Olympia is a name with a double-pronged reputation. Known to be the short cut to publication for racy titles and raunchy material, the French publisher was also a haven for the avant-garde artists of its time.
Setting up shop in 1953, Olympia, although stationed in France, published a large body of American, Russian, and generally not-French works. This was partially due to the fact that France was less likely to question the lewd material the publisher was churning out if they couldn’t read it. Yet, it was also due to the bubbling urge to explore the devious, the sexual, and the absurd with a newfound excitement in the Western world. From novels centering on the gay drug subculture of New York City to Scientology, these authors got a their foot in the door – and the canon – thanks in part to Olympia.
William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch
The Naked Lunch proved to be an extremely difficult book to push through publication. It wasn’t just it’s raw content, a narrative shaped by drug abuse, few delineations between reality and dream, graphic language, and sex. The structure of the narrative also presented a tricky sell. Structured in such a way that the chapters could be read in any particular order, Burroughs’s most crude novel was rudimental in construction too. However, the work was just experimental and odd enough for it catch the eye of Olympia, who published Naked Lunch in 1959.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Lolita’s taboo subject of pedophilia and questionably consensual sex was too vulgar a topic to pass the moral filters of other publishers. Turned down by Viking, Simon & Schuster, and Straus, among others, Nabokov resorted to publishers in France in an attempt to get the title published. Although he initially intended to publish under a pseudonym, Nabokov ultimately took his own name for Lolita, misunderstanding the racy reputation Olympia had in 1955.
Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable
Beginning with a Kafkaesque plot in which Molloy is mysteriously incarcerated, the trilogy goes onto recount Molloy escaping in search of his mother, and ruminating on life as he’s seemingly dying. After his questionable death – was it Molloy or another who dies on us? – Our protagonist returns in the third part of the trilogy questioned by an unnamed authority on the whereabouts of Molloy. It’s an odd cerebral quest, full of unanswered questions, plot confusion, and voices that appear only to disappear without much context. Classic modernism.
Robert Kaufman’s Inside Scientology
The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about this read. It also offers a reason for it’s publishing difficulties. Scientology, admittedly, is usually received as some cultish refuge for celebrities, if not a sanctuary for wackos or those at the peak of an identity crisis. It’s not the most lucrative topic to pitch to a publisher, but Olympia was all ears, pushing it to the print house in 1972.
Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion
Millers trilogy series, Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus, was initially banned in the U.S. due to a ’64 Supreme Court ban. The trilogy was, as the New York Times reviewed it, a series of “licentious sex scenes [used] to set the stage for his philosophical discussions of self, love, marriage and happiness.” Or as a friend of the author put it, a “shower of lavatory filth which no longer seems tonic and bracing, but just excrementitious and sad.”
Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye
Bataille’s 1928 novella was later taken up, in 1979 by Olympia and published under a new name of A Tale of Satisfied Desire. Despite the name change, the story remained relatively untouched. The short story focuses on the bizarre sexual experiences of two teenage lovers. Hinging on concepts of voyeurism, mental illness, and lust, the narrative takes the reader through several vingettes including but not limited to orgies, sex in front of mom, near-necrophilia and voluntary bloodletting. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man
Set in post WWII Dublin, The Ginger Man was initially banned in both Ireland and the U.S. for its protagonist’s racy sexual escapades. Since it’s publication in 1955, however, the book has risen the ranks to critical acclaim as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.
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