University of Edinburgh’s School of Law – A Public Lecture by John Calder
October 13, 2013 | by
We live in a time when the internet has made pornography freely available and computer games and movies thrive on a spectacle of violence and sex. It is interesting to note that in post-WWII Britain ‘no four letter word could be printed’ and ‘acts legal to perform could not be described’ in literature. In was in such a world that John Calder decided to start a publishing business.
In a dusty lecture room in the School of Law, The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) hosted the octogenarian Calder. He introduced his new book, The Garden of Eros. Calder has published at least twenty-five Nobel prize-winning authors, has ‘risked jail and bankruptcy’ to banned books, and has long been a champion of avant-garde writers. He was the main publisher of Samuel Beckett in Britain and described him as the ‘greatest literary figure of the twentieth-century’. Calder sat in a chair in the corner of the stage. Despite his years he could still throw his gravelly voice to the back of the theatre without need of a microphone.
The Garden of Eros recounts the lives and escapades of a coterie of groundbreaking writers in post-WWII paris who congregated around publisher Maurice Girodias. Among these were Henry Miller, William Burroughs and those in thenouveau roman movement. Girodias’ Olympia Press defied obscenity laws to publish pornography, but also literature that strived to be experimental, unorthodox and subversive.
One member of this bohemian bunch was Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi. Calder described Trocchi as a formidable writer who would have published more if not for his heroin addiction. He survived mainly on the advances for books he never intended to write. Calder first met him in New York and kept Trocchi alive by offering him translation work at ‘a pound a page’. Most of the lecture was composed of these anecdotes, all of which, we were promised, ‘are in the book’.
A down-and-out Henry Miller, who Calder had brought to the 1962 International Writer’s Conference in Edinburgh, once asked him for five thousand dollars. Calder said no, knowing Miller’s reputation, but took him around Frankfurt Book Fair and secured him $1500 through publishing deals. Miller used the money in typically extravagant fashion. He hired a suite for himself in a up-market hotel. Calder eventually risked prosecution to publish Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in Britain.
Calder had trouble answering the questions that followed his anecdotal lecture. He strayed off topic and occasionally mumbled into silence. But he did leave the audience with some thoughts on the current state of the publishing industry, which he described as ‘overly commercialised’ and ‘run by accountants’. He bemoaned the end of the Net Book Agreement). This legislation dictated that no book-seller could offer a discount over 5% and was scrapped in favour of more ‘competiton’ in the market. It was prescient that Calder should declare this on the second ‘Super Thursday’ of the publishing season. What he did not mention was the impact of the internet on literature and publishing. The lawlessness of cyberspace has left taboo-breaking art semi-redundant. Its full effect on the publishing industry is yet to be seen.