Censored out: Actor Neil Pearson's new book focuses on a very British pornographer

Actor Neil Pearson has just written a scholarly book about a risqué publisher and his extraordinary output. But, he explains, he's not giving up the day job

Tom Rosenthal
Sunday 07 October 2007 00:00

as a lifelong book collector who has spent a lot of time with similarly afflicted folk, I have no doubt that bibliomania is a disease and that the majority of such people are, as far as their particular hobby – or, rather, obsession – is concerned, simply barking. So it is refreshing to report that at least one of us, the actor Neil Pearson, is reassuringly sane. Neither can he remotely be characterised as a "luvvie".

Famous for roles in TV's Drop the Dead Donkey, the film Fever Pitch, the Bridget Jones movies, and many more, he has also acted in some of the best of English drama, from various Pinter plays to the first West End production of Patrick Marber's Closer. He skipped university to go to drama school and, like many other artists who went straight into their chosen profession, is phenomenally well read. When we meet for lunch there is little show-business gossip, only detailed book talk about the contents as well as the different editions and printings.

If bibliomaniacs are on the outer reaches of sanity, then the deepest crazies have to be the bibliographers. So the very existence of Pearson's book Obelisk is quite extraordinary. Even odder is that, in a category not known for interest, let alone readability, Pearson has managed to produce a book which, while giving you all the bibliographical data you could possibly wish for in tried and true traditional form, also keeps you reading eagerly from first page to last.

Obelisk is the account of everything produced by a single publishing house and is, therefore, a compendium of almost infinite variety. The fascination of the narrative is also in no small way due to the fact that the publisher, Jack Kahane, was a quite bizarre blend of ultra-sophisticated, avant-garde literary entrepreneur and, by the standards of his time, pornographer.

Kahane, a variant spelling of Cohen, was a diminutive Manchester Jew, the son of a not very successful businessman who was intermittently rich but failed and cut his throat. Kahane went to Manchester Grammar School and was determined to become both a bohemian and a man of letters. He founded and attended various intellectual groups and debating societies. He harangued Richter, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, for concentrating on the German repertory and therefore neglecting the French composers whom Kahane revered. His friends included the leading dramatists of the Manchester School, such as Harold Brighouse, author of Hobson's Choice, and Stanley Houghton.

Kahane was himself an unsuccessful playwright. In 1914 he tried – and failed – to join the French Foreign Legion but eventually obtained a commission in an English cavalry regiment and, in general, had a "good war": he was recommended for a Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches.

Always a Francophile, he moved to Paris, married a wealthy French woman, Marcelle Girodias, and among his children, produced a son, Maurice, who, during the Second World War when a Jewish name was a death sentence, adopted his mother's name and founded the even more successful pornographic imprint, the Olympia Press. Maurice Girodias, if anything, even outstripped his father as a publisher of English language books in France, with a list that included such then unpublishable titles as Nabokov's Lolita, Donleavy's The Ginger Man and William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch before they became "respectable" classics.

I ask Pearson why he took on this unusual subject. "The fact that no one else has," he grins. It all began when he became obsessed with collecting the entire output of the Obelisk Press. "I went to consult this book and found that no one had written it. So I started to compile a checklist and, after a while, such is my maniacal sense of order, it became a project rather than a way to pass a few hours. And here we are, four years down the line, and there's a 500-page book in front of me."

His original plan was to write three books, he tells me, starting with a full biography of Kahane, but there was an immediate setback. "I soon discovered that there was no archive. All the papers of the Obelisk Press were destroyed either during the war or by Kahane or by his son Maurice Girodias. There was no chest full of family papers so the result is the brief biography with which the book begins.

"Secondly, I wanted to write a series of biographical profiles whose length would be in inverse ratio to the fame that those writers eventually achieved. Obviously. if you want to know about James Joyce you don't come to me, you go to Richard Ellmann. So I concentrated on the books Kahane had published – and he had published a lot of very obscure writers who had been lost to time."

The quest was on. "Using that thrill of the chase that most book collectors have, I tried to track these people down, find out why they were in Paris between the wars and to sort out which were genuine literary writers whose work, for sexual or other reasons, could not be published elsewhere, and those who simply wrote for the one-handed reader and therefore sold sufficiently well and profitably to help pay for the literary authors in whom Kahane passionately believed."

So how did the publisher operate? "Essentially what Kahane did was to get hold of books banned in England such as The Well of Loneliness, by the lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall, and sell them to anglophone visitors to Paris where they could not be prosecuted since the French, with their usual cool logic, had obscenity laws that applied only to works published in French."

When I ask Pearson why he had read the entire, multifarious and often, frankly, rank bad books published by Kahane, he laughs: "I read them, mostly, so that you don't have to." Had writing the book made him like Kahane? "No, not especially. But I warmed to the character, as I warm to all characters in the way that my day job, acting, helped me to sympathise with characters who weren't sympathetic. As an actor of course you have to find your way into a person, no matter how dislikeable. That ability, which I've used professionally for 25 years or so, I found useful in getting to understand, if not like, some of the characters in my book."

James Joyce is a case in point, I suggest. Pearson readily agrees: "Difficult to live with; difficult to like. He was an atrocious sponger, and parasite, an atrocious abuser of friendships who happened to be the literary genius of the 20th century, so you have to find a way in, of course you do; and the same was true of Kahane. He was dislikeable. The more I got to know him the more I was sure that we wouldn't have had too much to say to each other if we were ever left in the same room together."

Yet Pearson is so fair-minded and even-handed in his study of Kahane's life and work, you end up sneakily admiring and respecting this self-made intellectual figure who wrote bad novels which he published, pseudonymously, in his own rather rackety publishing house, pursued Joyce with an avidity that would not have disgraced one of today's rock-star groupies and took on the scabrous prose of Henry Miller half a century before it became legally possible to do so in England or America.

"Kahane was a Zelig-like character," Pearson confirms. "He was on the fringes of every important literary movement and event of his lifetime. Yet whenever he tried to make his name he found himself upstaged by the people around him. He was, I would contend, both the least known and yet the most enduringly useful of the publishers between the wars. I think that would be a consolation since he really wanted to be Joyce or Miller or even Stanley Houghton."

As he is now a writer himself, Pearson is quite aware of the relative rewards of being a successful actor or a serious writer. "The advance I was given for four years of scholarly work I could have earned in an hour in a Soho recording suite, doing a voice-over for a documentary."

Pearson has a dry wit entirely appropriate to his subject. Of one of Kahane's big money spinners, Frank Harris's four volume My Life and Loves, he writes: "The book has a cast of thousands, but only one character. If Harris were more likeable this would be less of a problem, but 1,000 pages spent in the company of a solipsistic boor, however talented and well-connected, is hard to take."

As someone who has been professionally involved with books for a lifetime, I've dipped into more bibliographies than I care to count. Most are significant contributions to scholarship, but very few are enjoyable, since they are usually little more than an indigestible collection of facts and figures. Obelisk, in Pearson's skilled hands, is actually an entertaining and immensely readable book in its own right, full of good colour illustrations and excellent value for money.

It's chastening to think, from the vantage point of the unshockable 21st century, that it took a combination of the high-handed and hypocritical censorship of the British authorities and a Mancunian Jewish purveyor of pornography, living a life of cultivated freedom in Paris, to ensure the publication in unexpurgated form of such literary classics as Joyce's Haveth Childers Everywhere, Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool, Richard Aldington's First World War classic Death of a Hero, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Lawrence Durrell's The Black Book, James Hanley's Boy and many more. The literary world owes a lot to Kahane and the Obelisk Press, and to Pearson's lively account of their adventurous publishing life. *

The extract

Obelisk: A history of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press

By Neil PearsonLiverpool UP £25

"...Jack Kahane couldn't afford to adopt such a position: for him, publishing had to pay. Almost alone among the independent publishers, Kahane had no independent means, and he was also one of the few who wasn't homosexual, infertile or otherwise childless. He had a wife and children to support: keen as he was to find the next Joyce or Eliot, Kahane was even keener to feed his family... If publishing a piece of worthless rubbish was likely to produce profits that could underwrite the publication of a book of high literary worth... he would publish and be damned."

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