Champion of the avant-garde

Robin Buss recalls the remarkable career of the publisher Marion Boyars

Robin Buss
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:11

Marion Boyars, who died last week, was one of a small band of independent publishers specialising in translations of modern - and particularly modernist - fiction. As a partner for more than a decade in Calder and Boyars, she acquired a niche in British cultural life through the promotion of avant-garde European and American writers, including the French New Novelists (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute). The firm also published Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1966), and was prosecuted for bringing out Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. It won the case on appeal.

After splitting with John Calder in 1975, Boyars built up a list which reflected her own eclectic tastes. It still included a good deal of translated foreign fiction: Julio Cortazar, Latife Tekin, Vasily Shukshin, Witold Gombrowicz. There was a marked liking for outsiders, the maudits of modern literature such as Georges Bataille. She prided herself on doing only books that she liked, and having at least five Nobel Prize winners, all of whom she had published before they won ("Of course! I couldn't have afforded them afterwards."). She was justifiably delighted at being invited to attend the award ceremony for the 1994 winner, Kenzabue Oe; and touchingly excited to tell you about it when she returned. Her list also included writings on modern experimental music (works by Stockhausen and John Cage, for example) and on cinema. She wanted to expand this cinema list, which is how I got to know her. My agent sent me to see her with a proposal for a book on crime thrillers (French Film Noir). Learning that I also did translations, she offered me Cocteau's Art of Cinema, to which she had just bought the rights. I found her lively and amusing; I suspected there was a hint of mischief in her, too.

We would talk from time to time on the phone and meet occasionally at her little office in Putney. I did another cinema book and two further translations for her, including Julien Green's novel of the American Civil War, The Stars of the South. She had been Green's English publisher for many years; he gives admiring accounts of his meetings with her in his memoirs, successive volumes of which she methodically (and no doubt unprofitably) brought out. She had been let down by her first translator for The Stars of the South and was eventually to fall out with Green over it, though she never told me the full story of what happened. It was part of the nature of her kind of publishing that relationships with writers were personal and liable in some cases to go sour.

We had lunch together early last summer to discuss some problems that had arisen over my second film book for her. After we had sorted those out, I asked her about Henrik Stangerup, the Danish writer, who had just died. She told me a slightly scandalous anecdote about his behaviour when he had been a guest at her flat in New York, then started to reminisce about her early days in publishing and to complain, as usual, about the increasing hardships of the independent publisher's life and the tendency of French publishers to ask unrealistic amounts for translation rights.

Hers was a remarkable story of survival in a harsh business, in which she continued to pursue the virtuous policy of letting her successes subsidise her more worthy but less bankable authors. The Marion Boyars catalogue is her memorial.

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