Parker had blasted down the genteel world of swing and anything seemed possible. Erotic writing today may be just as sophisticated, but it will never have that quality of reckless abandon. Why should it? There's nothing to be reckless about. Now it's a genre; then it was a Luciferian act.

The "New Olympia Reader," however, is no slouch itself. Many of the selections have a careening rhetorical intensity, somewhere between late Beat and early Hippie, that is at once historically piquant and just plain hot. Certainly what the "New Olympia Reader" lacks in canonical authors it makes up for in '60s verve and unabashed lustfulness. It is instructive to compare the first sentences of a piece from each book. Here's Georges Bataille in "The Olympia Reader": "There -- I had come to a street corner -- there a foul dizzying anguish got its nails into me (perhaps because I'd been staring at a pair of furtive whores sneaking down the stair of a urinal." And here Clarence Major in "The New Olympia Reader": "Anita is whipping her pussy on me like mad!" Talk about your in medias res.

The man who was responsible for setting off this explosion in the Anglo-American libido factory was one of the oddest and most beguiling characters in the history of publishing. Running a balls-out publishing house and generally spattering the bourgeoisie was in Maurice Girodias' blood. His father, Jack Kahane, founded the Obelisk Press, Olympia's predecessor. An expat Englishman inspired by the freewheeling Gallic sexual spirit, Kahane had the courage and vision to publish works no other publisher dared touch: Henry Miller's "Tropics" novels, Radclyffe Hall's groundbreaking lesbian novel "The Well of Loneliness," Anais Nin's "The Winter of Artifice," Lawrence Durrell's "The Black Book" and fragments of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," among other epochal works. Like his son, he was a shaky businessman; like his son, he combined a reverence for literature with an eye for the prurient main chance.

After Kahane's untimely death two days after the outbreak of World War II, Girodias took over the family business. He revived the press in 1953, renaming it "Olympia" -- at once preserving the first letter of "Obelisk" and referring to Manet's scandalous painting in which a nude looks insolently at the viewer. Over the next 16 years, he published such major literary works as "The Ginger Man," "Lolita," and "Naked Lunch," among others, and "Candy" and "The Story of O," among major works of erotica. He also kept a madcap stable of talented, rebellious dirty book writers, a group headed by a fiery Italo-Scot named Alexander Trocchi, in baguettes and vin rouge in cheapo '50s Paris, doling out tiny advances and capricious pocket money to "Marcus Van Heller," "Akbar del Piombo," "Count Palmiro Vicarion" and other wonderfully fake-named purveyors of the high-grade smut that helped pay the bills when Beckett's "Watt" didn't leap off the shelves.

Girodias, as shrewdly but sympathetically portrayed by de St Jorre, was the strangest fish imaginable, a contradictory, insufferable, magnetic man. He had the intellectual vision and courage to publish not just "Watt" but all three novels of Beckett's great trilogy ("Molloy," "Malone Dies," "The Unnameable"), a deed which alone would assure him a permanent role in publishing history. And his sophisticated taste in erotica led him to publish some of the smartest, hippest and funniest pornography ever written ("Candy," Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's deadpan howler about a naive Candide type reborn as a "fabulous, blue-eyed, pink-nippled, pert-derriered darling," was the quintessential Girodias book.) But he was also a hustler who failed to pay his writers and a pathologically insecure man who could alienate even his friends.

De St. Jorre's rollicking tale is tonic for a publishing industry that increasingly demonstrates all the daring and idiosyncracy of a widget production line. Girodias' story is by turns comic, absurd, pathetic, inspiring and dumb as hell, but it's never boring. The Olympia Press was one big train wreck, with the champagne spigot wrenched permanently open. Girodias' shoot-first, aim-later way of doing business resulted in endless court battles, and he had a tortured relationship with his big-name writers, many of whom despised him (after he had published their books) as a semi-scumbag whom they had turned to only out of desperation. Compounding the problems that arose from his own erratic business practices was the convoluted state of international copyright law, which resulted in his losing control of most of his foreign rights. In the end, Girodias suffered defeat after defeat: In one of the weirdest episodes in literary history, he was forced to watch as his archenemy J.P. Donleavy, with whom he had a lifelong, world-class feud over the rights to "The Ginger Man," outbid him and bought Olympia Press at auction, lock, stock and barrel. In the '60s he set up shop in the U.S., but that last attempt too failed.

The last book Girodias published, "President Kissinger," serves as a fitting coda to his career. Depicting Herr Henry as a chief exec in the fun-loving Gary Hart mode, it featured several scenes unflattering to the Doctor, including one in which Kissinger frolicked in a French maid's outfit while being straddled and whacked with a riding crop by a German girlfriend wearing an SS uniform. Around this time, oddly, the U.S. government took an interest in the status of Girodias' visa. In a chain of events bizarre even by Girodian standards, a Scientology mole allegedly denounced him to the feds and a beautiful young woman lured him out to a New Jersey pier, where she seems to have planted marijuana on him. Girodias escaped deportation, but his last publishing venture died 16 years before he did. Until the very end of his life, when he made something of a comeback with his memoirs, he was a forgotten man. De St. Jorre's book should change that.

The Olympia Press has earned an honorable, demented place in literary history. It published some of the great books of the century when no one else would, and in the process helped smash down the last barriers of censorship. That hard-won freedom has had plastic and not-so-fantastic consequences: sex has become a fresh-frozen commodity, with Demi Moore's wonderfully pneumatic boobs discounted on every meat counter. Leonard Cohen's prediction that "there'll be a meter on your bed that will disclose what everybody knows" is coming true: Everybody, now, knows everything. As Saul Bellow once put it in an interview, "Now the masses are gorged on all this sexual cake, and everybody's got sexual pimples."

Of course, one would never want to go back to the dark ages. Too much smut is infinitely better than none; endless babbling about sex -- Foucault notwithstanding -- is preferable to enforced silence. Still, the dirty work of art in the age of mechanical prohibition had a certain aura that is lost forever.

I have a paperback Obelisk edition of "Tropic of Cancer." On the back cover, in small type at the bottom, appear the words "MUST NOT BE IMPORTED INTO ENGLAND OR U.S.A." Those words are hypnotic. Like a samizdat mimeograph, or a Bible, or a secret map, the book exudes holiness and menace, a dangerous allure. That aura somehow magically communicates itself to every word: to open its yellowing pages ("I am living at the Villa Borghese...") is to enter a world where words are obscene and beautiful, where fucking is a rite, where unknown doors are opening and darkness is always falling.

Miller wrote, "I have charted certain islands which may serve as stepping stones when the great routes are opened up." The same could be said of the Olympia Press itself. And, as is so often the case, the stepping stones have proved, in the end, to be more enchanting than the highways.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------