John Calder is Britain’s most distinguished living publisher, and at the age of 86 he’s still at it. He first set up in business in 1949 and went on to publish 18 Nobel Prize winners, as well as classics and works on music. Why doesn’t he received a knighthood? Perhaps because his distinction lies chiefly in his role as champion of the avant garde.
At a time when the heights of literary achievement are said to be the kitsch historical novels of Hilary Mantel, it is salutary to be reminded of a period not long ago when literature was a vital part of the contemporary world, replete with glittering transgressive texts which explored areas previously forbidden or unknown. It was an audacious era, superbly recaptured in Calder’s book, whose core lies in the Paris of the 1950s and whose point of departure is the memoirs of Maurice Girodias, a notorious character, here largely redeemed.
Girodias was British and inherited the Obelisk Press, his father’s prewar firm based in Paris which in the 1930s published edgy works such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves and Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool. It operated from a decidedly grand address in the Place Vendôme. Maurice reinvented the operation as the Olympia Press in 1953, moved it to the Left Bank, and took on the groundbreaking work of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and William Burroughs.
Girodias funded his serious activity with soft-core erotica. The line between the two could be blurred since a large part of the literary avant garde’s job — and success — was in the investigation of sexual behaviour. Despite Paris being freer than London, it was far from plain sailing, but Girodias was able to escape a lot of trouble by publishing there in English. He formed two professional alliances, with Calder in London and Barney Rosset’s Grove Press in New York. There were disputes between them, but the result was a roller-coaster which permanently altered the literary landscape.
Girodias’s money worries should have ended with the publication of Lolita. But we are in a world of very high bohemianism. Girodias had a string of mistresses, as well as wives and children, and at one time an art gallery, three restaurants and a small theatre too. He had a ‘parlour trick of eating his wine glass at the table,’ and often rivalled the madcap excesses of his authors — which are considerable. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Beckett, Ionesco, Henry Miller, Brion Gysin, Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue, George Plimpton, J.P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Paul Bowles and Lawrence Durrell all flit in and out of the pages.
Among these gifted, sometimes fatuous males are many names either forgotten or indeed never celebrated: Rosemary Ridgewell, a whirlwind cabaret-dancer who seems to have agented Lolita; Edouard Roditi, a gay Surrealist who knew everyone ,and on his death left four volumes of unpublished memoirs; Sinbad Vail, editor of Points and stepson of Peggy Guggenheim; Austryn and Muffie Wainhouse, who gave gourmet dinner parties, all cooked up on a small spirit stove; Boris Vian, engineer, novelist and jazz musician.
Crooks, charlatans and highbrows trip over each other; all forms of drug use and sexual adventurism are deployed; there are digressions to Tangier, Amsterdam, London and New York; and much is born from that traditional recipe, ‘rich eccentric meets impoverished genius’. The legal battles against charges of obscenity were numerous, and mostly won by Girodias. But there were many casualties too; freedom is not harmless, and when it tries to be, it becomes another form of imprisonment.
What is so refreshing is that Calder has been able to objectify to a considerable degree the movement in which he played a key part. He recounts it all in a dour, droll tone, with never a hint of sanctimoniousness, and he flinches at nothing. Of his writers, only Samuel Beckett observes a seemly sobriety.
In the end it was a triumph of yes over no. The area of human doings available for examination was enormously enlarged by these writers and publishers, not only in terms of our personal relationships but also in psychology, philosophy, politics and spiritual concerns. Only since the Rushdie affair has religion and violent narrow-mindedness sought once again to shrink that territory — so now the wider world needs courageous intellectual challenges as much as ever.
One thing confused me. In the introduction, Calder writes that his book ‘covers half the period, and may be followed by a second volume.’ But it doesn’t cover half the period; it ends with a long final chapter ‘The Sixties and after’ which pretty much rounds things off.