The Olympia Press
Publishing history is awash, believe it or not, with scalliwags and scoundrels, grifters and grumps of every temperament and perversity.
In the 19th century, and earlier (and especially in the U.S.), there were dozens of publishers printing pirate copies of, for example, popular British authors like Charles Dickens. Copyright law eventually cracked down on this practice, but didn’t eliminate it entirely.
Harlin Quist comes to my mind first as a notable eccentric (though not a pirate). The man and his eponymous publishing house was responsible for dozens and dozens of beautiful avant-garde-type picture books for children in the 1960s and 1970s. He was not known for keeping up with his bills, however, or paying his artists and writers what he’d promised. Be that as it may, there were a few stalwart illustrators who produced several incredible books for Harlin Quist. They are lots of fun to collect.
The publisher who just came to my attention is The Olympia Press, founded in 1953 by one Maurice Girodias. He was a French publisher who sought out American and British authors who couldn’t publish their work in their own countries due to censorship restrictions. Generally best known for publishing the first edition of Nabokov’s Lolita.
To give some perspective, 1953 was also the year that comic books came under fire for supposedly subverting young, impressionable minds, based on dubious research. And also in America, books like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison were all also widely censored. These pale in comparison with the Olympia books.
When you pick up a book from Olympia Press, it doesn’t take long to figure out why they were banned in English-speaking countries. They are DIRTY. Raunchy, salacious, ….hilarious…., but wow. With any other genre, I’d quote a section as example. Here you’ll have to take my word for it – there are some passages I came across in The Debauched Hospodar that are just…. wrong, regardless of genre or context. To each their own, censorship is silly and ineffective, but wow. That doesn’t mean that ALL of the Olympia Press books were equally as dirty. Frankly, I found some of the passages to be incredibly hilarious in their absurdity, but also fascinating – I want to know who these authors were, what crazy lives they might have lived to have even imagined some of these things.
We acquired four of these books, in so-so condition, in their very generic, innocuous covers (as of writing, currently at auction on eBay with one day to go!). I pulled The Traveller’s Companion assuming it was some sort of old travel book – what countries? are there maps? …but it was clear within seconds that not only was it fiction, it was also incredibly sexually explicit! Intriguing! Peculiar!
The four we currently have available are:
The Traveller’s Companion by Akbar del Piombo (aka Norman Rubington)
The Rosy Crufixion Book One: Sexus by Henry Miller
The Libertine by Robert Desmond
The Debauched Hospodar by Guillaume Apollinaire (not part of The Traveller’s Companion series)
…and in the eBay listing I also included Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson, published by Zephyr Books, as it is from the same period, and includes the note on the back: “Not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” Not just not sold in these places, but not even to be INTRODUCED! As I say, that’s from a different publisher altogether, but it could equally apply to the Olympia books. See the photos:
…a brief excerpt that shows the additional historical interest, particularly regarding gender roles: