John Calder


Being threatened in the fifties
His friendship with Samuel Beckett
The death of Beckett
The weirdness of William S. Burroughs
And whether it was worth it or not

One evening in 2000 I made the journey out to the suburbs of Toronto to interview John Calder, a book publisher visiting from London who I had seen speak the night before. After a few harried phone calls from the Oakville train station I found my way to the house where he staying. Calder is a squat man, and that evening he was compressed into a light blue dress shirt. Across the top of his head were a few strands of well-placed hair. Since the 1950’s Calder Books has published 19 Nobel Literature Prize winners (and three for Peace). Calder was the one who commissioned Alger Hiss to write a personal account of his trial for treason. He published Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco, and, apart from Waiting For Godot, most of his friend Samuel Beckett’s works.

I sat perched in the corner of the dinner table while the evening wore on. At one point another guest well-plied with wine asked ‘So, who here has been to jail?’ It was an attempt, I guess, to keep the conversation rolling. When my turn came I told a meandering story about when I was detained for stealing real estate signs in Nanaimo when I was seventeen. Calder spoke of being dragged away from a sit down for peace in Leicester Square with Bertrand Russell.

After the green beans and seared eggplant were finished, I took a seat beside him. His eyes were halfed by a pair of intimidating bifocals -- he could see twice of me. Calder began by mentioning one of his old professors who had forced his students to read certain books. Years later, Calder still remembered those enthusiasms. He still had the books.

Anonymous Juice: Do you feel like you’ve been that kind of sort of benevolent figure to someone, or perhaps to a group of people?

John Calder: Well, no. Well, yes. In a way, but in a very small way. Simply by publishing the books I’ve published I’ve created awareness and knowledge. And I’ve been threatened for it.

AJ: How have you been threatened?

JC: I’ve been told by the state, if you go and publish this you will be prosecuted.

AJ: Would that be in the fifties?

JC: Mainly in the fifties. And I’d say to myself ‘Well, fuck you. I want to do it because I think I’m right.’

AJ: I know there was the lawsuit with Last Exit to Brooklyn. Was it worth it when you think of that book?

JC: I had no choice. The case was brought on by a right-wing conservative MP as a private prosecution in which I lost. Then I had a state case, a criminal case, which I also lost. For the appeal I found a lawyer who had never actually fought this sort of thing. He was a friend of mine, a writer named John Mortimer. He only defended divorce cases but he said ‘Well I’ll do the best I can.’ At least I knew he understood what the issues were. And he was brilliant. He won.

AJ: And sales skyrocketed.

JC: Well, they didn’t actually that much.

AJ: Were the fifties and sixties a good time for independent publishing?

JC: It was a good time. But it didn’t seem like a good time then because one didn’t know what the consequences were going to be. Most of the time I got away with putting my books out. Not always.

AJ: You’ve talked about a gap in society, and how the role of a good artist or, in your case, a good publisher is to fill those gaps. It seems like in the fifties you were there. You were the receptacle for those writers who were falling past the mainstream.

Well, there was one or two publishers in every country that became the radical publishers – who published what other people wouldn’t publish and tried to influence things away from the old, staid, bourgeois middle class attitudes.

Can you pinpoint a moment when you first read one of these books you thought would change things. Was it there with Tropic of Cancer?

JC: With Tropic of Cancer I was publishing in a country that had banned a book that already was famous internationally. I was taking a risk, but I wasn’t taking a very long-term risk.

AJ: What about going back a little further to Samuel Beckett.

JC: Were you there last night?

AJ: Yes I was.

JC: Well, I was talking about Beckett. Beckett ultimately is a moralist who says it’s an ugly world but it could be made better. We have an obligation to make it no worse. This is a very positive attitude. Not many recognized this positive attitude.

AJ: When you think back on your friendship with Beckett, is there a moment you hold close to yourself. In the book you mention the evenings in Paris when you would stay up all night.

JC: The funny thing is, because he was a friend, I never took any notes. I can’t remember any detail. But I remember his attitudes. I know the general subject if not the particular words. In his later years, I went to see him in the old people’s home where he eventually ended up.

AJ: Why was he there?

JC: He collapsed on the street a couple of times and people would come and help him stand up and he hated that. So he moved himself into an old people’s home. He had his little room, and a nurse, and the doctor came in to see him everyday. The trouble is anyone could walk in on him. You could walk in off the street, bang on the door and there he was. He couldn’t get away. He was free to come and go but he didn’t dare walk far, as he was so afraid of falling down. On top of that he would have fainting fits.

AJ: Did he write?

JC: He wrote a little bit in there. Not very much. Everybody who came to see him brought him a bottle of whiskey. One day he asked me, "How do you spell porpoise?" I said to him, "You don’t have a dictionary?" He said, "Well, no. I left everything in my flat." So I went out and bought him a two-language dictionary, so he could look up spellings of words in both the languages he wrote in. After that I always brought him books, because all anyone else brought him was whiskey or a bottle of wine and that wasn’t helping. We were very close friends. We could discuss all kinds of intimate subjects and he told me things that I would never talk to with anyone else. Confidences. You don’t play with that kind of trust. He was a remarkable but above all he was a very caring person, and this is so rare.

AJ: I was in Waiting for Godot in my last year of university.

JC: And what did you play?

AJ: I was Vladimir.

JC: Is that right?

AJ: Would you have chosen something different?

JC: No. I can see it. Can you still do the speech?

AJ: The last speech?

JC: "Astride the grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps."

AJ: I think that was the height of my dramatic career.

JC: It’s the Hamlet speech, the Hamlet soliloquy, of the twentieth century. It can be done in so many different ways. He had an actor once do it with his back turned to the audience. The last scene, too, with the boy, is incredibly important. What he’s trying to say to the boy is ‘Will you remember me when I’m dead? Or will I be totally forgotten?’

AJ: Why do you think that’s struck such a nerve?

JC: Because he’s hit one of the main chords of twentieth century anxiety – to be born, to live, to die. And to realize whatever I’ve done, whatever I’ve thought, will be wiped out, finished, never remembered. It will have never existed. For people in western civilization, that is one of the great anxieties – to be remembered.

AJ: Do you think that’s why you’ve become a prolific writer of newspaper obituaries? The sense of people needing to be remembered.

JC: No, I was asked to do them. Mostly it was because I knew the people but as they went on I realized they paid very well. Obituaries are a good source of income.

AJ: Can I ask you where you were when Beckett died?

JC: Yes, I knew he was dying. I was in Paris the week before he died. I wanted to be there but I had to go back to London to a Christmas party we had every year in our office. On that day John, a photographer friend, said that he had a photograph of Beckett on the wall, and suddenly the nail broke and it fell down, and he knew that Beckett was dying. Edward Beckett, his nephew, had promised that he would ring me. Days went by and I got no word. Finally, on Christmas eve, I rang to Paris. I knew where Edward was. He said, ‘Well, yes, I’m sorry I hate to tell you but Samuel just died on the twenty-third.’ I told him I had to be there. The problem was there was no way to get to Paris on Christmas day. There were no boats, no planes, trains, nothing. The only way was to swim. The funeral was on the twenty-sixth, the day after Christmas, at eight o’clock in the morning. They wanted no one there. They wanted no friends. Nobody was to know about it. There were less than ten people present. It destroyed me not being able to be there. Another friend arrived from Berlin two hours afterwards. He went there and stood at the grave for a half an hour. By that evening, hundreds of people had come and left little notes on the grave. It was piled up high, and the wind gusted them away eventually.

AJ: You were in contact with some of the more notorious writers of the era. How did you deal with someone like William S. Burroughs?

JC: Burroughs was certainly not the worst to deal with. Burroughs was actually quite easy to deal with. He lived for today and not for tomorrow. As long as he had enough to be all right today, enough to eat and drink, and he drank a lot, he was all right. He was never particularly difficult or demanding like many other authors have been. He was basically a rather nice man, although a very complex one.

AJ: Did you see examples of that complexity?

JC: Well, he was taken over eventually. His best friend and biggest benefactor was always Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg went out of his way to help Burroughs and brought him to lecturing jobs in New York and so on. He helped build up his reputation. And then he found this man, Grauerholz, who eventually became his manager, and he became the man who sort of totally controlled Burroughs. And Burroughs was willing to be totally controlled as long as he had his daily necessities looked after. When the books began selling and more and the money rolled in, Grauerholz took all the money. He founded a company called Burroughs Communication and all the money went in there. He paid himself out of it, a salary or whatever.

AJ: As his publisher, could you protect Burroughs in any way?

JC: No I couldn’t. He took total control of Burroughs. He simply bought Burroughs what he needed, which was a bottle of vodka every day, and these sort of hard, sweet donuts, and some pellets for his bee-bee gun so he could shoot at dogs. He hated dogs. Oh, he’d buy cat food, too. Burroughs loved cats. He had nine cats when I last saw him. He probably had more after that. Grauerholz would do things like take away his laundry to be washed and bring it back two days later. Occasionally he brought Burroughs around to eat a proper meal in his apartment and meet a few other people. But Burroughs wouldn’t sit down at the table and eat. He would walk around, playing with guns, which Grauerholz wouldn’t allow him to keep at home. Fortunately they weren’t loaded. He would just walk around, slashing at the air, and talking all the time. ‘Bang bang, sword sticks’ and things like that. I mean, at the end Burroughs was pretty weird.

AJ: What about you? At the end of the day has it been worth it?

JC: Coming out here?

AJ: No. I mean publishing books in general.

JC: I hope. You see, you meet anybody interesting, you give them something, and they give you something back. That’s how it is with publishing. So, if you could only meet one person, assuming you have some kind of rapport, it’s worthwhile. That’s all it takes. It’s always been a tiny number of people who’ve actually changed the world. Do you realize that someone like Dante, in his lifetime, was read by at most one thousand people?

AJ: I didn’t know that.

JC: A great book may only be read by a small number of people, but those are the people who ultimately become the influencers, the movers and the shakers that actually change society. If people don’t want to think, don’t want to learn, don’t want to get involved, don’t want to take chances, don’t want to be shaken out of their little everyday lives, well too bad. Nobody can help that. But they’re not going to play a great role in the changes of society. The people who do get involved in these ideas, they’re the ones.

AJ: The ones that what?

JC: That change the world.

John Calder's memoir, Pursuit, is now available

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