The Reading Room

The Founding of The Obelisk Press

Jack Kahane and The Obelisk Press….

I wonder how many of us take publishers for granted? I imagine few of us stop to consider how some of the great and very important publishing houses began and more especially those, like The Obelisk Press which were at the cutting edge of a new and radical style of writing covering the unthinkable in print, namely sex.

In 1929 the British-born Jack Kahane along with printer Herbert Clarke founded The Obelisk Press in Paris. The choice of venue enabled Kahane to publish works in the English language which fell foul of British and American publishing laws and so introduce an eager audience to amongst others, Henry Miller and his classic Tropic of Cancer (1934) Anaïs Nin and her 1939 novel Winter of Artifice, a reprinting of the notorious Some Limericks (1928) by Norman Douglas and Lawrence Durell’s The Black Book (1938) The logo (above) which I am quite drawn to was designed by Kahane’s wife Marcelle who, along with their son Marcelle contributed many of the illustrations to the books they published and usually free of charge.

Reading these and other works in modern times it is perhaps difficult to imagine how big an impact they made and the divided reaction Kahane and his associates received from a public far more conservative minded than the French literary and artistic set of pre-war Paris. Kahane was labelled as a pornographer, a man with a number of pseudonyms including Cecil Barr, he struggled with being known as a pedlar of smut which gave him an income whilst trying to maintain a modicum of respect within the literary establishment whose company he relished being a part of.

As ‘Cecil Barr’ he wrote six books including Daffodil (1931) and became depressed by the public’s desire for easy, erotic fiction. Poor health and financial worries plagued Kahane throughout his tenure at The Obelisk Press, the reality of Kahane the man was in stark contrast to the public perception, by the time of his last Cecil Barr book, Lady Take Heed! (1937) we find him dedicating the book to himself in thanks for his own unique insight into the world of Parisian brothels, its workers and clients.  Two years later Kahane died from heart failure, his business had all but fallen apart, his plans to re-establish himself in Manchester, England cut short as the onset of World War Two approached.

I suppose it is easy to consider publishers such as Penguin, Hodder and Faber and the huge businesses which they became but this post is dedicated to those small independent companies of years gone by, like Obelisk, who where beset with problems throughout their tenures yet managed to contribute with considerable significance to the advancement of literary and social progress throughout the last century.

The Obelisk Press continues to publish new and interesting works via Paris and London with a number set for publication in 2017.


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