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 ALIAS AKBAR DEL PIOMBO ; ANNOTATIONS ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF NORMAN RUBINGTON

By Gregory Stephenson

Ober-Limbo Verlag, Heidelberg. 48 pages. ISBN 978-87-971569-9-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There was, for a time, a belief that the novels published under Akbar del Piombo’s name by the notorious Olympia Press in Paris were really the work of William Burroughs. Olympia had published his Naked Lunch and other books, and Maurice Girodias claimed that the mistaken attribution came about because of a printer’s error. It was a claim that Norman Rubington, the man actually behind the Akbar del Piombo pseudonym, rubbished. He was convinced that Girodias deliberately fostered the supposed link with the better-known Burroughs in order to further sales of the del Piombo titles.

Who was Norman Rubington? Born in 1921 in the United States he served as a map maker in the American army in China during the Second World War. He returned to New York, but soon decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill which provided ex-servicemen with funds to study at locations of their choice. Rubington went to Paris and enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts, and later at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He took to the city immediately, and in fact stayed on even when his entitlement to US government funding ended. It was 1969 before he returned to America.

Gregory Stephenson, working from letters exchanged with Rubington in the 1980s, and books by Joseph Barry and Maurice Girodias, describes how he survived. Barry tells how he visited the artist in 1951/52 and found him living in a room above a fish shop in a street off the Boulevard San Michel; “There were no toilet facilities and he had to get all his water from the fish shop”. Girodias, writing after he had fallen out with Rubington, was inclined to offer what Stephenson refers to as a “defamatory characterisation”, and asserted that he had married “a pleasant pharmacist…..in order to secure for himself a cosy nook by the fire while winter winds were blowing”. Girodias even suggested that Rubington wasn’t averse to seducing “bourgeois women of luxurious habits and opulent bodies, to whom he was pleased to offer himself”. Rubington’s response when he was told what Girodias had said was, needless to say, less than happy. He described it as “genteel calumny”.

While in Paris Rubington exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and had a solo exhibition at Galerie Huit. In 1951 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome. But, in need of money, he turned to writing pornography for Olympia Press. His first book, Who Pushed Sylvia?  by Akbar del Piombo, appeared in 1956 and was followed by several others with titles like Cosimo’s Wife and Skirts. There was also, in a somewhat different vein, Fuzz Against Junk, published in 1959, and perhaps capitalising on the rise of the Beats and the growing interest in the so-called “underground” and similar subjects. I recall picking up a copy during a visit to Paris in 1962, though I later disposed of it somewhere along the way.

I don’t think Rubington had any great commercial or critical success as an artist when he returned to America, though he did contribute collages and humorous pieces to Rolling Stone, International Times, and other publications. He also published poetry in little magazines. And he wrote novels, not necessarily of a pornographic kind, under various aliases. Stephenson looks at a western called The Comancheros by Jack Slade, and at least two, and possibly four, “Gothic Romance novels” by Leslie Paige from Tower Publications in the 1970s. An idea of the contents might be gained from a line Stephenson quotes from one of them: “Ellen longed for a tranquil life, but the fates seemed to be working against her”.

It seems that Rubington described his status in the art world as one of “ever-abiding amateurship”, by which he meant “a sense of non-status, as opposed to professional as meant by what Wall Street means by it……it is a state of mind, akin to a child’s, a state too easily sacrificed for the schemes and cunning required for merely coping in this vale of commerce”. Stephenson adds that the “particular sense in which Norman understands the word ‘amateur’ is related to that of its Latin root in the word amare, meaning to love, to be in love with, to take pleasure in”

Norman Rubington died in 1990. His archive is held at Yale University, and there is information about him and his activities available on YouTube. Gregory Stephenson gives a good picture of the man in this illustrated chapbook. As for the novels, pornographic or not, you may be very lucky and come across one or two of them in a second-hand bookshop, but on-line they’re expensive to buy.