The brutal attack on author Salman Rushdie in New York on August 12 has reignited discussions around censorship in literature.
Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” an ambitious work of magical realism, received one of the most violent and enduring backlashes in literary history for its treatment of Islamic lore. Its 1988 release was met with demonstrations, riots and bans in Muslim-majority countries. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 calling for the author and everybody who worked on the book to be killed, after which an Italian translator of the novel was stabbed, a Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses” murdered, and a Norwegian publisher shot and wounded. Rushdie was forced into hiding for years; the book is still banned in more than a dozen countries, including Iran, India and Kenya.
The motive behind this month’s attack on Rushdie is still unclear, but the incident “highlights that suppression and censorship of books has been going on for centuries and is still happening today,” said Pom Harrington, director of the upcoming Firsts: London Rare Book Fair, which centers around the theme of banned books.
The fair, which features more than 120 exhibitors and runs September 15-18 at London’s Saatchi Gallery, encompasses a broad sweep of censored titles cutting across history and geography. It will include books banned for obscenity, blasphemy and security reasons, among them the discoveries of Copernicus and an edition of “Dr. Zhivago” covertly published by the CIA to undermine the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The event commemorates the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses,” which was banned in both the United States and the United Kingdom upon its initial release; a signed first edition of “The Satanic Verses” will also be on show.
A common theme of book bans throughout history is that censorship tends to backfire and make its targets more popular, said Harrington pointing to the case of “Spycatcher,” an autobiography by a former MI5 officer that became a bestseller after it was banned in 1987.
“The more you suppress, the more people fight it,” he added.
The fair’s collection of censored works features a number of titles, including the ones below, that are considered classics in some jurisdictions and contraband in others.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Nabokov’s story of a pedophile’s infatuation with a young girl predictably fell foul of censors in the UK, so French publisher Maurice Girodias – a champion for banned works who specialized in erotica – put the first copies into print. English novelist Graham Greene campaigned for the novel’s release in Europe, arguing “Lolita” was a metaphor for the corruption of the old world (Europe) by the new (the United States). Bans in several countries were overturned by the time Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation came out in 1962, and the book became a hit. But it remains high on the list of the most banned and challenged texts in US schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association.
“Animal Farm” by George Orwell (1945)
US and UK publishers rejected Orwell’s satire on the dangers of Stalinist repression during World War II, when they feared the novella could undermine their alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler, but later rushed to embrace it when the Soviets became the enemy during the Cold War. “Animal Farm” was off-limits in Eastern bloc until the fall of the USSR, and later the United Arab Emirates banned it for its depiction of pigs as leading characters, which some considered to be in contradiction with Islamic values.
“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller (1934)
“I’m not sure it would be published today,” said Tom Ayling of Jonkers Rare Books, which sells limited editions of Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel about life as a struggling writer in Paris. The prevalence of violent sex scenes and misogynist language would be a hard sell for modern audiences, he argued. Only Obelisk Press, an outlet better known for distributing pornography, would publish “Tropic of Cancer” in 1934. US customs banned the book the same year, but it circulated on the black market until the Supreme Court declared it non-obscene in 1964. Turkey outlawed the novel as recently as 1986.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
Lawrence’s agent advised the author that his risqué tale could not be published in the UK, due to both its sexually explicit content and its depiction of then-taboo relationships between members of different societal classes. The author eventually secured a limited English-language print run via an Italian publisher. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was not published in the UK until 1960, where it became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial fought by publisher Penguin Books against the state. Penguin won and, on the first day the novel became available, 200,000 copies sold. The book was subsequently banned in China in 1987 on the grounds that it would “corrupt the minds of young people and is also against the Chinese tradition,” although it is unclear if prohibition is still enforced.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce (1922)
US magazine The Little Review initially serialized Joyce’s magnum opus, but the work’s sexual passages – particularly a masturbation scene – resulted in an obscenity trial, and the series was halted. The UK also banned “Ulysses,” but Joyce found a publisher in Paris to print the work in its entirety for the first time in 1922; the book swiftly became a black-market hit even as copies were seized and burned by the US Postal Service and at British ports. But in 1933, a US judge ruled the book was not obscene, and it began to circulate widely. “Ulysses” has since come to be regarded as one of the masterpieces of modernist literature. In defiance of Iranian censors, the book was recently translated into Persian for illegal distribution in the country.
The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade (1904)
Written in the Bastille during the French revolution, the author was interrupted when the prison was stormed by insurgents and never finished the story. But “120 Days” remains among the most notorious works of literature, featuring depraved fetishes, blood-soaked orgies, torture and pedophilia. The book was first published in Germany in 1904 and then banned across Europe for much of the 20th century. A 1975 film adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini was also banned in several countries. South Korea has banned the book twice this century, and now it can be sold there only in a sealed plastic cover to adults 19 or over.