From the briefest of biographical details, John Calder would seem an unlikely revolutionary. Scion of a brewing dynasty, he once stood for election as the Liberal candidate for his home seat of Kinross. But at 90 this Scottish-Canadian publisher is still active, and still fighting against the forces of cultural reaction.
Few publishers can claim a Nobel prize winner on their backlist: Calder has over a dozen. The firm he founded in 1949 (Calder Publications) has had its share of troubles, but that it still exists today, even if only as an imprint, is thanks to his perseverance, and also to the vision of Alma Books.
That any of his authors are still in print in the UK, that least-hungry market for translated (never mind experimental) fiction, is a cause for celebration. For years Calder Books (and later Calder-Boyars) was a rare safe haven for avant-garde fiction in Britain, and their volumes would pop up in the unlikeliest of bookshops.
He courted scandal without fear: he faced an obscenity trial over the publication of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and his Edinburgh conferences in the early 60s were scandalous at the time, not only for the behaviour of some of the featured writers (Alexander Trocchi) but for (shock!) the public appearance of a naked woman. His 2001 autobiography, Pursuit, is startling for its shamelessness (in the best sense of the word) and utter frankness.
Although Calder’s passion is for opera, he will be remembered for bringing a certain type of (chiefly) French fiction to British readers. Books published by the Olympia Press, or by Les Éditions de Minuit were translated by the likes of Christine Brooke-Rose and Richard Howard, and published under the Calder name. These introduced an anglophone audience to the nouveau roman (New Novel – which aimed to forge a new type of fiction appropriate to a post-war world) and its proponents: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras.
I stumbled across his books by a chain of luck and coincidence. By chance I saw a TV interview with John Hurt who at the time was playing in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Intrigued, I sought out anything I could find by Beckett – of whose work my only previous encounter was a single lecture at University – in my local library. However, they had none of his plays: only a book of short fiction, published by Calder. I borrowed it anyway. Beckett’s stories were like nothing I’d ever read: skeletal, stripped to the bare essentials of what might be recognisable as fiction, and also darkly funny. But the volume contained no reference to other books from the publisher, so I didn’t make any connection: there seemed nothing to connect to.
A few months later, scanning shelves in the Piccadilly Waterstone’s, I saw the Calder Books oak tree logo on the spine of some books by a writer I’d never heard of: Alain Robbe-Grillet. Deciding to give The Erasers a go, and seeing the Calder backlist on the inside of the front and rear covers, I realised there was a whole realm of experimental fiction I’d never previously suspected, and which seemed so deep under the radar I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to find them, had it not been for that chain of events. Over the months and years I hunted down other authors he published: Sarraute, Robert Pinget, Elspeth Davie (whose Providings is one of the great unsung Scottish books, by an unsung Scottish writer) and Raymond Queneau. If I was unable to articulate exactly what it was about these books that I liked, part of it was that they were undeniably European, and that was a good thing.
The new millennium saw John Calder open the Calder bookshop on The Cut, near Waterloo station. More recently though, he sold the rights to Beckett’s fiction to Faber (there are worse fates), and much of his list to Alma Books, who re-released some books under their Oneworld classics imprint. In 2015 they published Calder’s own translation of Robbe-Grillet’s debut novel A Regicide for the first time in English, and 2017 will see their relaunch of the Calder name, with (among others) Michel Butor’s Changing Track (la Modification). Long may it flourish in the twenty-first century.
If these names are new to you, or you’ve heard-of-them-but-can’t-think-where, explore your nearest library, go to the Alma website or the Calder shop, and keep Calder’s vision alive.
photo credit: Jamie Gorman
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