John Calder is the retired owner of one of Britain’s most fiercely independent publishers, Calder Publishing. It’s telling that he decided to name the company after himself as his endearing willfulness made him one of the most litigated-against publishers of the mid-20th century. Calder relished controversy, publishing 90 per cent of Samuel Beckett’s output as well as William Burroughs in the UK when no one else would touch him. He also published the work of rabble-rousing foreigners such as Goethe, Zola and Russian heavyweights Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky when their ideas could still get whole nations in a twist. That’s before you get to the obscenity trials for publishing Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, banned works by Henry Miller and Burroughs, and the 36 individual libel claims after publishing No Shining Armour by Eddie Milne in 1976, which exposed Labour party corruption.
After 58 years in publishing, Calder sold his list and his bookshop to another independent imprint called One World last year. He continues to work in the Calder Bookshop on The Cut, close to London’s Waterloo station, where he has for decades, and he feverishly believes in new, challenging and esoteric fiction at an age when most people worry about how much their back’s going to hurt this week.
Vice: After 58 years you have called it a day. What finally made you sell up?
John Calder: I’m nearly 82, and I just can’t take the 100 hours-plus working week. It’s very difficult. Good literature is one way to spend your entire life working for nothing. I used to spend eight months of the year selling books all over the world. I haven’t had a holiday, Christmas Day or otherwise, since 1973.
You still seem busy now, even though you’re supposedly retired.
Yes, well, I gave the whole thing away, but I still work with the new lot [One World]. I’ve just given up the major responsibility. It’s actually quite nice. Now I’ve got a little bit of time I’m writing my own books. I’ve got a book of poetry out that’s actually doing quite well and I’ve got another book coming out next year. But again, it’s all work and very little return.
How did you end up studying economics at the University of Zurich, despite an obvious passion for books?
I had no choice. I had a stepfather who liked to make decisions and he decided that I wanted to be a banker and that Zurich was the place for that. I would have rather have gone to the Sorbonne in Paris, but there you are. Little did he know that at every university, students are students. I didn’t really involve myself in the student nightlife of going out and getting drunk every night but they went in for duels over there which was rather fun. I was challenged to a duel once and I even took lessons learning how to fight with a sabre but the second we got together the other fellow called it off.
What was it over?
The man was German. He didn’t like me because of the war and he took an opportunity to insult me. I can’t remember all the details now, but he threw a glass of wine in my face, and challenged me. I did all the training with the sabre but he apologised and it was cancelled.
You sound like you were confident you’d have won.
Yes, I was rather.
Who was the first author who made you think that putting out books was what you had to do?
In 1958 I published a book called The Question by Henri Alleg about the French army in Algiers. I was given a copy of it when I was in Paris, and immediately thought I should publish it. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction. It was one of my first best-sellers, turned around 10,000 copies in a few weeks. Off the bat that was fairly controversial. The Algerian War had been going on for a long time and de Gaulle had finally stopped it. That led to books like Gangrene by Lord Altrincham and made me decide that if you were going to attack colonialism then you’ve got to attack them all. The Labour government was afraid of anything that put the British army in a bad light and I got a notice from the British government saying that if I published this book, then I’d be tried for treason. Rather serious. But once a book is out, that’s it; it’s out. They ended up dropping the case.
How did your relationship with Beckett start?
I saw a production of Waiting for Godot in 1955 in London so I wrote to Beckett and a few days later I had dinner with him in Paris. I didn’t get Waiting for Godot because Faber got their offer in the post a few days ahead of me but they didn’t touch his novels or his poetry and so it began.
Weren’t Faber worried that his novels would breach obscenity laws?
The censorship laws in those days were mad. The word sex on its own couldn’t be aired in public because it was considered dirty. It was ridiculous.
Was Beckett anything like the popular image of him as a dry, old, lonely philosopher?
He wasn’t. He was very straightforward, very humorous, full of conversation and had a wide range of interests. He’d read almost everything and could quote it by the yard. We just had a lot in common. He was also a very easy author in that he’d edit himself so well. He was only controversial in that his views on religion didn’t agree with everyone at the time. Godot was such a revolutionary play at the time. It’s just about two men talking about everything under the sun. It actually came out of his wartime experiences hiding from the Germans in a little hillside village. Every so often the Germans would come to the village, so he’d hide in the woods with his friend until it was OK to return and he would just pass the time in conversation and word games.
In 1961 you published Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi and Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket that Exploded by Burroughs, all of which really raised people’s heckles. Were you out to provoke or was it all just a happy coincidence?
I knew that they were controversial but the important thing was whether they were any good or not. Henry Miller was published in almost every other country, but it was still under ban here. I wrote to a number of people, such as Graham Greene and Bertrand Russell asking them if they would appear in court to defend it if I were prosecuted for publishing it and they all agreed. This was two years after the Lady Chatterley trial so obscenity was fresh in people’s minds. I wrote to the Director of Publishers, telling him that I was going to publish it and that if they wished to uphold the ban then here’s a list of people that were in favour of it and would speak to it. They decided not to proceed with any action, but people rushed to the bookshops to get a copy thinking that it would fall victim to the ban.
Was publishing things that people found controversial your sole aim?
Not particularly. I didn’t agree with all of the authors I published. I did not agree with Trocchi’s heroin habit, for example. He advocated that the stuff was actually good for you and that everybody should take it. Heroin gives you big ideas but takes away the ability to do anything with them.
Didn’t Trocchi actually work as a translator for you for a while? How did he get anything done?
We kept him alive by giving him translations to do. Kept him busy. He kept on selling books but died young. We had a contract for a book he never finished called The Long Book. That might have been a private joke.
He was on the panel with William Burroughs at a conference you held in 1960. Did they have a junkie hoedown?
That’s where they met. I don’t think they corresponded but they met every so often because they liked each other. They both had a background in drugs but Burroughs got off the heroin and went on writing while taking methadone. I met Burroughs in Paris and invited him to come to a conference in ’62, where he gave an explanation of his “cut-up” method. That caused a bit of a storm.
What made you remark that you believe Burroughs to be an important writer but not a great one?
He had no interest in style. He never revised anything. He just enjoyed the act of writing. I remember sitting down with him when we were preparing Naked Lunch, and saying to him: “Look, this character on page so-and-so, it’s really the same one under another name a hundred pages later, isn’t it?” and he’d say: “Yes, you’re probably right”. He was only interested in what he was doing in the moment and that is not the sign of a great writer. He was a good artist, but not a great craftsman.
What do you believe makes a great author?
Not everybody has the same talent. Someone once wanted me to publish a book of his poetry that I didn’t like. I wouldn’t and they said to me: “Things don’t have to be good today, anything you call art is art. What does it matter if people buy it?” I’m not willing to go by other people’s tastes or ambitions. There’s a purity to my list and it’s based upon what I see as genuine, original talent that tells you something about the world that you didn’t know before. These days you can publish anything via the internet.
Do you think that that freedom is offering a negative return in terms of quality?
I still like books myself so I can’t tell you.
As you leave it behind after so long, how do you feel about the world of publishing today?
It’s of little interest to me because it’s become globalised. Things rely on enthusiasts today. I’ve always tried to support these enthusiasts by selling their books in the shop but there are very few other independent bookshops left. We used to have this wonderful man who ran our bookshop. Unfortunately he collapsed. He’s in psychiatric care now. You’ve got to have a pretty strong constitution to be in this world of books.