In nearly sixty years as the foremost British publisher of controversial and avant-garde literature, John Calder put out work by some twenty-three Nobel laureates, including Heinrich Boll, Ivo Andrić and Samuel Beckett, whose life and work he is still consumed by. He brought Burroughs, Miller and the nouveau romanists to a British audience, and took gambles closer to home as well with experimental writers such as Ann Quin. As a publisher, writes Aidan Higgins, “he was sometimes tight with royalties, though the last time he visited me he brought two bottles of wine.” Retired now, Calder is touring with the Godot Theatre Company giving post-show talks.
Does literature still has the power to shock?
Well, yes. Take Beckett, for example. We’ve done over a dozen tours around Ireland, and it’s a sort of missionary work in a way because people are a bit afraid of Beckett’s work. They feel it might be too difficult for them. The trouble is that he was one of the world’s biggest pessimist, and in a consumer society like ours, everybody’s got to be optimistic the whole time. Beckett couldn’t share that. There’s something of a contradiction there, of course, because he came from an upper-class Protestant background. But he just couldn’t relate to that at all. He sympathized far, far more with the sort of Catholic-underclass and with the artistic world. His family didn’t understand that at all; his father was a successful business man. So, while all of these things come out in his work, he is actually much easier to understand than people realise. What we’re trying to do is convey the importance of his work. I mean, he’s the best known Irish man in the world, and has been for a long time.
Given his unwillingness to take part in that sort of world–
It wasn’t unwillingness; it was just his nature. He always sympathized with people at bottom of the pile, not the top. I mean, his main characters tend to be tramps or very poor people or very underprivileged people – people who suffer. He understood suffering a great deal. He saw a lot of it in his life. Not only in Ireland, but later on in Europe as well.
Given this, though, do you think there’s a danger of Beckett’s image being commodified or wrongly appropriated? I mean, you can now buy t-shirts with ‘Fail again. Fail better’ printed on them.
Well, yes, that’s taken out of its context. Because that comes from a very late text, and it’s based on Darwin – on the beginning of the world, on how the world came to be. Beckett was always looking for deeper meaning. Why are we born? Why do we die so early? What’s the world about? What’s life about? He was always asking those questions. Most people tend to try to avoid those questions, and that’s one of the problems people have with him. He was very contradictory that way. Although he abandoned the lifestyle and the outlook of his family, he never got it out of his system. He more or less gave up his religion, but he always had a sort of longing for it. There’s not a single non-believer in Beckett’s work. Not one.
Would you say that your relationship with Beckett has defined your life?
Yes, absolutely – without a doubt. He completely convinced me of his worldview, and it has stayed with me ever since. Yes, absolutely.
Of all the writers you published, who do you consider the most underappreciated?
That would have to be the French writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He was the main figure in a group called the New Novelists, whom I published a lot of in English. They believed was that you could only write what the mind experiences. In other words, they would write about the outside world as it occurred in the mind of their characters. They were popular for a few years, but then they fell out of fashion. There’s another writer, an Irish writer, who I think is greatly underappreciated – and that’s Aidan Higgins. He is a very strange man. A great writer, though.
He has a short, two-page sketch of you in his most recent book, Blind Man’s Bluff. Have you read it?
No, not yet, unfortunately.
It’s quite affectionate, if perhaps a little scabrous.
Oh god – what’s he saying about me! I must read that.
Are there any good publishers left?
Good question. Publishing is an industry run by capitalists now. I don’t know. There aren’t many independents left. There aren’t many great editors around anymore either. I mean, there are some who have the skill, but of course they don’t have the opportunity to do anything with it. Most of the good ones are getting quite old now, too. We’re all getting old. Dalkey Archive Press – that’s a good one. A very eccentric publisher, though.
They’ve got Aidan Higgins in their catalogue now.
Yes, that’s true.
Does writing obituaries, as you do for the Guardian, cause one to feel morbid?
Yes, it does. I’ve stopped doing it now. I’m 87-years old. You have to know a lot about somebody to write their obituary, and a lot of the writers they want me to write about are too young for me to remember. It’s all about memory – memory of ghosts. There are ghosts everywhere in Beckett’s work.
The recordings in Krapp’s Last Tape strike me as ghostly.
Yes, I suppose they are. He was always trying to remember.
Beckett x 3 plays February 8th and 9th at the Pavillion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, featuring a post-show talk from Calder both nights.