John Calder is a remarkable man. For more than half a century, and at great cost to himself, he has championed the work of experimental writers, usually against the current of popular taste. That alone makes him a giant among the pygmies who dominate today’s publishing world by following or trying to anticipate literary fashion. Even more remarkable is the fact that Calder is still at work long after most publishing moguls of his age have retired on their share options.
To judge from his new book, Calder regrets none of the troubles his dedication has brought upon him. The fact that several of his literary swans have turned out to be geese only underlines his stoicism. He knows that the essence of fruitful publishing is a willingness to take chances, driven by passionate commitment. Although some of those chances have con1.e to grief, he is still in love with literature and still excited by the honour of publishing writing he admires. And, despite the geese, he has an impressive backlist. What other small publisher in his time would have kept Borges, Artaud, Celine, Duras, Queneau , Roussel and Sarraute in print, am among others? As these names suggest, Calder has always been intrigued by the European avant-garde–another reason, perhaps, for his relative lack of success in Britain – and his outlook has its deepest roots in postwar Paris. But the star of his stable is undoubtedly the Irishman Samuel Beckett, to whom Calder was publisher, editor and friend for almost four decades.
Known to the few since the 1940s, Beckett has become a sort of cultural totem, acquiring an extraordinary mystique as secular saint and supreme genius. Calder’s book makes equally extraordinary claims for him. Are they justified?
That Beckett was a man of high moral standards and great personal benevolence cannot be doubted. And, however bleak his theoretical view of human life, his generous instincts were always translated into practical action. His role in the Resistance is well known and his sympathies were always with the downtrodden, to whom he gave freely of time and money, whether or not in funds himself. Calder and Anne Atik (who was part of Beckett’s circle in Paris from the 1950s until his death in 1989) both refer to many acts of kindness; many, many more must have gone unrecorded. These were by no means the dour obligations of a conscientious do–gooder. One of Calder’s most touching vignettes concerns Beckett’s encounter with two Irish labourer at a loose end on holiday in Paris. He took them out to a slap-up dinner followed by a fashionable nightclub–hardly his own choice of pleasures–without revealing his identity, which they only discovered on their return home.
But is Beckett also the great master Calder and Atik seem to believe? Calder puts the case most forcefully, arguing that his writing continues where Kafka, Joyce and Proust leave off, ultimately surpassing them all. He further claims that Beckett will be remembered not as a novelist or playwright but as a philosopher. Setting aside the justice of these claims, and the matter of whether Beckett has been around long enough to merit them, do they even make sense? To describe Beckett as ‘great’ and as belonging in a holy trinity with Dante and Shakespeare, as Calder does, surely invokes a scale of values his work brings into question? Beckett, like his friend Giacometti, often appears to abjure the broad themes of Western literature in favour of an heroic nihilism that focuses with great intensity and compassion on the destruction of human identity. This destruction is, of course, a central theme in all literature from Homer onwards, but it isn’t the only one. And it only makes sense in the context of a wider religious or philosophical tradition. There is more to Shakespeare than Beckett’s favourite quotation about’ the worst’ from his favourite play, King Lear. Is there more to Beckett than The Unnameable?
Calder and Atik go some way to answering this question by showing how deeply rooted Beckett was in the culture he seems to destine for destruction, thereby implying that, in art as in life, the writer’s daunting exterior belied a more liberal, humane and complex reality. Calder begins to uncover the dense network of allusions in Beckett’s texts, showing how they involve in fact, if not in intention – a continuation of the cultural and religious traditions to which he belongs. Atik reveals the intimate side of Beckett, an intensely shy and private man who could nevertheless re lax with his friends and their families, either through conviviality –he was an heroic drinker, in the best Irish style – or by means of their shared enthusiasms, notably music and Beckett was steeped in the classics of European literature and able to quote long stretches of Keats, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe and Dante (both in Italian and in the English version by H F Cary). Even more revealingly, Atik shows how he returned again and again to the same few poems and musical works, with the obsessive attention that enabled him to extract every nuance in his own prose. In other words, the apocalyptic destruction of the world Beckett anticipates in most of his work needs to be seen in terms of his passionate attachment and commitment to that world.
On a lighter note, the lively first volume of the critic John Montague’s memoirs, Company: A Chosen Life (Duckworth 190pp £14.99), includes a sample of Beckett talking in the style of his own characters, in away which is both hilarious and illuminating. Montagueis especially good on literary embarrassment, of which there seems to have been a good deal in the Dublin of his youth, fuelled of course by drink. The highlight of his book is a touching and tragic account of Brendan Behan, who has his own lessons to teach us about the uncertainty of literary value judgements.