Maurice Girodias writes in his introduction to The Olympia Reader, Grove Press, 1965: “Since my earliest childhood the notion of individual freedom had been deeply rooted in me. Everything I saw or felt as I was growing up turned into a passion — a passion I shared with millions of contemporary Frenchmen, although my own brand drew me toward a form of individualist anarchy while the others usually went toward practical communism or socialism. I resented and hated l’ésprit bourgeois in all its manifestations, but I also distrusted all forms of human association.”
Maurice Girodias, purveyor of some of the best erotic writing ever published which united the obscene and the beautiful, was the son of a French mother and Jewish father from Manchester, “a silver spoonfed infant and a very poor orphan.” Jack Kahane came to Paris in the 1930s and set up the Obelisk Press to publish books in English which, thanks to a loophole in French law, could not be printed in America or England because of censorship. He published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1934, Anais Nin, Cyril Connolly, a fragment of Joyce’s work in progress, Haveth Childers Everywhere, as a limited edition. The Young and the Evil (1933) by Charles Henri-Ford and Parker Tyler depicted gay life in Harlem and Greenwich and men earning their living there — Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein praised it to the skies.
Kahane’s sudden death in 1939 on the eve of war left behind a hungry family and bar debts. To be part-Jewish in Nazi-Occupied Paris was a risky proposition. Twenty-year-old Maurice changed his name from his father’s to his mother’s. “All my school buddies went into war. Some of them were killed. Others were prisoners for four years. I was against the war,” he states in an interview with Smoke Signals Magazine. The booming black market enabled many Parisians to lead nearly normal lives. He set up Les Editions du Chêne and published art books as well as erotica, which went down well with American GIs who bought them. Publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn in French translation led to Girodias being sued in 1946-7 under a law on obscene publications. Accumulated debts and duplicitous creditors meant his company was taken away from him: “Losing it made me feel like King Saud must have felt being suddenly deprived of all his wives.”
Manet’s painting of a courtesan, Olympia, which scandalised the critics at the 1865 Paris Salon, was an appropriate name for his new venture. In Spring 1953 The Olympia Press was set up at the back of a bookshop (now a chic outlet for beautiful Gien porcelain) at number 13 rue Jacob on the Left Bank.
“In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 23 rue de l’Odeon. On a cold windswept street, this was a warm cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of writers both dead and living,” writes Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of the 1920s. Not much had changed for those following in his footsteps, or at least not for one group of young writers in Paris after the war. Going to Paris and living a bohemian hand-to-mouth existence had become an essential prerequisite for any young American aspiring to be a writer.
Alexander Trocchi, the flawed genius behind Merlin, invited Austryn Wainhouse to publish extracts from his translations of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and La philosophie dans le boudoir in his literary magazine. The manuscripts were picked up by Girodias for Olympia Press. Beckett, Genet, Sartre, Neruda and Ionesco were also extracted in Merlin. Girodias was building up his list and Trocchi became his advisor on manuscripts, also bringing him fellow collaborator, bon vivant seducer Christopher Logue, and A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism. Girodias and Trocchi made a perfect pair of charming, good-looking seducers. Each in his way was a politically radical spendthrift, surrounded by women and courtiers.
Merlin was considered more bohemian and avant garde than Mathiessen and Plimpton’s American Ivy League publication, The Paris Review. They all knew each other and hung out at the English Bookshop in rue de Seine, or Le Mistral which later became Shakespeare & Company. There were rumours that certain individuals at the Paris Review had worked for the CIA. As Trocchi became addicted to heroin, his star waned and Merlin foundered. Fifty years on, The Paris Review has iconic status.
Girodias gave authors writing for Merlin a chance to earn some money, along with translators, Austryn Wainhouse and Dick Seaver. (The latter returned to New York taking his discoveries with him to Grove Press. Years later he and his wife Jeanette founded Arcade Press.)
Girodias paid by the page for translations. For an original manuscript the author received £300 and when it was reprinted, another lump sum was handed over. Initially he did not bother with royalties or meticulous accounting so financial chaos and arguments were rife. He was profligate with his money and everyone else’s, when he had it.
Girodias set about building up his list. An “erotic Armada” was launched on the English-reading world. In just five or six years: Miller, Nabokov, Genet . . . Terry Southern & Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy which went on to sell ten million copies in the United States . . . The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, the first complete edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Less well written erotica came out with Ophelia Press and had pink covers as opposed to the usual green.
His libertine attitudes matched the books he published, but he did not only do erotica. “Pure” literature was published: Beckett, Laurence Durrell, Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, Nina Berberova, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie . . . Allen Ginsberg brought Girodias a brilliant, jagged manuscript by a junkie living in Tangiers: William Burroughs. Ginsberg was told to go away and get the manuscript tidied up since it would “be inaccessible to the lay reader due to the deliberate lack of any rule whatsoever in the organization of the text.” In the late 1950s, no publisher in New York or London would have read beyond the first page of The Naked Lunch.
Girodias’ flair for finding and selling well-written porn and/or experimental writing did not go down well with everyone. Gore Vidal’s essay On Pornography in the 31 March, 1966 issue of The New York Review of Books was described by him as being “one of the most ungenerous pieces of writing which I have ever read.” The authorities seemed to agree with Vidal.
“Modern bourgeois extremism is being built up against bourgeois liberalism of old,” writes Girodias, “France is now entirely dominated, owned, manipulated exploited, milked, policed by les bourgeois for les bourgeois.” He was trailed by scandal as is a great courtesan by her lovers. President de Gaulle and “Tante Yvonne” (“Aunt Yvonne”), as his wife was known, keenly asserted the philosophy of “travail, famille, patrie” (“work, family, homeland”). Nabokov’s Lolita was banned, the “Brigade Mondaine” (“Vice squad”) paid regular visits to his offices and lawsuits began in earnest. “I have had 80 books banned — among which Lolita, The Ginger Man, Our Lady of the Flowers, Story of O, Candy, Fanny Hill — all books which are freely on sale in the United States — and I have had to cope with firm jail sentences amounting to as much, at times, as six years in all, and an 80 year and six months suspension of my publisher’s license.”
His allegedly unreliable memoirs, Une journée sur la terre: L’Arrivée (vol 1) and Les jardins d’eros (vol 2), published by éditions de la Différence in 1990 do not seem to be available in English, more’s the pity. Unreliable or not, they are unputdownable. However, to get a real feel for the man and the Paris of his time, and a superb slice of publishing history, John Calder’s memoirs published by Alma Books, The Garden of Eros: The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-war Literary Scene are an absorbing and essential read for anyone even remotely interested in publishing, twentieth-century Anglo-European culture, and the golden triangle of Girodias in Paris, Barney Rosset in New York and John Calder in London.
Some years ago, I enjoyed going to Calder’s book launches at the offices he shared with Black Spring Press near Waterloo Station. More recently the readings staged in the tiny theatre at the back of Calder Bookshop on The Cut in Waterloo opposite The Young Vic were well worth attending. Calder’s jovial twinkle belies a shrewd radical mind. His courage in standing up for what he truly believes in is rare in today’s publishing. He is one of the few who spoke up in the 1990s against the abolition of the net book agreement (NBA) which allowed publishers to set the retail price of books − thereby enabling publishers to subsidise works of important authors which did not sell in vast quantities. The free market was supposed to invigorate book publishing after the death of the NBA, but that’s not how it worked out. Calder branded the Publishers Association “craven, foolish, ignorant, suicidal” for failing to fight against the ruling. He predicted that independent traders would go under, and the large chains backing the abolition of the NBA would start to fail too, and then publishing would be in a mess. He was right.
Romantic revolutionary, or purveyor of porn? Read the books published by Girodias for yourself, and decide. (Get the genuine, original editions if you can. Publishers are apt to reissue old books revised and with new introductions to reignite interest in backlist classics). His view that, “Freedom must be total; to restrict it to literary or artistic expression is not enough. It must govern our lives, our attitudes our mental outlook,” is a much-needed antidote to conformist thinking.
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet, 2016.