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John Calder: A Hero for Art

09/04/2010

Cross over the road from the Young Vic, walk east along The Cut for one hundred yards and you arrive at The Bookshop Theatre, an unassuming place, easy to pass by without noticing. But venture inside one Thursday evening and you’ll find something truly heroic going on. At the front there’s a sparsely furnished bookshop, step into the back and you are confronted with a small curtained stage. Tonight the publisher John Calder and the actor John McManus sit at a table under a couple of blond spots, shuffling papers, while the plastic seats lined up in rows before them slowly fill up.

By seven o’clock there are twenty-one people in the audience, only three of whom, I’d guess, are under fifty. We’ve come for a talk on Eugene Jolas (1995-1951) – Joyce’s great friend and encourager, and editor of what Calder thinks was “the most important literary magazine of the last century”, transition, in which instalments of Finnegans Wake first appeared.  It’s a unique event, a cross between a literary salon and the kind of ‘educationals’ socialist parties used to run in upstairs pub rooms, and it’s conducted not as part of the literary circuit where writers charge the public to listen to advertisements for their latest publication, but simply in the name of intellectual curiosity.

McManus reads first from Jolas’s essays on the agonies and ecstasies of Finnegans Wake’s 15 year progress – on the book’s “great destruction of the word and the new, undreamed of possibilities of expression”  this gave rise to, emphasising particularly the humour of Joyce’s “insurgent mind”.  Then there’s a memoir written shortly after Joyce’s death in 1941, containing some of the warmest biographical writing that exists on the great Dubliner, full of lively portraits of Joyce: walking in the dusk, “grape-happy”; teaching himself Finnish, Russian and Japanese; responding to Karl Radek’s accusation that Ulysses “was without social conscience”, by pointing out that all his writing was about lower or working class people.

The audience are a friendly, erudite bunch, many of whom offer up their own anecdotes about the Joyce family, snippets of information about his supporters in Paris and Trieste, or speculation about the banning and neglect of Ulysses: in the Fifties Bodley Head were selling less than 100 copies a year in England, and right up to the end of the Sixties it was only available in 3 or 4 Dublin bookshops, under the counter; the Times obituary called Joyce “a talented man who wasted his talent on cheap pornography”.  One man recalls that when his father ran into Joyce’s sister on the Dublin street, she told him about the difficulties of keeping goats in the middle of the city and lamented her brother’s unprofitable literary career: “Poor Jimmy, if he’d worked hard he could have been editor of the Evening Post”.

John Calder – River Deben, Suffolk, 1995

Calder used to run the bookshop himself and much of its stock comes from his unrivalled imprint which published Beckett and the leading lights of the Nouveau Roman – Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Duras, Pinget, Mauriac and Queneau’s ingenious Exercises in Style (inspired by Bach’s The Art Of Fugue) – as well as banned writers such as Henry Miller and Hugh Selby Jnr, many of whom were friends. There is also a fine selection of Opera Guides: until recently, it is rumoured, Calder attended every opening night in Europe. Over the past few years he’s gathered a pool of dedicated actors – the Godot Company – and the good news is that some of these will be taking over the performances, as well as injecting some cash and energy into the daily running of the shop. So if you have nothing better to do next Thursday, why not stroll up to Waterloo for an evening spent in the company of John Calder, listening to The Prose and Poetry of Baudelaire? The curtain goes up at 7 o’clock.

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