BOOK REVIEW / Royalties for a naked lunch: 'The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press' - John de St Jorre: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

WHAT kind of man would publish titles like White Thighs, Bottoms Up, The Loins of Amon, The Whipping Club or Heaven, Hell and the Whore? Oddly enough, the kind of man who also published Samuel Beckett, Lawrence Durrell, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov and J P Donleavy.

Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press began his career with fine art books and diversified to the low art of pornography. In the early Fifties, the world was full of lonely troops, while Paris was full of talented English and American writers prepared to churn out erotic nonsense. The poet Christopher Logue, alias Count Palmiro Vicarion, was one of them.

Exactly how dirty these dirty books were is not revealed by The Good Ship Venus, which spares us any quotes. Perhaps they were no more salacious than the kind of thing written today by women MPs, but they counted then as state-of-the-art porn. What matters is that John de St Jorre makes an intriguing (and tasteful) yarn out of a publishing company battling against the censors and its own waywardness. His chapter on Story of O goes on a bit, but it is a wonderful piece of detective work which uncovers the identity, kept secret for 40 years, of the writer of this sado-masochistic classic.

The French authorities were more tolerant than the English killjoys, and more easily fooled. The English version of Lolita was banned in France, but the French translation was allowed. Candy, the tale of a much abused girl, was forced off the streets until re- issued as Lollipop.

The merit of the Olympia list was that it included works of literary value which other publishers found too hot to handle. This should have been a winning combination, but Girodias managed to turn potential moneyspinners into fool's gold. He rubbed the always volatile Donleavy up the wrong way, and The Ginger Man led to a feud which obsessed both of them for years, ending when the author snapped up the bankrupt Olympia Press at auction.

Girodias was unbusinesslike to a fault. His book-keeping was held to be as fantastical as his books. He would grudgingly dole out payment in dribs and drabs to authors desperate for an abortion or a meal. As William Burroughs discovered over Naked Lunch, the concept of royalties was totally alien. But Girodias always had cash for the law suits which became his hobby. When Lolita hit the top of the American bestseller lists, the 'kamikaze publisher' soon managed to throw away his earnings. Underneath his office, he set up a theatre-restaurant complex called Chez Lolita: the restaurant was gutted by fire and the theatre was closed down by the gendarmes.

Legally banned from producing books in France for 80 years - a handicap for a publisher - he moved to New York, where one of his new titles was an imaginary account of the sexual escapades of 'President Kissinger'. This seems to have prompted problems over his lack of a visa. His only lucky break in America was that when one of his writers, the woman behind SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men), came round to shoot him, he was not at home. She went away and plugged Andy Warhol instead, and Girodias used the resulting newspaper cutting on the cover of her book.

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