Book banning is again all the rage in the United States, with the extreme left and extreme right seemingly unified in wanting to be the ones who decide what we should and shouldn’t be allowed to read. But Australia, in at least one famous instance, went way beyond us.
While Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s celebrated and controversial 1969 novel, was banned by some American libraries (explicit language, masturbation, etc.), in Australia it was declared a “prohibited import,” and its publication became a landmark court case. Penguin, the novel’s Australian publisher, got around the ban for a little while with secret printings but was eventually stymied by the courts. That’s when the bootleg copies started to appear, secretly printed in Melbourne until 1971, when the ban was lifted. (Portnoy’s Complaint remains the last book to have been banned in Australia.)
Roughly 300 samizdat copies of the novel were printed. Only three are known to have survived. One is at the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, and the other two are at State Library Victoria (S.L.V.), in Melbourne, where one of them is currently part of an exhibition called “World of the Book 2022.”
All the bootleg copies had been assembled by hand—photocopied and stapled together at the headquarters of the Students for a Democratic Society. “It is a fantastic artifact,” Anna Welch, senior librarian at the S.L.V., told The Guardian about the well-worn copy they have on display. “You can see how many hands that’s been in.”
While Portnoy’s Complaint was banned by some American libraries, in Australia it was declared a “prohibited import.”
Des Cowley, the S.L.V.’s principal librarian and co-curator of the exhibition, told the newspaper that the Portnoy’s Complaint case “really did challenge Australia’s censorship laws because this wasn’t some pulp book; this was a novel by a well-known American literary author who won awards. Readers would have felt affronted that they could not read his book in Australia.”
Why have so few copies of the underground edition turned up? Cowley speculated that “when the book was officially made available, I guess many people would have then discarded something like this. So the story would have been lost.”
The “World of the Book” exhibition also includes artifacts relating to Jane Austen, John James Audubon, Shaun Tan, Margaret Atwood, James Joyce, and the Alhambra. But Cowley is excited by “the little, cheap goblet hidden among all the glittering cups when looking for the holy grail”—the Philip Roth.
Or, actually, the Phillip Roth. The samizdat edition misspells the author’s name. So you might want to check your copy and count the l’s. Just in case.
“World of the Book 2022” is on view at the State Library Victoria’s Dome Galleries
George Kalogerakis, one of the original editor-writers at Spy, later worked for Vanity Fair, New York, and The New York Times, where he was deputy op-ed editor. A co-author of Spy: The Funny Years and co-editor of Disunion: A History of the Civil War, he is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL