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The Good Ship Venus: Erotic Voyage of Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press - John De St. Jorre I had vaguely heard the name Maurice Girodias before, but I really knew nothing about him until I read this exceptional book. It is a kind of professional biography of the man who ran the infamous Olympia Press, as well as a wonderfully-evoked portrait of bohemian Paris from the 30s to the 60s.

Olympia was basically a publisher of dirty books – DBs, as Girodias called them – which were illegal under the censorship laws in Britain and the US. Works like Bottoms Up or The Loins of Amon sold like crazy in Paris, not least by mail-order to various connoisseurs and American Naval bases around the world. But Girodias (or "Gid", for short) also had a genuine eye for literature and a driving desire to piss off the Establishment in whatever form it might take, which meant that Olympia also published some of the greatest countercultural books of the twentieth century – books which no one else would touch.

The list is pretty awesome. They published early drafts of Finnegans Wake. Henry Miller was down to his last couple of francs when Olympia agreed to print Tropic of Cancer. Samual Beckett's great prose trilogy. Lolita. Jean Genet, Lawrence Durrell, JP Donleavy. Candy. Right up to Naked Lunch, and beyond. It's practically a checklist of every book I ran through deliriously while I was a teenager.

If ever there was a book to make you want to abandon remunerative pursuits and be a penniless, struggling writer, it's this one. It immerses you in the world of Left-Bank Paris, with jaw-dropping anecdotes about all the characters concerned which will make anyone with any interest in these writers very happy. The pages practically reek of unfiltered Gauloises and cheap red wine. The research is exemplary – St Jorre has spoken to everyone involved, some of whom have the most incredible recollections. . .like this from Gid's brother on his childhood:

One day I was in [my father's] apartment in a long corridor, where I was playing with my toys. Suddenly the door at the far end opened and [James] Joyce came out to go to the loo at the other end of the corridor. He was just about blind by then and those huge glasses he wore made him a little frightening. The corridor was very narrow and he was touching the walls on both sides. I felt trapped and did not want to be seen or touched by him. Thanks to French plumbing there were plenty of lead pipes running up the walls. So I climbed up to the ceiling and hung on for dear life. Just as he passed under me, he reached up, pulled me by the ankle and threw me down on to the floor. "You shit," he said and went on to the toilet.

Nabokov comes across, as usual, as a rather vindictive and arrogant man. Lolita, of course, made his name, but he deeply resented the fact that he had had to resort to such a disreputable company to get it published, and he fell out with Girodias in a big way. Gid's brother Eric Kahane translated Lolita into French, which took "sixteen months of intense effort" – "it was like lace work". Not helped by the fact that

Nabokov insisted on reading every word and conducted a huge correspondence [...] with as much as four pages of a letter devoted to the meaning of a single word. At times this would verge on the ridiculous as, for instance, finding the best French phrase to describe the "peachy fuzz" on Lolita's arms. Kahane tried out peau de pèche but Nabokov would not have it and came up with an archaic word meaning "wild gooseberry" that he said was in an 1895 edition of Larousse. "I don't remember who won that battle," said Kahane.

Sadly, Gid had a tendency to deeply upset virtually all his authors, mainly through the expedient technique of failing to pay them. He never had any money, but was so ludicrously charming that whenever anyone went round to demand cash, he would say something flattering or offer them a cigar and suddenly they were halfway home again with less money than before.

The chapter on Story of O is a masterpiece essay in itself. It was St Jorre who discovered the true identity of "Pauline Réage" (now to be found everywhere on the internet) and it's a great, great tale. Another highlight for me was the sketch of William Burroughs's character. I had always imagined that he must be a very weird and detached person, but in this book he comes across as rather kind and witty, albeit mostly junked up to the eyeballs or in bed with teenage boys. Usually both.

It was also quite a surprise to discover Girodias's involvement with Valerie Solanas, the disturbed American lesbian activist who wrote the impressively anti-male Up Your Ass and a tract called the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). Girodias met her after he moved to New York, was impressed by her writing and thought she was great. For some time she seemed to like him too, but then one day, in the grip of some kind of episode, she went round to his house with a loaded gun. Gid happened to have flown to Canada the day before. Finding him not there, she went instead to Andy Warhol's place, and shot him three times.

For all these fascinating sidelights, this is above all a book about Paris in the golden age of underground literature. It's also the best literary history I've ever read. Girodias emerges as a tragically flawed but heroic and likeable character, and the artistic period and location speak for themselves. It's also very, very funny – the Spectator's review pointed out that "just about every chapter could be the basis for a comedy series". I could go on, but you might as well get a copy yourself. I can't imagine anyone reading this and not coming out delighted, and inspired.

Currently reading

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