Literary Censorship in Inter-War Paris


Literary Censorship in Inter-War Paris
Yesterday, my fellow ABA member Tim Bryars asked me to write a piece about literary censorship for the Association’s journal, with particular reference to the English-language presses operating in Paris between the two World Wars. We’ve become accustomed to thinking that the fight for the right to publish ‘difficult’ literature, begun in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, was definitively won in 1960 when the verdict in the Lady Chatterley trial was announced. It wasn’t. As I write this, French police are looking for the three masked gunmen who this morning killed twelve people (that figure may rise) at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine had published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, and in 2011 had named him its ‘editor-in-chief’. At least three people in France believe that’s more than enough reason to shoot dead twelve people. News outlets everywhere are expressing solidarity: here, The Independent has just published an article online, saluting Hebdo’s steadfast refusal to be censored. And they’ve illustrated the article with Hebdo cartoons, too — just none of the ones depicting Mohammed. They’ve self-censored an article written in praise of someone else’s refusal to self-censor. We have a long, long way to go.
 
The journey began in earnest in Paris immediately after the First World War, but the seeds had been sown in the nineteenth century with prosecutions against Baudelaire, for Les Fleurs Du Mal, and Flaubert, for Madame Bovary, both for offending public morals. Baudelaire was found guilty, Flaubert was acquitted, but both cases offended against the innate French regard for the intellectual. France found itself disinclined to punish writers for writing, and prosecutions of literary figures became more and more infrequent. When Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in Paris in 1922, the French found another reason to leave well alone. How, they asked themselves, would it be possible to find a perfectly bilingual jury to decide whether a book published in France, in English, was obscene? The publication of Ulysses was deplored in Anglophone editorials everywhere; France, on the other hand, was quietly, rightly, proud.

As the implications of this publish-in-English-in-France loophole sank in, English-language presses proliferated. But not all were set up to circumvent censorship. Gertrude Stein’s Plain Editions, for example, was founded in order to publish the work of Gertrude Stein, mainstream imprints having proved bafflingly uninterested in her work. Bob Brown’s Roving Eye Press and Walter Lowenfels’ and Michael Fraenkel’s Carrefour were similarly self-obsessed. But other tyro publishers were keen to make use of the freedom the loophole offered them. Robert McAlmon, newly wealthy thanks to his marriage of convenience to the lesbian Winifred Ellerman (better known as the novelist and poet Bryher), used his Contact Editions to publish work by expatriate Americans which would have attracted judicial attention at home: Gertrude Beasley’s My First Thirty Years, Bryher’s Two Selves, and collections of his own short stories. And Edward Titus’s Black Manikin Press (the most unrelentingly highbrow of all the Paris-based imprints of the period) enabled D. H. Lawrence to establish French copyright for Lady Chatterley’s Lover by publishing an edition in 1929 — thirty-one years before the book could be legally purchased in Britain.
 
Nearly all of the independent publishers of the time — Stein and Fraenkel and McAlmon and Crosby and Titus and Cunard — had one thing in common: they were as rich as Croesus, and could easily afford to run at a loss. Then, in 1929, this literary plutocracy was gatecrashed by a cash-strapped, one-lunged Mancunian beanpole called Jack Kahane, and his new publishing venture, the Obelisk Press. A failed playwright in Manchester before the War, a very brave soldier during it, and a failed novelist while convalescing afterwards, Kahane’s last throw of the dice was publishing — but for him, publishing had to pay. His business model was simple, shrewd and, it turned out, revolutionary. Step One: Buy the rights to books banned in Britain or the United States, and buy them very cheaply, from publishers eager to cut their losses. Step Two: Use the scandalised press coverage of the books’ suppression as free publicity for their Obelisk reincarnations. Step Three: Produce cheaply, and sell to visiting Anglophones looking for a thrill. Step Four: Reinvest, and repeat.
 
The Young and EvilCatering to thrill-seekers got Kahane up and running, but it wasn’t what he’d come into business to do. Using profits from the fast-selling smut, he also published books of genuine literary merit, books whose content made them unpublishable elsewhere. In this he was massively successful, artistically if not financially. By the end of the 1930s, Kahane had racked up a list filled with literary heavy hitters, a list whose importance outstripped that of all his far wealthier, and still far better known, publishing rivals. He published Richard Aldington’s incendiary anti-war novel Death Of A Hero; an early edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover; and a book which can lay just claim to be the first book in the genre we now know as Gay Lit., Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young And Evil. He published early work by Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin and, crowningly, the first four books by Henry Miller, among them Tropic Of Cancer, which would not be published legally in the United States until 1963.
 
After which it seemed all the battles had been fought, and won. Nah. Tell that to Salman Rushdie. And J. K.  Rowling, whose books are often absent from American school libraries because they contain witchcraft. And Mark Twain, though you’ll have to wait for his corpse to stop spinning at the indignity of having Huckleberry Finn cleaned up for him.
 
And tell it to Paris, a city which had twelve of its citizens shot dead because a magazine published some cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. You can see one of them here, alongside this article. What’s that? You can’t find it? Oh ...
 
We still have a long, long, way to go. 
Originally published in ABA Newsletter 384