Vice Magazine and John Calder

I have to thank Dan Visel for bringing this to my attention. Until he e-mailed me, I hadn’t looked at Vice magazine in quite some time. But what a fiction issue! Heinrich von Kleist’s The Earthquake in Chile (forthcoming from Archipelago), an interesting list of recommendations from writers who are also teachers, and interviews with Harold Bloom, Ursula Le Guin, and John Calder.

The Calder piece—entitled “Obscenity, Who Really Cares?”—is fantastic. Calder’s voice really comes through here, and all the stories he tells (he almost participated in a duel!) are illuminating and interesting. I hope that fifty years from now, there are still publishers with such strong literary beliefs . . .

Vice: After 58 years you have called it a day. What finally made you sell up?

John Calder: I’m nearly 82, and I just can’t take the 100 hours-plus working week. It’s very difficult. Good literature is one way to spend your entire life working for nothing. I used to spend eight months of the year selling books all over the world. I haven’t had a holiday, Christmas Day or otherwise, since 1973. [. . .]

Who was the first author who made you think that putting out books was what you had to do?

In 1958 I published a book called The Question by Henri Alleg about the French army in Algiers. I was given a copy of it when I was in Paris, and immediately thought I should publish it. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction. It was one of my first best-sellers, turned around 10,000 copies in a few weeks. Off the bat that was fairly controversial. The Algerian War had been going on for a long time and de Gaulle had finally stopped it. That led to books like Gangrene by Lord Altrincham and made me decide that if you were going to attack colonialism then you’ve got to attack them all. The Labour government was afraid of anything that put the British army in a bad light and I got a notice from the British government saying that if I published this book, then I’d be tried for treason. Rather serious. But once a book is out, that’s it; it’s out. They ended up dropping the case.

How did your relationship with Beckett start?

I saw a production of Waiting for Godot in 1955 in London so I wrote to Beckett and a few days later I had dinner with him in Paris. I didn’t get Waiting for Godot because Faber got their offer in the post a few days ahead of me but they didn’t touch his novels or his poetry and so it began. [. . .]

What made you remark that you believe Burroughs to be an important writer but not a great one?

He had no interest in style. He never revised anything. He just enjoyed the act of writing. I remember sitting down with him when we were preparing Naked Lunch, and saying to him: “Look, this character on page so-and-so, it’s really the same one under another name a hundred pages later, isn’t it?” and he’d say: “Yes, you’re probably right”. He was only interested in what he was doing in the moment and that is not the sign of a great writer. He was a good artist, but not a great craftsman. [. . .]

As you leave it behind after so long, how do you feel about the world of publishing today?

It’s of little interest to me because it’s become globalised. Things rely on enthusiasts today. I’ve always tried to support these enthusiasts by selling their books in the shop but there are very few other independent bookshops left. We used to have this wonderful man who ran our bookshop. Unfortunately he collapsed. He’s in psychiatric care now. You’ve got to have a pretty strong constitution to be in this world of books.

The rest is equally as fascinating . . .

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