Sweet sacrilege

When publisher Maurice Girodias found himself in Paris in the early ’50s, he hit on an idea. Concocting a catalog with titles such as I’ve Got a Whip in My Suitcase or The Chariot of Flesh, by the likes of "Count Palmiro Vicarion" or "Carmencita de las Lunas," Girodias would then cross his fingers and wait for the orders – and money – to roll in, at which point he was able to approach writers from the bohemian literary community to actually write the books. Thus was Olympia Press born.

Had Girodias stayed mainly with dirty books, he would probably be remembered only by randy sailors of a certain era. But something possessed this mild-mannered man of books to transgress what were considered the boundaries of good taste, literary merit and basic decency to publish works by authors whose style and/or subject matter induced other, less intrepid publishers to adopt a hands-off policy.

When beat poet Allen Ginsberg arrived at Olympia bearing a grungy, dog-eared manuscript penned by his friend William Burroughs, Girodias was initially skeptical. But he eventually published Naked Lunch, a beat masterpiece that employed addiction as a central metaphor for the condition of modern man. The novel’s visionary, fragmented prose and picaresque depictions of deviant sexual acts, bodily violation and societal corruption sought nothing less than the derailing of Western civilization.

With its disjointed narrative and hallucinatory imagery, Naked Lunch is essentially unfilmable, a fact that did not dissuade horror master David Cronenberg. In his 1991 film rendition, Cronenberg fuses biographical elements from Burroughs’ life with excerpts from the novel, an apt approach to rendering the work of a man whose life, legend and literary output are inextricably entwined.

The film opens as Burroughs (played by Peter Weller) plies his trade as an insect exterminator, often finding himself short of toxic pyrethrum powder because his wife Joan can’t seem to stop snorting it. Soon he encounters a massive, roach-like bug who informs him he is to become an agent in the Interzone.

After inadvertently shooting his wife in the head while playing William Tell, Burroughs sets out for the Interzone, which looks a lot like Tangier in Morocco. There he encounters a decadent American expatriate couple loosely based on the writers Paul and Jane Bowles, and begins writing his deadpan, matter-of-fact reports on a typewriter that periodically morphs into a voluble insect.

Though by no means a literal transliteration, Cronenberg’s film manages to capture the vertiginous sensation of common-sense reality upended that is similar in spirit to the experience of reading Burroughs’ novel.

Girodias also had the guts to publish Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s punning and allusive novel that employs both parody and pathos to tell the tale of pedophile Humbert Humbert’s fatal obsession with a 14-year-old "nymphet" – a "little deadly demon" who is "unconscious of her fantastic power."

Humbert, a middle-aged European professor of literature, arrives in New England and accepts lodging from the crass, pretentious young widow Charlotte Haze only after he catches a glimpse of her nubile young nymphet of a daughter, Lolita. Humbert enters into a marriage with Haze only in order to remain close to "Lo."

After Charlotte discovers the truth, she runs out into the street and is conveniently killed, leaving Humbert and Lo to each other. The illicit duo embark on a cross-country odyssey, eventually taking up residence in the college town where Humbert has a teaching position. There the fantasy-come-true turns into an oppressive nightmare and Lolita soon disappears with Humbert’s sexual rival, the hack playwright and pervert Clare Quilty.

Two versions of Lolita were made: the 1962 black-and-white film by Stanley Kubrick, and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 production.

The subject matter dovetails nicely with Kubrick’s main thematic concern, which N.Y. Times cultural critic Michiko Kakutani identifies as "the intrusion of irrationality upon the orderly, daylit world of logic and reason." Kubrick’s coolly stylized treatment seizes upon the parodic aspects of the text, and his Humbert (James Mason), Charlotte (Shelley Winters), narcissistic Lo (Sue Lyons) and Quilty (Peter Sellers) all deliver performances tempered by a distancing irony.

If Kubrick highlights the parody, Lyne goes for the pathos, using lyrical, expressive cinematography, deft pacing and naturalistic performances from his Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and Lo (Dominique Swain) to make the emotional experiences of these characters believable.

Girodias went on to publish other iconoclastic texts by authors such as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Georges Bataille. His adventurous publishing agenda did not go unnoticed by the arbiters of public decency, resulting in the banning of many titles and years of costly, time-consuming litigation.

But Girodias was committed to the notion of total freedom, not just in literary or artistic matters, but life as well. It’s ironic that, many decades after Girodias’ battles, Lyne still had trouble finding distribution for his film, reaching an audience only after Showtime took the risk of broadcasting this disturbing tale that some in the entertainment business had decided should not be seen.

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