John Calder, a publisher of Samuel Beckett, has died aged 91.
Described as “at the forefront of postwar publishing and a towering figure in the fight against censorship,” the Canadian-born Calder founded his own company in 1949, now part of Alma Classics. Calder Publishing published Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well poetry, novels, criticism and plays of Beckett.
Alma Books' founder Alessandro Gallenzi told The Bookseller that Calder died on Monday morning (13th August) at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh after suffering a rapid decline in health over the past few weeks.
Gallenzi described Calder, who was a publisher, bookseller and author himself, as "a passionate publisher and a fiercely independent man”.
“He was at the forefront of postwar publishing and a towering figure in the fight against censorship and the dissemination of international literature and culture in the UK,” Gallenzi told The Bookseller. “His influence - as a publisher, as an author, as an intellectual and as a beacon for an entire generation of readers and writers --cannot be underestimated."
Former Publishers Association c.e.o. Clive Bradley knew Calder for almost 40 years and described him as “pretty controversial, but loved by most of his authors”.
For a time, he was joined in business by British publisher Marion Boyars, as Calder and Boyars in the 1960s, and published Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer. The partnership broke up in the 1970s when Boyars went independent.
Calder published Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, which was prosecuted as an obscene publication at the Old Bailey in a court case which lasted from 1966 to 1968.
“Calder was convicted, but the conviction was quashed on appeal, and in effect was the last prosecution for obscenity of a literary work,” Bradley said. The book was then returned to sale.
“He was a complicated man who is pretty difficulty to encapsulate - a typical ‘small’ publisher at the high end of publishing, facing all the problems that ‘small publishers’ face, especially at that end of the business,” Bradley told The Bookseller.
As well as publishing him, Calder was a close friend of Beckett’s, Bradley said, and put on a production of "Waiting for Godot" which toured used a revolving cast.
Calder also ran a bookshop at his office in The Cut opposite The Young Vic Theatre in London, called The Calder Bookshop & Theatre, which hosted Thursday evening sessions there in an informal theatre including readings, political debates and performances with actors and politicians. His autobiography, The Uncensored Memoirs of John Calder (Calder Publications) was released in 2001.
After Calder retired, Bradley helped him sell Calder Publications to Alma Books, headed up by Galenzi and Elisabetta Minervini, which has continued and built up the list, and maintain the Calder name as an imprint. Calder was mostly based in Paris but also stayed in London and Edinburgh, and was very involved with the Edinburgh Fringe.
Freelance editor and literary consultant Bill Swainson, who knew Calder, said he was a “brave, pugnacious, committed publisher, who made it his life's mission to find new voices and publish them in post-war Britain”.
“Among the many great writers he championed were Samuel Beckett, Heinrich Böll, Wolfgang Borchert, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Sadegh Hedayat, Aidan Higgins, Henry Miller, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Hubert Selby, Jr, and Claude Simon… In short, John Calder was the right publisher at the right time who introduced international post-war literature music and theatre to a country not always sure it wanted to make those discoveries, but when you look at his list 50 to 60 years later you realise just how far ahead of his time he was,” he said.