Not That Innocent

IN THE BEGINNING—before uncounted billions of sexual images of every description and for every voyeuristic taste had become endlessly, inexhaustibly available for viewing—was the Dirty Word. The etymology of pornography, after all, derives from porne, the Greek word for prostitute, and graphein, the verb for “to write.” Written representations of erotic acts have long been associated with the toppling of barriers of all sorts, the brain famously being known as the most sensitive sex organ and the place where the sensations of the eye are processed. And not just sexual barriers, but political ones as well. According to the historian Robert Darnton, in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, anger against the ancien régime was stoked by a lively trade in semi-pornographic literature, printed in Switzerland and smuggled into France, that portrayed the alleged corruption and licentiousness of the nobility. Illicit sexual thrills and righteous political resentment have ever proved a potent combination.

The rogue litterateur and publisher Maurice Girodias, né Kahane, was the greatest inheritor of this insurgent tradition in the twentieth century. Smut merchants routinely present themselves as the fearless tribunes of free and unfettered artistic expression (see: Larry Flynt). This is almost always a dubious proposition, but the role fit Girodias to an exceptional degree. No one has ever imparted a higher gloss to dirty books (or “DBs,” as he called them), and literary history would have been impoverished without the taboo-smashing masterpieces he published under the imprint of his Olympia Press: Lolita, Naked Lunch, Our Lady of the Flowers, Tropic of Cancer, The Ginger Man, Molloy, and the irreplaceable near masterpieces Story of O and Candy. In Girodias, a dirty mind was seamlessly welded to an exquisite literary taste. The books he published can be said to have ignited not just a sexual but also a cultural revolution, and we are living in the sexually saturated culture that he helped to usher in.

Of course the publication of censor-baiting Quality Lit usually requires a financial war chest to underwrite the costs of the inevitable litigation, and for that reason publishers of Girodias’s persuasion usually produce a less highbrow but more commercially secure and robust product—books aimed at the groin rather than the brain. Girodias helped bankroll his publishing enterprise by launching his louche line of paperback erotica, the Traveller’s Companion Series, the prestige brand in high-toned smut. The brilliantly chosen name evoked a grand tour of sensuous adventures in the finest hotels in Europe, and the discreet purchase of one of the books, with their chaste and elegant muted-green all-type covers, must have felt like booking a dirty weekend with oneself.

Even in this lower realm of literary endeavor Girodias managed to keep his standards well above the usual. No less an authority than Barney Rosset testified that “I could always spot a Girodias book—it would have an intellectualized sexual and political style.” To create this bespoke erotica, Girodias initially turned to the down-and-out circle of the avant-garde Left Bank literary magazine Merlin—including the colorful Scotsman (and literary hunk) Alexander Trocchi, the British poet Christopher Logue, and the American editor and translator Richard Seaver, who had already brought the work of the then-unknown Samuel Beckett to his attention. The Merlinois, as Girodias called them, repaired to their garrets to pound out sexual fantasies for a pittance, and soon the Traveller’s Companion Series was a going concern.

Out of all the writers of Traveller’s Companion titles, one of the most productive and to me the most exotic and interesting was the American novelist Iris Owens. A graduate of Barnard and a striking beauty who caught the eye of Beckett and of saxophonist Paul Desmond, among many others, Owens had decamped to Paris for the usual reasons and fallen in with the Merlin crowd, becoming Trocchi’s lover for a time. Under the nom de plume Harriet Daimler, given to her by Girodias presumably to evoke the luxury-automobile brand, she became one of his most reliable producers of DBs, authoring the titles Darling, The Organization, The Woman Thing, The Pleasure Thieves (cowritten with Marilyn Meeske), and Innocence.

Emma Kohlmann, Pinky Rose, 2015, watercolor and sumi ink on paper, 10 x 10".
Emma Kohlmann, Pinky Rose, 2015, watercolor and sumi ink on paper, 10 x 10".

I am a rabid fan of Owens’s foulmouthed comic masterpiece After Claude (1973), which captures the seedy and desperate essence of New York City in the early ’70s better than any other book I know of. So I also own the collected works of Harriet Daimler, most of them in cut-price and pirated American paperback editions, copyright registration not being one of Girodias’s strengths as a publisher. The reading experience they offer is a curious one, suspended somewhere between the purely pornographic and the Euro-literary and aimed at more than one pleasure center. Art-house porn, you might call them.

The twisted psychosexual Daimler approach can be seen most clearly in Innocence (the qualifying adjective debauched is very clearly implied). In its nest-of-vipers scenario, a sickly teenage girl, Adrian, the only daughter of wealthy American parents, is confined to her bedroom, deemed too fragile to survive intercourse, and condemned to virginity. But not for long! A sturdily voluptuous nurse, Rose, is assigned the job of Adrian’s care, and soon the two are having at each other every which way. Miserable Adrian approaches sex as a power game, and she exercises the domination of the weak: “Rose lived because she served me and away from me she would wither and become nothing.” Midway through the book, after Adrian has witnessed with keen sexual envy her father’s vigorous copulation with Rose (thinly displaced incest: check), her cousin Andre, an equally unpleasant piece of work, arrives from France with his eyes focused on landing an inheritance. He immediately susses out the complex sexual dynamics within the household and throws himself energetically into the mix.

The sex scenes (aka “the good parts”) in Innocence are certainly lubricious and explicit and arrive, as per formula, with predictable regularity. But the beings having the sex are not the happy, mindless rutting animals of standard-issue porn; they are instead neurotic, unhappy, self-conscious messes terminally tangled in their own sexual stratagems and those of their bedmates. And the stylish writing is chilly and precise, with many striking turns of phrase: Burying his head in Rose’s pillowy breasts, the father is described as being “like a child playing with the first winter snowfall.” If Harriet Daimler’s novels delivered the expected arousal to their readers, they must have done so with a considerable freight of angst and psychic distress. The physical sex in Innocence is hard to credit (if fun to read), but the complex emotional cocktail of abasement, fleeting joy, and lingering misery that accompanies it rings true. Somewhere in those pages is a Bergman film yearning to escape.

Quality Lit Porn is a virtually extinct genre these days, replaced by what is referred to in the book trade as “erotica” and swept away by the porn-driven internet. Reading the works of Daimler and her fellow toilers in the field of DBs can ignite a certain nostalgia for when sex still gave off the aroma of the forbidden. Looking back in 2003 with fondness at the odd literary salon that the Olympia Press writers constituted, Owens/Daimler recalled, “I don’t think any of us felt embarrassed by what we were doing. We were all very keen on the idea of sexual experimentation on and off the page.” That avant-garde spirit of carnal camaraderie is a big reason that Traveller’s Companion first editions are much prized by collectors today, often selling in multiples of the meager sums their impecunious scribblers were paid to produce them.

Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, is at work on a book about Malcolm Cowley.