Conversation with Publisher John Calder

John Calder and Paris mix like Scottish malt whiskey and mountain spring water. Since the 1950s Calder, a veritable landmark to literary publishing, has focused on Paris as his literary plaque tournante. In fact, there is probably no single literary bookman still in the business that has done more to bring French authors into the English language. If it hadn’t been for Calder few anglophones in Europe would have been able to read the ground-breaking writers of the French nouveau roman. And his stable of writers is wildly impressive; he’s published over 4000 titles in forty years including the works of some 20 Nobel Prize winners, a fact he cringes at from modesty when it’s repeated in public. Artaud, Ionescu, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grille, Nathalie Saurraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, many of the Surrealists…the list goes on.

At 68 Calder remains a key player in the intellectual history of our time. This year he has deepened his commitment to the French literary landscape by settling into the proletarian eastern suburb of Montreuil to launch a series of non-fiction works called The World in Crisis with the first title being Too Many People, authored by renown British surgeon Dr. Roy Colne. Additionally, he is at the helm of an ambitious cultural project consisting of the conversion of an old metals foundry in Montreuil into a theater and arts center called La Fonderie.

Among Calder’s most significant authors one finds Paris lovable Henry Miller and the revolutionary cut-up king William Burroughs. Perhaps best known though as Samuel Beckett’s publisher, Calder arrived in Paris in 1954 to visit the iconoclast Irish playwright of Waiting for Godot who was then living in Montparnasse on the rue des Favorites.

“We were friends before I started publishing him,” Calder explained. “but, unfortunately, Faber and Faber got to him first.” That high powered London publishing house, whose contemporary fortune stems from the royalties to Cats, has remained a nemesis to the more bohemian literary marvericks like Calder.

“The first time I saw Sam,” Calder continued, “we met for dinner and didn’t separate until eight in the morning. We spent lots of evenings like that in cafés and bars, talking until morning.” One such evening,” Calder recounts, was just after Ernest Hemingway had committed suicide. “We discussed suicide at great lengths, how not to leave a mess for someone else,” Calder remembered unsqueamishly.

Instantly, the two men hit it off and a literary and spiritual bond formed, one that would deeply influence Calder’s private and professional life forever. He went on to import from Barney Rossett’s Grove Press Murphy,  and publish Beckett’s Trilogy in 1958, followed by the short works including How It Is, and the 1966 seven-minute play Come and Go, which Beckett dedicated to John Calder, and More Pricks Than Kicks for which the Irish playwright won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Aside from selecting titles and publishing them, Calder spends two to three weeks each month traveling across the UK and the US peddling his literary wares and convincing booksellers and readers everywhere why Beckett, among others, need to be read. “I consider every sale of every copy a triumph,” he stated.

Bucking commercial concerns and defying common sense at every turn in defense of keeping quality and often difficult literature alive, Calder has sacrificed almost all chances of personal comfort to keep his authors in print. He boasts of never remaindering a single title even when a book sells less than a hundred copies a year and costs the publisher far more to warehouse than to pulp, the popular term in the trade for selling off unsold copies of books for pennies for their weight in paper.

When asked how Paris has changed over the years he replied, “Paris doesn’t change; people change. They get older and they die. New people take their places. True, it used to be more fun but, everything’s more fun when you’re younger.” Often sighted along the Boulevard Saint Germain, Paris’ traditional quartier for maisons d’editions and literary bookshops, Calder is visually unmistakeable, a short man in a dark suit, always on the move with an overcoat whose stuffed pockets function as chaotic filing cabinets. It has been over twelve years since Calder’s suitcase has never been unpacked; currently the frenetic publisher skips between Paris and London or Edinburg or Dublin as if Europe were a game of hopscotch. Equated by both friends and foes alike as a Beckettesque character himself, Calder, whose vision is both grim for mankind on a global scale and deeply humane on a daily one, doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It has been over 17 years since his last vacation, a skiing one in the Alps on which he broke a leg. Leisure is not in his vocabulary, unless one counts the 890 different operas he’s seen! Known to drive as far as Munich, for example, to see a performance of Wagner, Calder’s most ardent passion is the opera. It has been operatic music that has warded off nervous breakdown. It is in the human voice and a fatalist philosophy that he finds solace. Incidently, he’s published a 47-volume series of opera guides that are known to be the best on the market.

Seemingly energized by economic adversity and the trials of literary publishing at a time when fewer and fewer people read serious books, Calder in Paris has begun to teach a literature class at Paris’ Ecole Active Belingue. Advice to his 18 year old students: “Don’t be a boring person.”

Politically engaged and fundamentally socialist, the British-Canadian publisher, grandson of a Scottish brewer, and educated in economics at the University of Zurich, Calder ran for British parliment three times and once for the European parliment, all unsuccessfully. A vibrant critic of Thatcherism, Calder contends that the Iron Lady “ruined England, especially the arts,” and praises France and his newly adopted town of Montreuil for their intelligent belief in the social need for people to be able to enrich themselves culturally.

As book sales falter, the price of publishing increases, reading skills decline, and independent bookstores succumb one by one to the pressures of the market, Calder has become increasingly dependent on a strange hybrid of free-lance journalism to survive; fittingly, each month he sells a half a dozen obituaries of important but often obscure cultural figures to the British dailies. Oddly, though, when he renders the lives of his subjects down to 750 words, most are still breathing! As Beckett believed, the worst part of dying is the idea of being forgotten; Calder, perhaps the cultural world’s most literary croque mort, agrees, and preserves them in memory.

Meet John Calder at the Trois Mailletz gallery and bar  where he’ll be reading a selection of The Beat Poets, a number of whom he published in the 60s.


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