In 1960, the judge in the Lady Chatterley trial famously declared that Lawrence's book, Lady Chatterley's Lover, was not obscene: that Penguin could publish the novel without fear of prosecution; and that bookshops could sell a copy to anyone who wanted one -- even wives and servants. The ruling meant British publishers were now free to treat British readers like adults. But although the case was groundbreaking, its enduring fame has accorded it an inflated importance. By no means every battle was won, post-Chatterley. It would be dfficult to convince Salman Rushdie that all authors can now publish freely and without fear. J.K.Rowling, whose Harry Potter books have been excluded from school libraries for encouraging witchcraft, might take some persuading that the fight for intellectual freedom was won more than fifty years ago. And the belief that we can now read what we like would be given short shrift by those still mourning their loved ones in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders.

The fight against literary censorship didn't end with the Lady Chatterley trial. It didn't begin there either. Lady Chatterley's Lover was first published in 1928, in Florence, and Lawrence spent the rest of his life trying to secure copyright for the book in the rest of Europe, to protect it from piracy. He found the bravest publishers in France. And one of the bravest of them was a gangly Mancunian war hero called Jack Kahane.

Kahane articleKahane was born in 1887, the son of a successful textile merchant. As a young Edwardian man-about-town, Kahane was an enthusiastic champion of the arts, and friendly with the Manchester School of playwrights, among them Harold Brighouse (Hobson's Choice) and Stanley Houghton (Hindle Wakes). With the onset of war in 1914 the francophile Kahane rushed to enlist. He was shelled and gassed, and spent many years after the war convalescing. He'd married a Frenchwoman, and spent the 1920s as a struggling novelist, writing being one of the few occupations his health would permit him to undertake. In 1929, with financial help from his father-in-law, he bought a half share in a small English-language publishing house in Paris. It was the making of him. It was also the start of the fight against literary censorship, a fight that would see victory at the Lady Chatterley trial more than thirty years later.

In the struggle for literary freedom, two prevailing factors made French soil particularly fertile: the traditional French regard for the intellectual, and a loophole in the country's obscenity laws. The nineteenth century had seen prosecutions against Baudelaire, for Les Fleurs Du Mal, and Flaubert, for Madame Bovary, both for offending public morals. Baudelaire was found guilty, Flaubert was acquitted, but both cases offended against the innate French respect for the life of the mind. In the wake of the trials France found itself increasingly disinclined to punish writers for writing, and prosecutions of literary figures were rare. When the saintly Sylvia Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses in Paris in 1922, the French found another reason to leave well alone. How, they asked themselves, would it be possible to find a perfectly bilingual jury with the linguistic skill to decide whether a book published in France, in English, was obscene? The publication of Ulysses was deplored in Anglophone editorials everywhere; France, on the other hand, was quietly, rightly, proud.

As the implications of the publish-in-English-in-France loophole sank in, English-language presses proliferated -- among them, Jack Kahane's Obelisk Press. His business model was simple, shrewd and, it turned out, revolutionary. Step One: Buy the rights to books banned in Britain or the United States, and buy them very cheaply, from publishers eager to cut their losses. Step Two: Use the scandalised press coverage of the books' suppression as free publicity for the Obelisk reincarnations. Step Three: Produce cheaply, and sell to visiting Anglophones looking for a thrill. Step Four: Reinvest, and repeat.

tropic of cancer article
Catering to thrill-seekers got Kahane up and running, but it wasn't what he'd come into business to do. Using profits from the fast-selling smut, he also published books of genuine literary merit, books whose content made them unpublishable elsewhere. By the end of the 1930s, Kahane had racked up a list filled with literary heavy hitters. He published Richard Aldington's incendiary anti-war novel Death Of A Hero, and Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler's The Young And Evil, a book which can lay just claim to be the first in the genre we now know as Gay Lit. He published early work by Lawrence Durrell and Anais Nin and, crowningly, he published the first four books by Henry Miller, among them Tropic Of Cancer, which would not be published legally in the United States until 1963.

 

And Kahane published Lady Chatterley's Lover, in English, in France, in 1936 -- twenty-four years before the Penguin edition first appeared in Britain. Jack Kahane's health was destroyed by World War One; he died the day World War Two began. Between these two conflagrations he fought with distinction against those who would deny us the freedom to read, and prepared much of the ground for the successes which would come later. Kahane published both Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover decades before they were available in their authors' home countries. Others have been given the credit for breaking down the doors of literary censorship. But way back in the 1930s, Jack Kahane had unscrewed the hinges.

 

[The film A Very British Pornographer: The Story Of Jack Kahane, written and presented by Neil Pearson, will be shown on BBC4 some time this year. Possibly.].


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