Sunday, November 24, 2013

Venus Bound - book

Venus Bound, The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and Its Writers, John De St Jorre (Random House, New York, 1994)

This is at once a book about the history of dirty books, not so dirty books, the ups and downs of the Olympia Press, pornography, literature, and the life of Maurice Girodias (ne Maurice Kahane). For anyone interested in such things it is a fine and rewarding book.

Maurice’s father, Jack Kahane, said to have been an “Edwardian Dandy,” founded the Obelisk Press in the 1930’s and capped his career by publishing Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin. The Obelisk Press eventually became the Olympia Press, owned and operated by his son, Maurice, part Jewish, who changed his name to Girodias, and his nationality to French, to protect himself from the Nazis. He remained Girodias thereafter.  

The Olympia Press made its way and survived primarily by publishing pornography. Girodias had a stable of writers, most using false names, whose works collectively became the Traveller’s Companion Series, and did quite well. This was an important part of the “dirty books” that became internationally well known, bought in and ordered from Paris, often smuggled elsewhere in plain brown covers. It was possible to publish books in Paris that could not be published elsewhere, but even in Paris there were censors. Girodias spent a great deal of his time and money almost constantly fighting legal battles with them in court.

 Because censorship was stronger in most other countries, particularly in England and the United States, serious authors sometimes were forced to turn to the Olympia Press as virtually their only choice to get their work published. Jack Kahane had already established a precedent for publishing such books when he published Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and several books featuring homosexual themes. Girodias carried on his father’s tradition in the 1950’s by publishing both J. P. Donleavy’s, The Ginger Man, and perhaps the even more(in)famous, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. He was also to publish the Story of O, Candy, and The Naked Lunch. You are no doubt aware that all of these works were initially classified as pornography (in some places they probably still are). It took years before they were considered “literature” rather than pornography.

Perhaps the most famous case was Nabokov’s Lolita. Nabokov wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to write a highly erotic (pornographic?) book without using the dirty words usually found in such works, and so Lolita, now widely regarded as a literary masterpiece, was written. It had to be smuggled into the U.S. and it was years before it was accepted as literature. The Ginger Man, The Story of O, and The Naked Lunch also suffered similar fates. The line between pornography and literature (or non pornography) was never well drawn (Donleavy, for example, was outraged when The Ginger Man was mistakenly included on the Traveler’s Companion Series and he never forgave Girodias) but eventually, and maybe grudgingly, courts came to consider such works as legitimate literary endeavors.

The decision to consider a book a literary work rather than porn initially seemed to hinge on whether it was “well written” (was literary) or whether the author was an established writer known as such to the public, whether it contained too many “dirty words, or was composed merely for its prurient interest. But these are somewhat questionable decisions that do not, it seems to me, always work very well. For example, I am willing to accept The Ginger Man, Lolita, and even the Story of O, as they are all exceedingly well written, but what about a book like Candy, professionally written by a couple of well-known writers, but obviously composed for the prurient market. If something is “professionally written” but not motivated by any genuine literary interest is it to be considered “literature.”

You might well say that none of this matters today because the pornographers essentially won (I guess it was just easier to accept it than fight it any longer), and what we routinely see and heard now on TV, in movies, and books goes far beyond anything these pioneers in the genre contemplated. These early battles over pornography were almost exclusively concerned with sex. Violence was, I think, not considered pornographic, nor did it constitute the subject matter of these early works. Nowadays violence, which I think has become terribly important as pornography, especially as sex and violence now seem to go hand in hand. Like sexual themes, violence has also become increasingly acceptable. This does not bode well either for literature or civilization.
The pornography of violence of course far exceeds, in volume and general acceptance, sexual pornography, in this Puritan land of ours. Exploiting the apocalypse, selling the holocaust, is a pornography. For the ultimate selling job on ultimate violence one must read those works of fiction issued by our government as manuals of civil defense, in which you learn that there's nothing to be afraid of if you've stockpiled lots of dried fruit. 

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