Arts: The last of the gentleman publishers

Beckett, Burroughs, Breton: John Calder printed authors no one else dared touch. Now he's taking on the Government.
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For the past half-century John Calder's name has been synonymous with literary excellence. He began in 1949, publishing foreign and political titles, and acquiring a reputation for taking books that others wouldn't go near.

Things took off in 1963 when he published Henry Miller's sexually explicit Tropic of Cancer. It sold 40,000 and Calder was able to print all the manuscripts that had until then been gathering dust. During the Sixties he joined forces with Marion Boyars, and together they published the most interesting fiction and drama around: Borges, Artaud, Burroughs, Celine, Pasolini, Miller, Ionesco, Beckett, Breton, Pirandello. Calder was the first to introduce Britain to the practitioners of the nouveau roman, principally Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. Over the years he has had 18 Nobel prize winners on his list, more than any other publisher.

Next year will mark his 50th year in publishing. But times are hard. He has managed to retain a distinguished set of writers, most notably Samuel Beckett, Celine, and Howard Barker, but he lost many when he was unable to keep up on royalty payments. This was as a direct result of the loss of his Arts Council grant in 1983. Marguerite Duras, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs were all plucked up by other publishers.

As we talk in his London office his determined gaze and clipped accent create an air of stoicism.

"The then literature committee of the Arts Council, under the Conservatives, was taken over by people who didn't know anything about serious literature. They said the books we published were no longer of any interest, even though in 1985 Claude Simon won the Nobel Prize, Howard Barker the Italia Prize for best radio play and Barbara Wright the Scott Moncrieff prize for best translation."

Calder Publications now finds itself in a unique position as the last of the independent publishers. This means that it isn't owned by anyone else, and does not have to answer to anyone else. "We are also one of the few publishers that still carries the flag for the English language, which is in great danger of disappearing under the American vernacular, because British books are increasingly being edited by American editors."

John Calder's activities are myriad. He is not only a publisher, but an editor, translator, journalist and critic (a book on Beckett's philosophy is due later this year). In addition, he has just kick-started a national campaign to draw attention to the arts in this country.

"Societies without the arts lack the critical edge that enables people to see through bad administrators and governments, and as a result they are always under demagogues and dictators.

"We need to make the Government realise the importance of the arts, which is why I'm involved in a National Rally for the Arts, which will take place on 1 and 2 May 1999 in Hyde Park.

"We're hoping to get as many as a million people to go, when there will be free entertainment by theatre companies, bands, orchestras, artists of every kind.

"We want to get the Government positively on the side of the arts, and get more funding for them. No country in Europe has the arts at such a low level as they are in this country. And I think Tony Blair will have a sort of miraculous conversion when he realises he'll be losing votes if he doesn't start to do something."

The conversation shifts from a moral agenda to an anecdotal one. I ask him about Beckett, whom he met in the 1950s, gaining the rights to his fiction when Faber refused to take it, considering it too difficult.

"Beckett was actually a very simple person in almost every way. He got on well with any normal, natural person but he couldn't stand lion hunters. He was really the ideal author, extremely punctilious, and extremely loyal. He had a very caustic wit. I remember going to Lord's with him and the critic Harold Hobson. Hobson said: `On a day like this you feel glad to be alive.' There was a pause and then Beckett said: `Well, I wouldn't go as far as that.' "

What do you think of literary fiction today? "I'm sure there are very good things being written, even getting published, but the problem is that they aren't getting reviewed. Even when you get a literary editor who would like to review serious books he's not allowed to. His job depends on getting reviews of topical books. Anything about Princess Diana, for example, will get reviewed. But serious books by serious writers have great difficulty in getting noticed. And editors at publishing houses are now completely under the thumb of the management, which is accountant- controlled. For an editor to discover a new, exciting author will cut no ice with an editorial board dominated by accountants who only want to know how many copies the books sell."

Calder thinks that we may see more independent publishers starting up to counter this. One hopes that someone with his determination and willingness to take risks will come along.

This determination extends to acting as his own representative with the booksellers. This, combined with going to conferences, working in his Paris and London offices, and writing, adds up to a marathon 100-hour working week for him.

But why can't he get someone else to sell the books?

"None of the reps was willing to find out what the books were about! I found I achieved more in a day than they did in three months."

What about the future of the list? "I've no more idea of the future of the list than I have about my own future. I would like to think that someone would come along and carry it on, someone willing to put in the dedication, to work that 100 hours for extremely little return."

John Calder turned 71 this year. In France he has been made a chevalier twice. In Britain he has received no public honours. He is neither surprised nor dismayed by this. But for those who care about serious literature his career embodies the defiant intelligence and excellence that is its hallmark.