In the 1950s the publisher and bookseller John Calder, who has died aged 91, introduced a British readership to some of the best writing from Europe, including the work of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco and Marguerite Duras. In partnership with Marion Boyars in the company Calder & Boyars in the 60s and 70s, he published a series of vibrant and daring works from around the world. These included, in 1966, the US writer Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, for which the company was prosecuted for obscenity.
Anybody who had the privilege of knowing Calder during his long and eventful life has a story about him. They may have met him as he travelled across the US in the 80s, hand-selling the books he published, heard him tell anecdotes about Ionesco or Wyndham Lewis at a party, experienced a romantic adventure with him, got inebriated with him, seen him whirling invoices around and barking instructions while he lay on a hospital bed after heart surgery: “Pay this – right-hand side, second drawer down – that one can wait – I’m not paying this one.”
His autobiography, Pursuit (2001), is a 350,000-word rollercoaster, in parts reminiscent of the memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte or Casanova – with tales of when Calder played tennis with Rita Hayworth, or met Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe at the Savoy hotel, or drove the Russian writer Yulian Semyonov around LA with a broken wrist and concussion.
John was born in Montreal, to a Scottish father, James Calder, whose family wealth derived from brewing and timber businesses, and a French-Canadian mother, Lucienne (nee Wilson), whose family had made their fortune in banking. Educated first at Gilling Castle, North Yorkshire, the preparatory school for Ampleforth, and then at various colleges in Montreal, he completed his business studies at Zurich University in 1949. Earlier that year, he had married Christya Myling, an American actress.
As the scion of two prominent moneyed families, he was able to enjoy for a while a life of lavish hotels and holidays in the Swiss Alps and the Côte d’Azur, but the pressure of being the heir to a large part of the family estate meant that he soon had to enter the business. He was conscripted into his great-uncle’s thriving international timber firm, Calders Ltd, for which his father also worked, but his real passions were literature and music – especially the opera – so for a few years he juggled this career and the fledgling John Calder Publishers, which he founded towards the end of 1949.
Among his first publications were translations of German, French and Russian classics, as well as books on music and opera. In 1955 he resigned from Calders Ltd to devote himself entirely to his growing publishing business. The following years were marked by the publication of hard-hitting political exposés, including two about torture in the Algerian war: Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), which went on to sell more than 25,000 copies, and Gangrene (1959), a collection of individual testimonies, which could only be published with a dose of determination. Calder flew to Bavaria with the manuscript to beat a British printers’ strike and then, when the rightwing owners of the German press discovered its content and began to drag their feet, managed to convince the considerably more left-leaning workers to print 10,000 copies and airfreighted the sheets back to Britain for binding.
The 60s heralded a number of new departures for Calder. Having divorced his first wife and married the singer Bettina Jonic in 1960, he came into possession of Ledlanet – a family shooting lodge near Kinross – as a legacy from his great-uncle.
In 1961, understanding the importance of bringing literature to the public, he suggested a writers’ conference to the Earl of Harewood, who was then director of the Edinburgh festival. The resulting event in 1962 attracted some of the most prominent international authors of the time, including William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Muriel Spark, Alexander Trocchi, Allen Ginsberg, Malcolm Muggeridge, Harry Mulisch, LP Hartley and Lawrence Durrell – some of whom Calder went on to publish. A drama conference followed in 1963. Later that year, he launched Ledlanet Nights – a series of arts festivals held at his Scottish manor. Always an avid opera-goer, Calder kept a record of all of the different operas he attended – which numbered more than 1,000 operas over the course of his life.
In the meantime, his list had grown in scope and ambition. He continued to publish the fiction and poems of Beckett, who was to be a lifelong friend, launched the New Writers anthology series, branched into bookselling and introduced to the UK some of the greatest contemporary writers, mainly from France, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and Robert Pinget, some of whom he was able to bring over to promote their books. He bought and sold rights at the Frankfurt book fair, where he was part of a small circle of influential international publishers that also included Giulio Einaudi, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and Klaus Wagenbach.
Finding himself at the sharp end of a difficult, cash-draining industry, with an increasing number of commitments and diminishing resources, he was forced to look for new investment for his publishing venture. In 1963, he found a business partner in Boyars. Calder & Boyars published books by Miller, Heinrich Böll, Witold Gombrowicz, Jorge Luis Borges, Ivo Andrić, Antonin Artaud, Aidan Higgins, Elspeth Davie, Ann Quin, Ken Kesey and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, as well as continuing to commission from existing authors in his list. The publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn led to a notorious obscenity trial. The company was initially convicted, but, represented by John Mortimer, won on appeal: this signalled the end of prosecutions for obscenity in literary works in Britain.
The company was dissolved in 1975 and, although the period after the end of his partnership with Boyars was at times fraught, and he was embittered by the loss of Ledlanet and a second divorce, it was far from being the twilight for Calder and his activities. His new company, called again John Calder Publishers, continued to bring out and keep in print an ever-growing and eclectic list of British and international authors – including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Raymond Queneau, Luigi Pirandello, Paul Éluard, Howard Barker and Steven Berkoff – adding new series, such as the highly acclaimed Opera Guides, produced in association with ENO, and branching into different literary genres.
He travelled extensively to sell and promote his books, set up a touring acting company to present the works of Beckett, organised regular literary events at his bookshop on The Cut in London, and bravely fought against the abolition of the net book agreement.
He survived the withdrawal of regular Arts Council funding – and heart surgery. He received honorary degrees from the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier University, was made Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and found the energy and the stamina to pass on his business to ensure its continued success, while giving generously of his time to an expanding circle of admirers and friends.
For many years he was absorbed in creating artworks he called “shapes” – intricate multicoloured abstract forms – several of which were recently acquired by the LaM museum of contemporary art in Lille for its permanent collection. In his later years he also went back to writing and produced his long autobiography, as well as a memoir on the 50s publishing scene in France and his friendship with Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, several influential studies of Beckett and three volumes of poetry, one of his earliest and strongest interests.
He once said that, as a young man, at the recommendation of TS Eliot, he had shown his poetry to Faber’s editor, Peter du Sautoy, who told him, after dividing his manuscript into two piles: “Write more of these and fewer of these.” Unfortunately, he never got round to doing that, and his manuscript was lost. Some cynics may doubt whether this is true or not – but does it matter? To Calder, life and fiction were inextricably intertwined.
He is survived by two daughters, Jamie and Anastasia, one from each of his first two marriages, and by his long-term friend and companion, Sheila Colvin, whom he married in 2011.