MAURICE GIRODIAS opens his autobiography with an anecdote. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, down on his luck and broke, he approached the English publisher John Calder and asked for a loan. Calder, pleading penury, instead offered valuable advice: Announce your memoirs. Everybody, he explained, would want to publish the adventures of the unfortunate scoundrel who brought out Lolita, Naked Lunch, The Ginger Man, not to mention The Story of O and Candy, and thereby virtually alone effected the sexual liberation of England and America. Although alerting fellow publishers he intended to tell all failed to bring Girodias the financial bounty Calder predicted it would, he has now produced, after 12 years, a rambling, irreverent, seriocomic, candid description of his pursuit of that elusive thing called manhood.
Like all accounts of growing up, this one is crowded with struggle. The offspring of an English father and a French mother, neither of whom seems overly attached to the other, and hardly at all to their son, Girodias set out early to find a surrogate family. Following a harrowing confinement in a private school for incorrigibles, he drifts into a gathering of theosophists, one of whom, a silver-haired guru with Luciferian features, captures his attention. Even more arresting are his two vestals; the older, Laurette (she's 18, the author 16), claims his heart. In their incense-filled ashram the searcher's quest ends. "I've found," he cries.
Being in love with a virgin guardian devoted to service and a life of purity proves to be an excruciating and exhausting burden. Girodias confesses that his innocent state extended into his 20th year only because of Laurette's rigid asceticism and his own willingness to serve as her soldier-monk. Seldom have desire and renunciation been joined in so mighty a battle. Four years after their first meeting the faithful soldier-monk swoons when his beloved, in a spasm of spiritual rapture, unexpectedly clasps his hand.
Emotionally confused and battered, Girodias starts for India and a new guru, only to return to Paris when his money runs out in Nice. He plunges into the theosophist's newest experiment, global federalism, only to watch it collapse under the onslaught of fascism. What remains of his faith in a better world expires in the ruins of the Spanish Civil War. With his "life-system" (individual anarchy) depleted, he attempts suicide, only to fall when the knot slips. From additional calamities he is rescued by his father, publisher Jack Kahane.
For a few years before the outbreak of war in Europe, Kahane's Obelisk Press was the principal producer of erotic books in English. Though nearly all the small Paris-based presses that preceded it had disappeared, Girodias dismisses their influence too summarily. Financial failures and the whims of their rich and eccentric owners they may have been, but their nonprofit status was a badge of honor that signified rejection of the overcommercialized book business. Also, from their tiny quarters, flowed important publications (e.g., Hemingway's In Our Time, Beckett's Whoroscope, Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, and Hart Crane's The Bridge), impressive evidence of their owners' taste and belief.
As Girodias notes, however, the Obelisk existed to earn profits, and erotica guaranteed large ones. But for Kahane, an irrespressible bon vivant, life would be incomplete until he found an author as great as James Joyce with a book as sensational as Ulysses. Meanwhile, for the tourist trade, he turned out d.b's (dirty books) of his own making with titles like Amour, French for Love, as well as such banned books as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and Frank Harris' massive My Life and Loves, both celebrated casualties of Anglo-American censorship. When a local literary agent gave Kahane Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer to read, he proclaimed it the "most terrible, the most sordid, the most magnificient manuscript" he had ever seen, and when a friend assured him it would make Lady Chatterley's Lover and Ulysses seem like lemonade, Kahane knew he had discovered gold -- and "genius." He asked his son to design a cover, and Girodias, flush with pride and inspiration, drew a "black crab shape sprawled out over a terrestrial globe." Locked in its claws is a "human silhouette, prostrate."
Nothing can propel one into manhood faster than war. The most vivid writing in The Frog Prince describes the fall of Paris. As the French prepare to desert the city, or to dig in, the author, who has taken his mother's name and obtained false French credentials, watches incredulously as the results of French ineptitude and self-deception unfold. The first casualty is his father, a Jew, who having spent a lifetime abjuring his heritage, falls victim to Hitler's diabolism. With the Germans settling down for a long occupation. Girodias assumes his father's business, prudently discarding erotica in favor of art books. At 21, he is the youngest publisher in Paris, perhaps in the world.
Conincident with the appearance of the enemy is the author's long delayed sexual release. A romp with a lusty waitress liberates him from virginity as well as from the theosophists. But grander initiatory rites are conducted by a lonely Greek woman (the princess of the fairy tale?) who leads the novice to the coastal fortress of Mont St Michel, crawling with Germans, and to a small hotel where, in the topmost chamber, "all paradise breaks loose."
As for the great literary adventures Calder predicted would make his friend's memoirs irressistible, they lie ahead just a few years. Our appetites have been pleasantly whetted. Now we await the feast.