Olympia Press

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In June, at Christie’s (New York), the Library acquired the collection of Olympia Press publications consigned by the Press’s bibliographer, Patrick Kearney. The work of many years, the Kearney collection brought together virtually the entire output of the Press, more than 400 volumes, published between the firm’s first imprint in 1953 and its last in 1974. Included are books issued in the firm’s several series, such as the Traveller’s Companion Series (Paris and New York), Ophelia Press, (Paris and New York), Collection Merlin, Ophir Books, Atlantic Library, Far-Out Books, Le Grande Séverine, Othello Books, and Odyssey Library.

Put “Olympia Press” into Google Book Search and back come thousands of citations. These range from appearances in such conventional works as Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature or the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives to less expected locales such as Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary.

This range of attention reflects that particular double character of the Olympia Press. In 1965, the New York Times noted

“Mr. [Maurice] Giordias began the Olympia Press on a shoestring in 1953. He catered to English speaking tourists, with high priced, highly spiced books in plain covers, stamped ‘not to be introduced into the United States or the United Kingdom.’ Olympia, however, always published more serious books as well. Its current list has such title as ‘The Ordeal of the Rod,’ ‘The Bedroom Philosophers,’ and ‘Lust’ with Lawrence Durell’s ‘The Black Book,’ Valdimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita,’ J.P. Donleavy’s ‘The Ginger Man’ and novels by Samuel Beckett.”

Illustrated above are the cover and first pages of the firm’s 1962 promotional price-list. The provocative red and black design raises questions.

What is censorship? Its history is that of a constant dialogue between the enforcer, the observant, and the violator. The terms of the dialogue change regularly with time and circumstance. Each side is bound by a sense of order. The enforcer and observant appeal to some sense of local, political order, while the violator usually appeals to some larger sense of order, such as that stemming from one’s sense of nature or of humanity.

It would be easy to push aside past known cases of censorship, as simply relics of a former age. On the other hand, if one is to understand the workings and character of the modern political state, then one must try to understand censorship. It is entirely possible that censorship is as definitive of the modern state as the doctrine of military power or the doctrine of copyright.

If we are to know what censorship meant for those who enacted, enforced, observed, and violated it, we need to see and know what was regarded as offending. A scholarly, disinterested motive to know the past is the basis on which the decision to make this purchase was made.

Cataloguing the collection — book by book — is partially completed and continues through the fall. The purchase also included “approximately 34 folders and envelopes containing typescripts, correspondence from Maurice Girodias (signed), Marco Vassi, and others, pamphlets, leaflets, photocopies of journal articles, and additional miscellaneous items relating to the publishing history of the Olympia Press.” These additional materials are in two parts: one gathered as Manuscripts Collection number C1262; the other as (Ex) Item … (in process, oversize).

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