Olympia Press: A Brief History of DBs

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Olympia-Edouard Manet 1863
On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd 1922, the Paris based American owner of Shakespeare and Company Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses, excerpts of which had already been the subject of obscenity trials in the United States. It was immediately banned in both the US and the UK, a ban that was to remain in force for over a decade. However in France, where the book was printed and published, Ulysses was freely available as the French authorities had decided that they couldn’t possibly rule on the possible obscenity and artistic merits of a book in a foreign language.

Jack Kahane, born into a wealthy industrialist family of Jewish origin in Manchester, England and living in Paris with his French wife saw a business opportunity. Kahane was himself a novelist of mildly racy lightweight novels, however he had bigger ambitions and so he founded the Obelisk Press (with a suitably phallic logo).The business model was simple; he would buy out the rights of a novel that was encountering legal difficulties at a bargain basement price and then issue his own edition, with half the cover emblazoned with a BANNED IN…thus ensuring healthy sales from the prurient and/or curious travellers passing through Paris. Mixed in with the heavyweight avant-garde novels that included works by Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and re-issues of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Radclyffe Hall’s early lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness were novels of a much more dubious literary pedigree, in other words pornography. Kahane’s greatest succes de scandale however was undoubtedly the publication in 1934 of Henry Miller’s  Tropic of Cancer, with its bold language and sexually explicit descriptions.

Kahane whose health was ruined by his experiences in WWI died on the day that WWII was declared. His son Maurice stayed in Paris and changed his name from the Jewish Kahane to his mother’s maiden name Girodias and took over the family business of publishing DBs (dirty books). It is not sure how he survived the war in occupied Paris, though it was probably a combination of his wily charm and his instincts as a born survivor, instincts that there were to serve him well in his eventful and strife-filled life.

After the war Girodias expanded operations of the Obelisk Press, however the publication of Henry Miller’s Sexus set off a storm of outrage in France that resulted in obscenity trials and imprisonment. Although he managed to get out of jail Girodias was bankrupt and he had to surrender control of Obelisk. This setback, however, only spurred Girodias on and soon he was launching a new venture entitled Olympia Press, so-called because of its similarity to the name of his father’s Obelisk Press and the famous Manet painting of 1863 (see above) of a courtesan whose bold stare confronts the viewer that caused such a sensation on its first showing.

After a particularly cold and difficult winter Girodias came across a group of hungry British and American expatriates writers for the literary review Merlin. He suggested that the best way for them to earn a crust was to write DBs (under preposterous pseudoymns) for his new series the Traveller’s Companion. The group included the brilliant Scottish writer and later Situationist Alexander Trocchi, John Stevenson, Iris Owens and Christopher Logue. Girodias would pay $500 upfront and a further $300 if the title was reprinted. There was no question of the author getting royalties.

Following in the tradition established by his father Girodias also published avant-garde fiction. As well as works by Henry Miller he published Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, Pauline Reage’s (pseudonym of Sadean scholar Jean Paulhan’s lover Anne Desclos) The Story of O which is undoubtedly the classic text of sado-masochism, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s erotic romp Candy, Jean De Berg’s (a pseudoymn of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, wife of the founder of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet) The Image. The Olympia Press also commissioned the first English  translations of De Sade’ s 120 Days in Sodom and Philosophy in the Boudoir.

Unsurprisingly, given the incendiary, explicit and subversive nature of the work published and Girodias’s unfortunate habit of failing to pay his authors, resulted in numerous, ruinous legal difficulties. He was involved in protracted disputes with Nabokov, Terry Southern and the author of The Ginger Man, J.P Donleavy who eventually brought the Olympia Press after a twenty year legal battle in a supposedly closed auction. The collusion of the French, British and American authorities led to his prosecution in 1964 for publishing The Story of O that led to a year in prison, a $20,000 fine and a ban from publishing for twenty years, the most severe penalty ever imposed in France.

After a brief spell as a nightclub owner he moved operations to New York where he holed up in the Chelsea Hotel (where else) and published Valerie Solanas radical feminist pamphlet the  S.C.U.M Manifesto. Solanas became convinced that Girodias and Warhol were in a plot together to screw her out of money and on the day she shot Warhol she first appeared at the Chelsea Hotel intending to shot Girodias, but as he was out she then went in search of Warhol (this is at least Girodias’s account, however as a natural self-promoter and consummate con-man  it is not necessarily to be believed).

Girodias was 71 when he suffered a heart attack while giving an interview for Jewish Community Radio in Paris, resulting in Girodias dying on air. Although Girodias undoubtedly was a deeply flawed and somewhat unscrupulous individual, he published books no other publisher would even look at and he dared to take on the courts and the censors. Girodias, carrying on the work of his father changed the cultural landscape of the mid-twentieth century inexorably.

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Maurice Girodias (Trouble-maker, womanizer and undoubted bon vivant)

65 thoughts on “Olympia Press: A Brief History of DBs

      1. Yes of course you are… anyway, maybe I should give Tropic of Cancer another go. I have it on audio, so all the ‘c’ words are a bit jarring in my ears! Thusly, I never finished it.

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      1. Well Lolita is a brilliant book by a brilliant writer. The Story of O I have fond memories of… I was about 16 and staying at some one house, her parents were away or something when I discovered while looking through the bookshelves a copy of it. I was intrigued and I pocketed it, well it was an eye opener.

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      2. I’ve never heard of The Story of O. I’ll have to look that one up. Especially if it was there in your formative years. Did it make Cake into a darker chocolate? 😈😛

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      3. Girodias eventually won the case and published O though the ban stayed. It is quite famous and very elegantly written. It has two beginnings and two endings. It tells the story of an woman, named simply O (a reference to her sex) who is admitted to a clandestine secret society dedicated to sado-mashocism. It is extremely kinky and also has a preface by Jean Paulhan (though he doesn’t declare that it is his lover that had written it) a Sadean scholar who was allied to the Surrealist that links the ordeals undergone by the heroine to the ecstasies undergone by religious mystics. The freedom in submission and all that. Feminist tend to be not over fond of the novel, saying it represents the ultimate objectification of woman, even though it is written by a woman.

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      4. Hmm. Were you into kink like this before you read the book? Probably not at 16, huh? It sounds interesting. I’ll try to find it.

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      5. I still have that copy of O somewhere, as it was just a movie tie in edition it wouldn’t be worth anything, unlike the Traveller’s Conpanion edition which is very valuable.

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      1. Yeah agreed, but life is short and there are many other gems that get less press and are time better spent. Which I suppose is the whole point of Cakeordeath, along with the famous stuff is works that deserve a little more love.

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      2. Ugh, true… although there seems to be a resurgence in the sale of paper books. That is sort of cool. I like the feel of a real book in my hands (although e-books are so convenient…) wobbly on that subject.

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  1. Very interesting piece. I used to read Lady Chatterley’s Love when it was passed around in school all wrapped up in a brown paper cover with BIOLOGY stamped on the front. Watered whisky, compared to some of the other titles you mention.

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  2. Wonderful run-down, and now I’ll need to add some more things to my list. Bravo to him for taking risks and putting things out there the world would have missed otherwise. What a way to go, though.

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    1. Thank you Miss Cranes, it is a longer article but there was a lot to pack in. Censorship takes many forms for many different reasons, but Kahane and Girodias were in a large part responsible for changing the laws on written erotica (for want of a better word). As to Nabokov, truly a formidable and imposing figure in literature, whose first work was an apparently marvellous translation of Alice in Wonderland into Russian (I say apparently because I cannot read Russian). Several books reference Alice, not Lolita though, deliberately though. Nabokov won the legal cases against Girodias when Lolita became a phenomenal bestseller, allowing to retire in style from teaching job in Cornell to a floor in a luxury Swiss hotel and never had a good word to say about Girodias, which was a tad unfair, as he was the only one initially willing to publish it.

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      1. Girodias was undoubtedly a bit of a crook and you can understand the writers point of view. However it was the publisher who faced fines, bankruptcy, imprisonment not the writer. Nabokov’ beef was nothing compared to the Donleavy one, he was particularly upset that it was published as a Travellers Companion, Donleavy didn’t think it was smut.

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  3. Hard to believe they once banned all those books. Of course, in the U.S. they are constantly trying to censor things. I love the Manet painting! We studied it in High School. (Which now seems really weird, haha! THAT was a painting I studied in High School in the Puritan-censorship-driven U.S.A.)

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    1. It wasn’t just the US Christine, it was the UK and France as well. After a prolonged struggle written erotica was allowed, partly because of Girodias’s effort and partly because of the growth of visual erotica (or porn). It is a truly great painting. Ah the ambiguities of the Puritan mind.

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      1. Yes — I guess I always take things from the US mentality, as I see things first hand. And I know that America definitely has not shed her Puritan roots! However, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Larry Flynt both won court cases, which probably helped a good deal.

        I was ironically in all-girls Catholic school when I studied the painting,, which I find hilarious 🙂 Yes the ambiguities.

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  4. What a highly interesting story, not nice or one I would like to tell anyone as a good night story though. That guy looks positively sly on that picture… Nevertheless a very funny story in parts, additionally spiced with suble wit and sarcasm. Perfect cakeland-material so to say. Great work, enthusiastically appreciated!

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      1. Oh he certainly wasn’t that, just a rogue who liked the good life and causing trouble. But he was brave as well, he was prepared to go to prison, become bankrupt for what he believed in, which was art. The authors all had a point that he tried to con them and marketed what they saw as literature as porn, but he was the one that had to face the consequences. Anyway, charm covers a multitude of sins in my book.

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  5. Thanks for another erudite and intriguing post Mr CoD (obviously from my blog I think death is important too). I liked it so much I reblogged it. I also enjoyed the banter.
    I’m sure there are a number of titles in that list that my bloggering peers would be very familiar with.
    I also find the ebook handy if I want to read something explicit when I stay at my studio and have my grandson with me. As we both sleep in the studio space he can play on his iPad and I on mine. As his bed is on the floor there is no danger of an accidental overlook!
    Indie

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    1. Thank you so much for the re blog and your lovely comment. I have to agree that e-books are perfect for erotica and it has led to a boom in sales. Most of mine would be on Kindle as opposed to paper books, though I do have a fair few. Again thanks for the comment.

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