According to Chambers Dictionary – perhaps the only book on our shelves that earns its daily keep – the word ‘maverick means ‘a person who does not conform, a determined individualist’. True mavericks are few. One such was John Calder who died in August in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival at the age of 91.
In appearance he did not look like a maverick. On the contrary, he could have been a fully paid up member of the establishment. He wore a dark suit and black shoes and was never seen without a shirt and tie. This is not normally the garb of bohemians. He also preferred stuffy clubs, such as the Scottish Arts Club, and what used to be called ‘fancy’ restaurants, such as Brasserie Lipp in Paris, where he had an apartment, and Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal. Few were the days when Calder did not enjoy a good meal washed down with a glass or three of wine. Though he often complained – he was among other things a professional curmudgeon – that as a publisher he was never far from the breadline the evidence appeared to suggest otherwise. Opera was one of his many enthusiasms and he would fly from one side of the globe to the other to see a new production. The ‘new’ was another of his compulsions. He seemed constantly to be on the move, eager to bait the complacent or shock the easily shocked. It did not endear him to the real establishment.
His record as a publisher is unlikely ever to be trumped. From 1949 he published eighteen Nobel Prize winners and around 1500 books. Were it not for Calder many French and European writers would never have been introduced to English-speaking readers. In 1962, in concert with Jim Haynes and Sonia Orwell, he organized the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference which was attended by many of the best writers of their time, including Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Marguerite Duras, Muriel Spark, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. Among the indigenous brigade were Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi who gave their international colleagues a memorable example of the ancient Scottish tradition of flyting. Headlines duly ensued, guaranteeing that the event would become part of literary lore.
This, of course, was to Calder’s delight. He was never happier than when in the eye of a publicity storm. For him, culture was too important to be left to government agencies and civic panjandrums. In that regard he was the opposite of those Edinburgh grandees who believed that the festival simply offered a venue for licentious behaviour. For once in their sanctimonious lives they were right. Calder never tired of recalling the second night of the Traverse, in whose opening he was also instrumental, when an actress was accidentally stabbed during a performance of Sartre’s Huis Clos. While some ran to call an ambulance Calder was more interested in alerting the press, knowing full well that such publicity was gold dust.
Calder’s restlessness drove him to open bookshops, stand for parliament – what an adornment he would have been at Holyrood – run an arts festival and write a number of books, including his racy autobiography, Pursuit, and, as recently as 2013, The Garden of Eros which he subtitled ‘The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-War Literary Scene’. Calder himself was part of the story. If Scotland was the place to which he was tied by genes and history – though born in Montreal he was the scion of an Alloa brewing family – Paris was his spiritual home. Even forty years on from the age of Hemingway and Fitzgerald its allure was seductive. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, ‘When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.’ In Paris, Calder met many fellow mavericks, such as the publishers Maurice Girodais and Barney Rosset, and the writer with whom he formed a personal and professional bond, Samuel Beckett. Beckett, he recalled, ‘had a perfectly clear vision of what life is about, and saw it as an unfortunate accident, a tragedy, both because mankind has very little natural kindness, and man mistreats his fellow humans out of some innate cruel instinct….’ It may be that this was Calder’s vision too. Certainly, he viewed with some amusement what Balzac, the great chronicler of nineteenth-century Paris, called ‘La Comédie humaine’.
Among the many writers Calder published one of the most significant was the aforementioned Trocchi who is featured in this issue of the SRB. Unlike his publisher, Trocchi did look and behave like a bohemian, as described by James Campbell, who was one of first people to interview him. Calder published Glasgow-born Trocchi’s two novels, Young Adam and Cain’s Book. Addicted to drugs, which incredibly he was able to acquire through the National Health Service, Trocchi died in 1984 aged 59. On the jacket of Cain’s Book, its author had this to say: ‘This work is an act, an exercise in phenomenology, a planting of flags, a moment to moment chart of my own processes in extremity. The identity of the “junkie”…was consciously chosen. The resulting experience is by definition that of an alien in a society of conformers, a personal cosmology of inner space.’