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Wednesday, August 22, 2018
how to lose money
The great British publisher, born in Montreal, Canada in 1927 to a major brewing industry and timber family, John Calder died today. Although growing up in North America, he eventually moved to the United Kingdom, establishing Calder Publishing in 1949, releasing, early on, major classic authors such as Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Émile Zola, Goethe and others. Given his classical literary background, Calder soon turned to contemporary literature as well.
Early on he published William S. Burroughs, and begin a life-long commitment to French writing, courting avant-garde figures such as Samuel Beckett (he had wanted to publish Waiting for Godot after seeing a production, but those rights were granted to the British publishing house of Faber and Faber); nonetheless, in meeting with Beckett, he establised a close friendship, later publishing many of the Nobel Prize winner’s major works of fiction.
Calder soon after grew to love a great many experimental French writers, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Antonin Artaud, Eugène Ionesco, Nathalie Sarraute, Fernando Arrabal, Robert Pinget, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and numerous others. Over the years, Calder published 18 Nobel Prize winners.
He also quickly picked up on American authors published by the similarly literary-oriented American publisher, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, whose house had featured figures such as Henry Miller and Herbert Selby, and Calder soon dared the conservative British censorship board to attack his publication of Miller’s work. The authorities refused to do so, but he made much more money over the furor than he might otherwise have achieved.
Despite his relative wealth, Calder was often slow to pay royalties, and, reportedly wore suits until they began to appear tattered, a patchwork of their original textures. He was, to say it simply, a kind of curmudgeon, but for any of us who loved literature, a loving one. It was also, so it is reported, a busy man when it came to the opposite sex.
I met with him in Paris in the 1990s, at a time his press was in great decline. Friends had reported that he had now become his one and only press representative, traveling across Europe and throughout the US to sell his significant list—eventually reaching about 1800 titles—to book buyers. I felt a great empathy, having had to do the same in some parts of the US when I lost some of my press representatives for Sun and Moon Press, a similarly literary-minded and cash-poor publishing house—although I never had any of the early financial reserves he once had, nor any of the translating skills (although many doubted his abilities), which allowed him personally to translate some of his French writers into English.
In 1960, seeking further funding and publishing help, he joined forces with the American, Switzerland-educated, Marion Boyers, who provided a great deal of funding, and most importantly the editorial acumen to acquire and edit some of the best books of those years. A brilliant co-publisher, by the end of that decade Boyers grew tired of his “occasional visits” to the office and his inability to balance his books.
I grew to know Marion at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair events and immediately came to love her. She too was a kind of wild publisher type, who often might poke me in the stomach, demanding that I take her publishing house over with a financial offer impossible for my own always cash-strapped Sun and Moon Press. But we adored one another, endlessly laughing, even despite the fact that she attempted to sue one of my publishing friends; and every year, at publishing parties and events, we spent a great deal of time together. She had also published many young authors such as Don Skiles and Kenneth Gangemi, whom I had featured early on in my Sun and Moon journal, as well as a writer whose books I later published, Dick Kalisch.
It must have been Marion, who angrily had broken ties with him years before, who provided me with John’s telephone number. Calder and I met at a Paris bistro for dinner, and I attempted to probe him concerning some of his Robert Pinget titles, of which he claimed he had a few still-untranslated manuscripts (in a recent Facebook posting, I confused this with another event about the rights for Genet, but I now realize what I was seeking at the time). It was unsuccessful. But I truly enjoyed the evening with him—feeling quite at home with his “tattered” look—as he told me wonderful stories about his life. And we equally shared a great love of opera and theater.
I never met him again, but I knew, even then, what a legend he was, and felt a communion with his literary concerns. I’d already tried to do something similarly with my Sun and Moon Press (only with about 500 titles), and without the money to really support them—although unfortunately, I suppose, I dove under the waters one again to produce over 250 further titles on my Green Integer press.
With Barney Rosset (d. 2012) of Grove Press, James Laughlin (d. 1997) of New Directions, Marion Boyers (d. 1999), who later founded her own imprint, and the even-more difficult British publisher Peter Owen (d. 2016), I felt a great allegiance and sympathy, great egos included, with their failures so apparent. I met them all, and held them as literary heroes, whatever their personal foibles; my own difficulties were not so very different. In a sense—although I never had the money most of these had—we all gave up everything for a vision of literature that was never quite going to sell enough copies to support us; we simply believed in great writing.
I was distressed today to hear of another of these significant figures’ death. Only I and a very few others remain alive. Fortunately, there are younger figures who seem to be continuing the tradition. Let us hope so.
Los Angeles, August 13, 2018