Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Trocchi and Olympia Press

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published by Maurice Girodias’s Paris based Olympia Press in 1955 and upon release received overwhelmingly negative reviews. Regular customers wrote to Girodias asking ‘why are you publishing junk like this?’. Others stated, ‘You’re giving your self a bad name’; ‘Trash like this is a sheer waste of time’; ‘any more like the last one and you can strike my name from your list’. In contrast to the moral outcry which was to greet the novel following Graham Greene’s positive comments in the Times Literary Supplement, these early readers were not expressing outrage in response to Lolita’s alleged pornographic content. Instead, they were complaining that the novel was not pornographic enough; as an apparently transgressive book concerning a seductive teenage nymphet it was simply disappointing and failed to live up to its promise.

Olympia Press exerted a major influence on post-war avant-garde writing translating and publishing a wide range of high-calibre European writing. In collaboration with the literary review Merlin, Olympia published work by Beckett, Genet and Bataille, amongst others. Their primary source of revenue however, came from the production of original pornography, the ‘Traveller’s Companion’ series of ‘d.b.’s’ or ‘dirty books’. In addition to accepting completed manuscripts, Girodias would contract writers to quickly compose novels based upon pre-existing outlines which would then be sold to a readership of American expatriates, soldiers in Paris on the GI bill and an English contingent of ‘lonely men and repressed husbands’. It was this lucrative audience who reacted so badly to Lolita. Two authors whose work they celebrated, however, were Frances Lengel and Carmenicita De Las Lunas. These were both pseudonyms used by Merlin editor Alexander Trocchi who produced a number of novels and translations for Olympia between 1953 and 1956. The most successful of these was Helen and Desire written in 1954 and based upon John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

Nabokov diagnosed the particular marketplace expectations which contributed to the success of Helen and Desire and early failure of Lolita in his 1956 afterword, ‘On a Book entitled Lolita’. He claims that as a mode of writing pornography connotes ‘mediocrity, commercialism and certain strict rules of narration’. ‘Obscenity’, he argues, ‘must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the individual’. This aphrodisiac effect is compared to what Nabokov sees as the function of Lolita, and the primary role of fiction, to ‘afford’ the reader ‘aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art, (curiosity, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm’. In establishing this separation, Nabokov enacts what Susan Sontag identifies as one of the key arguments involved in any ‘mutually exclusive definition of pornography and literature’, in that pornography’s ‘single-minded address to the reader…proposing to arouse them sexually is at odds with the tranquil, detached involvement evoked by genuine art.’ Nabokov moves further in his argument when describing what he terms ‘the nerves’ of his novel. These are details such as ‘the class list at Ramsdale School, Charlotte saying ‘waterproof’ and Lolita in slow motion advancing upon Humbert’s gifts’ which are termed ‘the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the novel is plotted.’ We are told that these and other scenes ‘will be skimmed over, or never even reached by those who begin reading the book under the impression that it is something along the lines of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.’

The image of Nabokov ‘plotting’ his novel and his simulation of the consumer of pornography signposts an implicit narratological distinction in which pornographic writing operates primarily at the level of story in order to achieve the direct communication of sexual material with no additional intention. In contrast, the artistry of fiction occurs in the manner in which narrative material (which may or may not be of a sexual / erotic nature) is handled, organised and distributed through the text. Girodias mirrored this interpretation in his instructions to contracted writers. Olympia author Iris Owens stated that novels were requested to be ‘brutally frank’ and writers were discouraged from using parody or any other form of literary self-consciousness which would have had a ‘detumescent effect upon the expectant reader’. Linda Williams reinforces this emphasis upon the direct, visceral response terming pornography a ‘body genre’ which operates to create an intense physical reaction on the part of the viewer or reader. Similarly, Beatrice Faust states that it always aims ‘to record rather than to understand or to interpret’;

‘pornography documents sexual activity. It does not attempt to create fine prose beautiful images or craftsmanship. If written it is full of clichés, when filmed or photographed it neglects exposure and editing and other niceties because the technique only needs to be good enough to yield an unambiguous record. The main priority is recording the action, not the quality of that record, it never rises above reporting.’

Trocchi’s text initially appears to closely correspond with this position. It is structured around what Nabokov would term a ‘crescendo’ of sexual scenes with new variations and combinations’ as Helen moves through a series of international encounters. These scenes are rendered in graphic, occasionally clinical detail. In addition, the novel is built upon the motif of a ‘found’ manuscript; Helen’s written journal. This is presented to the reader alongside several interpolated letters from ‘Major Pierre Javet to his friend, Captain Jacques Dacaeur of the French Garrison at Mascara, Algeria’. This paratextual framing creates the sense that the collated document is less a novel concerning the character Helen than it is evidence highlighting the results of an investigation on the part of the two writers. Javet appears to have scanned the manuscript for markers of ‘real geographical reference’ (p.87) and states that much of the ‘information’ offered by the text has been ‘corroborated’ (p.88). A degree of transparency is attributed to the document as there is assumed to be a line of correspondence existing between signifier and signified. Javet assumes that the various markers and signposts can lead the reader directly to Helen as originary referent. Trocchi appears to be amplifying the explicit nature of his descriptions by superimposing upon the narrative of sexual interactions the teasing possibility of additional contact and connection.

In contrast to this narrative logic of revealing, discovery and unveiling, Lolita ‘transcends the genre of pornography’ as outlined by Nabokov through the deployment of Humbert’s elliptical and transformative narrative voice. We are mercifully spared a ‘detailed account’ his apparent ‘seduction’ by Lolita an omission which Humbert attributes to his lack of concern with ‘so-called sex’, the ‘animality which anybody can imagine’. Instead, his interest lies with ‘fixing’ the ‘perilous magic of nymphets’; a process of identification, which as the early description of a Girl Scout photograph indicated, requires the discerning eye of ‘the artist, the madman or a creature of infinite melancholy’. Away from a consideration of the provocative aspect of Nabokov’s novel, we may question the taboo subject matter of this gaze but in relation to the interpretations of pornographic writing thus far highlighted, we see that Nabokov provides us with more than the objective viewpoint of the reporter. Humbert’s creative observation pinpointing ‘the deadly demon among the wholesome children’ indicates a perspective very much removed from what Trocchi highlights as Helen’s voracious receptivity, her continual anxiety to ‘record everything, to break through the civilised shell of expression’.

Having said this, Trocchi’s polarised position in relation to Nabokov is not entirely unambiguous. Helen’s role as recorder appears to position the text in the tradition of the uncensored confession, similar to the novel’s ur-text, Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Cleland’s narrator in the opening ‘First letter, part one’ states that in writing she aims for ‘truth, stark naked truth’ and that she will ‘not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze wrapper on it but paint situations as they actually rose to me in nature’. Here it is the ‘truth’, the material recorded which is communicated in an uninhibited way. The statement in Trocchi’s text is similar, however it is Helen, the ‘I’ who is attempting to ‘break through the civilised shell of expression’ as a result of producing the record. It does not seem that Helen wants to create a transgressive document but instead uses the record to evade her own entry into representation It becomes a self-supplement behind which she disappears rather than a means to create an accurate indexical marker of her own identity and actions. Critics such as Clive Bloom, Steven Marcus and Gary Day have read the type of narrative investigations initiated by Javet as indicative of how pornographic writing appears to offer the reader a perspective of objectifying mastery. Helen’s desire for disappearance her intention to ‘sink finally and be absorbed’ by her most ‘archaic part…once the record is complete and the communication made’, problematises this approach. Trocchi shows and then denies the novel’s internal reader the primary object of desire thereby foregrounding what Bloom calls pornography’s ‘sleight of hand’, the manner in which ‘it allows the illusion of power as it fantasises away that power making the reader totally open to the objects they may never posses as it tricks them with their own essence.’

Girodias conceptualised pornography as an escapist mode of writing, an ‘outsider’ literature which provided an alternative to the other directed narcosis of ‘the repressive Anglo-Saxon world’. Although initially appearing significantly opposed, we see that the writings of both Trocchi and Nabokov question this role. Trocchi in particular seeks to dislodge the pornographic text from its position of alterity. As highlighted, this occurs not through a rejection or denial of its features as with Nabokov, but through a critique of the apparent escapism offered to the reader. In a 1954 Merlin essay, ‘Words and War’, Trocchi speaks of ‘the east / west deadlock today in which every pronouncement is underrun by the stubborn implication that the statements and intentions of the other side are wrong / evil’. This ‘political deadlock’ we are told finds expression culturally in what Trocchi calls ‘absolutist aesthetic theories’. It is the role of the writer, working through ‘various cultural media’ to ‘counter’ such theories. This aim I would argue is manifested in Helen and Desire a novel which neither celebrates nor demonises pornography but works to show the reader a number of the genre’s mechanisms. From this perspective, Trocchi’s argument carries a covert critique of Nabokov’s comments on pornography as his attempt at generic separation and transcendence could be seen to embody an aesthetic absolutism. Trocchi would argue that Nabokov’s astute standpoint is essentially counterproductive as whilst highlighting a problematic mode of writing, little is done to challenge or change this situation. To express this distinction in another way, when writing, Nabokov rejects the world of pornography leaving the consumer to wallow in his own carnality, whereas Trocchi, to borrow one of Nabokov’s own images, shows the ape his cage.

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