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In the first half of the 20th Century it was relatively impossible to have any book containing sexual content to be valued as 'literature', or even to have it published. While it is of course true that pornography and erotica were in as wide circulation then as they have always been, the circulation of more graphic material was very much under-the-counter and no reputable publisher would have gone near it. Works of erotic writing such as DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, because of their sexual content, were labelled as pornography and thus would not be printed by any publisher save the pornographic presses. The literary communities of both Europe and America were beginning to push the boundaries that had previously been imposed by society, but the 'establishment' of the government, publishers and consumers was not yet prepared to push with them.
It was in order to fill this hole in the publishing world that, in 1953, a Frenchman called Maurice Girodias founded the Olympia Press.
The Prologue: Obelisk Press
Girodias' concept, that of a radical publishing house that would put into circulation works of literature that 'establishment' publishers would not accept, was not precisely an original one. Girodias' father, the English-born Jack Kahane1 had created his own boundary-pushing press, Obelisk, which flourished in the years between the two World Wars. Obelisk operated out of Paris, but published English-language editions of its books in order to evade the French censors. Obelisk published many books that are now regarded as classics, including a section of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and Frank Harris's My Life and Loves.
Another Obelisk publication was that of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1934. Tropic of Cancer's controversial nature (hence the reason why it could not be published by anyone other than Obelisk) stemmed not only from its high sex content but from its complete impenetrability, in which it was not unlike Ulysses. This book has achieved less notoriety today than some of Obelisk's other publications, and it was not even particularly successful at the time of its publication. It is notable, however, because its Obelisk cover was drawn by a teenage Maurice Girodias, Girodias' first involvement in the world of controversial publishing.
Obelisk struggled through the 1930s until the outbreak of World War II, but it was unable to achieve much success. Though it was certainly responsible for the first editions of a few well-known works of literature, Obelisk failed to pay Kahane's bills. As is frequently the case, the 'art' published by Obelisk was not recognized as genius by the general population; it appealed only to the rather small niche market of other 'artists'. As such, by the time the Second World War rolled around, Kahane was seeking a more practical form of employment.
Olympia is Born
Obelisk's collapse did not stop Girodias from trying the idea again after the War. He established his own press, much along the lines of Obelisk. Olympia, like Obelisk, operated out of Paris, publishing English-language editions of controversial works. Publishing English books in France attracted far less attention from the censors than English books in England or French books in France would have, so many of Girodias' publications escaped the notice of the government. Others, though, were not so lucky. Olympia books found their way to English-speaking countries and those countries in conjunction with the French authorities managed to accumulate a vast array of charges against Girodias. Girodias, unlike his father, published run-of-the-mill pornography in order to pay the bills, calling himself a 'gentleman-pornographer', but because of his attention to works of greater literary merit, he was under far greater suspicion on the part of the authorities than other Parisian pornographic publishers. Olympia published books such as William S Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Samuel Beckett's Molloy and Watt and various works by the Marquis de Sade, in addition to reprints of older books such as Finnegans Wake and John Cleland's Fanny Hill2, which had been published previously but had either been issued covertly or had been subject to prosecution upon their publication.
Scandal and Controversy
Girodias' greatest publishing success, which served to make him rich and famous and get him into serious trouble with the authorities, was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The story of Humbert Humbert and his infatuation with Lolita, a twelve-year-old girl, was first offered to publishers in 1954, but eminent American publishers such as Simon and Schuster and Doubleday denounced it as 'sheer unrestrained pornography'. Nabokov himself, in an essay detailing his experience with the novel and justifying its writing, hypothesised that the subject matter of Lolita was as taboo to post-War American publishers as manuscripts involving a successful interracial marriage or an atheist with an uneventful life! Nabokov's difficulty in working with many American publishers and his insistence that Lolita be published under a pseudonym also closed off possible routes for publication, more or less limiting his options to Girodias and Olympia Press.
Olympia finally agreed to publish Nabokov's novel in 1955, due to Girodias' belief in Lolita's literary merit. Upon its publication, Lolita was instantly popular. It found its way to the top of the The New York Times bestseller list, was praised by Grahame Greene in his London Times column and its widespread sale in France and abroad made Girodias rich. The hype surrounding Lolita and Olympia drew the attention of the French government, though, and a year later Lolita was banned. Lolita was also banned in England, though the American censors were not so strict. Despite the uproar surrounding the book, Nabokov himself did little to defend it. The British and French governments, working in conjunction, used a supposedly obsolete 'Obscene Publications' law to ban several Olympia-published books, including Lolita — a move which was a blow both to Girodias' finances and to the cause of free expression. Girodias wrote to Nabokov asking for help and requesting that Nabokov sue the French government on behalf of his book, but the publisher received only a request that Nabokov's position as a professor at Cornell University not be mentioned in the proceedings, as this might put his security of employment in danger. Girodias continued to battle in and out of the courts on behalf of Lolita and Olympia, receiving absolutely no help. Girodias' friends and colleagues variously expressed the belief that Nabokov was being 'perfectly contemptible' over his refusal to assist in fighting for Lolita. The ban would not be lifted until 1959.
It must be noted, though, that the hubbub over Lolita resulted in making Olympia and Girodias quite well-known in Europe and North America. Olympia editions, famous for their undecorated covers with black text on a green background, came to be seen in places far afield from Paris. Where Olympia books could not be legally exported to other countries, they were smuggled in, becoming a hit among students and other young people in particular. At this time Olympia was publishing its 'Traveller's Companion' series, a collection of books more straightforwardly pornographic in nature. Most of these were published under pseudonyms or completely anonymously. Although they included more famous works such as My Life and Loves and a reprint of Fanny Hill, the vast majority of the 'Traveller's Companion' editions comprised over-the-top schlock.
That is not to say that Olympia did not put out any more literature, though. Beat writers, including William Burroughs, found a publisher in Olympia. Girodias also found success with Candy, a 1958 retelling of Voltaire's Candide, and controversy with Story of O by Pauline Réage (the pseudonym of Dominique Aury). Story of O was a ground-breaking book in that it was one of the earliest works of sadomasochistic erotic fiction to be written by a woman. It won the Prix de Deux Magots, awarded to avant-garde French fiction, in 1955, although the book was subsequently challenged by the French government and spent some years under a ban. As ever, the controversy only served to increase the popularity of the Olympia imprint.
The Beginning of the End
By the 1960s, though, the times were changing. Bans were being lifted. Trials such as that of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 challenged Western governments' authority to suppress 'obscene' books, especially if they could be proven to have literary merit. More and more mainstream British and American publishers were snapping up manuscripts that would once have found a home in Olympia's niche market, and Olympia authors such as Nabokov took their books elsewhere in search of more lucrative contracts. By 1964, Olympia's popularity had declined considerably and Maurice Girodias had built up a considerable number of legal charges through his prolonged flouting of the French censorship laws. He fled to New York, where in 1967 he tried to restart Olympia Press, but by that time there was no longer a need for what ten years previously would have been a vital plug for a hole in the publishing market. Girodias went on to other careers, including, notably, becoming the proprietor of a night club, but the impact that he and Olympia had on the post-War publishing world was not precisely forgotten.
Today we live in a time of relative openness, particularly when it comes to that which concerns the sexual. Although the editions of Olympia Press with their distinctive green covers serve as a reminder of a different period in our history, with very different values, history does have a habit of repeating itself. The saga of Olympia Press, though brief, should act as a constant reminder that one day there may come a time again when one little, avant-garde press and its 'gentleman-pornographer' publisher will become minor heroes, acting in the name of freedom of expression.