by John Calder

Calder Publications. 360 pages. £25. ISBN 978-0-9574522-0-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns


The Fifties were, according to John Calder, "a more interesting time than the much vaunted Sixties." and he points out how the seeds of what sprouted in the latter decade had been sown in the earlier one: "The Sixties were a direct result of the Fifties and what started then." It's a point of view that those who've fallen for the line that, prior to 1963 or so, everything was drab and uninteresting, might not want to consider. But there is truth in what Calder says. And some people, and I'm among them, would suggest that it's when things are starting to show signs of developing that they're at their most interesting. The sense of possibilities is there, matters haven't become over-publicised and commercialised, and writers and artists can get on with what they want to do without too many distractions.

Paris had a tradition of attracting British and American writers, as witness the heady days of the Twenties. But the war years obviously put a stop to such activities, and it was only around the end of the Forties and the start of the Fifties that there was a noticeable return to some sort of normality. Calder says that "in 1951, the Anglo-American literary and art scene in Paris began to revive." One of the early arrivals was Alexander Trocchi, described as "a brilliant student of English and philosophy at Glasgow University," who had "impressed his professors with his ability to write original essays on both major subjects." Trocchi plays a major role in Calder's book and he was, for a time, a catalyst to events that have now become a part of literary history. By the time he got to Paris he had written short stories and poems, and he was working on his first novel, Young Adam. He had also started to dabble with drugs, though not to the point where they became dominant in his life. That would happen later.

Other early arrivals were the poet Christopher Logue, Alan Riddell, and Jane Lougee. All played a part in the founding of Merlin, a short-lived little magazine that has an honoured place in the story of bohemian life in Fifties Paris. Little magazines are now of less importance than they used to be, but, as in the Twenties, they were key outlets for work by writers who would later become better-known. Among other things, Merlin drew attention to the work of Samuel Beckett. Trocchi and Lougee soon began an affair, despite the fact that his wife and children were in Paris, and they started to plan publishing Merlin. Alan Riddell was also initially involved but wanted to focus on publishing Scottish writers, something that Trocchi was vehemently against. It was Jane Lougee's money that would support the magazine, so Trocchi was in a strong position and soon eased Riddell out of the picture.

Calder gives a close account of Trocchi's activities and it's clear that he wasn't always scrupulously honest in his dealings with other people. Austryn Wainhouse met him at Le Mistral, George Whitman's bookshop that later changed its name to Shakespeare & Company, and reminiscing about the meeting, described Trocchi as "a great lean rascal in a raincoat, the collar pulled up, over its rim lay a long nose, claiming all the space between two little eyes, deep set, very winning, and manifestly not to be trusted." I only met Trocchi once and that was in 1964 when he was pushing his Sigma Project and its "Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds." There was a gathering of some kind in an upstairs room of a pub in London, and I recall Trocchi and Jeff Nuttall being there with a large poster-type publication called The Moving Times that they'd just produced. I've got to admit that I never could take many of Trocchi's ideas too seriously, and my brief conversation with him left me feeling that he might be someone to be wary of. But perhaps I'd been influenced by stories I'd heard and the fact that he was known to be a heroin addict.

          Several issues of Merlin did appear and there was a Merlin publishing house which brought out editions of Beckett's Watt and Molloy. I have a few issues of Points, another Paris based magazine, and one of them dating from 1953 has an advertisement for Watt, along with a short story by Trocchi and poems by Christopher Logue and Jane Lougee. Points didn't have quite the same cachet as Merlin, but it lasted longer thanks to its editor, Sindbad Vail, being the stepson of Peggy Guggenheim and so not being short of money. His father was Laurence Vail, a fixture on the Twenties Paris scene and published in transition. There were other magazines in Fifties Paris, such as Zero, New Story, and perhaps the best known of them all, The Paris Review, which benefited from having an editor, George Plimpton, who, like Sindbad Vail, didn't have to hunt for funds to keep the magazine alive.

There was a certain amount of literary and social mixing between the groups which tended to cluster around each magazine, but Calder points out that The Paris Review group "were not bohemians: they had been to good American universities, sometimes followed by good British ones; they were typical Ivy Leager young Americans with a desire to make a name for themselves in literature and to have a good time as well." This isn't the place to delve into the history of The Paris Review, which stretches over many years, but it is worth mentioning a couple of novels by writers linked to the founding of the magazine which have some relevance to their time in Paris. Peter Matthiessen was reputed to have connections to the CIA and his 1955 novel Partisans, described as "a psychological thriller of ideas," revolved around the politics of the French Communist Party. The Underground City (1958) by H.L.Humes was set towards the end of the war and just after and was more ambitious in scope (it runs to 750 pages) but was similarly informed about left-wing French politics. Matthiessen went on to have a successful writing career, but Humes only produced one more novel before his life petered out in paranoia and drugs.

Calder mentions some other publications, such as Two Cities and Paris Magazine, the latter edited by George Whitman from his bookshop. And he says that Alexander Trocchi "both contributed and did some editorial work" for it. I have the first three issues (dated 1967, 1984, and 1989, which even by the standards of sporadic little magazines is quite a record) and Trocchi isn't in any of them, nor is he credited with any editorial assistance. Was there an earlier version of Paris Magazine? I've never come across it if there was.

It's now well-known that many of the young writers in Paris in the Fifties supplemented whatever incomes they had by knocking out "dirty books" for Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press. Trocchi was adept at producing titles like Helen and Desire and White Thighs under the name of Frances Lengel, and Iris Owen, who wrote as Harriett Daimler, came up with The Woman Thing and several others. It has been said that Trocchi and Owen had an affair and that the male character in The Woman Thing is based on him. Unlike a lot of pornography these books were not badly written on the whole, some humour was often present in them, and by today's standards they'd probably be best described as "soft porn" and unlikely to upset too many people. Helen and Desire was re-issued by Canongate in 1997 without, as far as I know, any fuss, and The Woman Thing is easily available. Iris Owens did later write a couple of straightforward novels, one of which, After Claude, has a Greenwich Village bohemian background, and is worth reading.

Maurice Girodias is, in many ways, central to Calder's account, and his story makes for lively reading. He was the son of Jack Kahane, a Manchester-born businessman who started the Obelisk Press in Paris in the Thirties and published English-language editions of books banned in Britain and America. His list included Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool, along with some books that didn't have any claim to literary quality. Girodias, whose wartime activities tended to be shrouded in mystery (had he been too friendly with the Germans?) began to follow in his father's footsteps after 1945 when he launched the Olympia Press which, as well as the "dirty books" referred to earlier, would eventually publish Nabokov's Lolita, J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, Lawrence Durrell's The Black Book, and various titles by Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Henry Miller.

Calder gives a detailed description of Girodias's antics and escapades and it makes for entertaining and enlightening reading. He wasn't the most perfect of people and had numerous liaisons with a variety of ladies, drank, thought up crazy schemes (one involved opening an up-market restaurant), and was cavalier when it came to money. It's obvious that he had mixed feelings about what he published. He wanted to see his books sell and wasn't averse to exploiting their sexual content for publicity purposes. But he was prepared to fight a number of censorship battles, and there's no doubt that, like John Calder in Britain and Barney Rossett in America, Girodias helped loosen the restraints on what could be openly available in print. It is, of course, open to debate as to whether or not the collapse of censorship had a uniformly good effect.

Bookshops catering to the expatriate community were important in post-war Paris. They were outlets for little magazines and books, and were also meeting places for the writers. George Whitman's Le Mistral/ Shakespeare & Company has already been mentioned, and there was also The English Bookshop in the rue de Seine which was owned by Gait Frogé, described by Calder as "an enthusiastic Frenchwoman with a penchant for writers and artists." He adds that she had many affairs, but that "there is no doubt that Norman Rubington was the serious one." He was an American painter who, under the name Akbar del Piombo, produced witty collage books for Olympia Press. I picked up a copy of one of them, Fuzz Against Junk, when I visited Paris in the early Sixties, along with Minutes To Go, a small book with contributions from William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Sinclair Beiles, and Gregory Corso, all of them then residents at the Beat Hotel in the rue Git-Le-Coeur. It was published by Gait Frogé, and Calder says it is now a "collector's item." The same visit also enabled me to obtain copies of the Olympia Press edition of The Naked Lunch and Gregory Corso's The American Express. I brought them back buried at the bottom of my rucksack in case a curious Customs decided to inspect it. Corso's oddball novel was totally innocuous and almost like a fairy-tale, and it's surprising that Girodias published it, but the green cover and the Traveller's Companion Series heading would have been reasons enough for it to be seized.

The fact that John Calder was in and out of Paris during the period he writes about means that he has numerous anecdotes and character sketches which enliven his narrative. He describes Burroughs in these words: "He dressed like a typical office-worker or the manager of a small bank in a small town, and he talked like one. No one could have looked more conventionally middle-American. But inside that head a whole bizarre world, akin to that of Heironymous Bosch or Dante was present." And I've got to agree that my first sighting of Burroughs, giving a reading in a small club called La Bohème on the Left Bank in 1962, very much ties in with Calder's comments. As for Samuel Beckett, Calder says that he was "austere intellectually and never believed that anything he did, said, or wrote could ever change the course of events; people come to their own destinies, largely through chance, and he believed, with regret, that human nature is unchangeable - that of the individual and that of the masses. Becket was basically an aristocrat in his thinking; he could sometimes help individuals but not populations, certainly not humanity as a whole."

The anecdotes come thick and fast when Trocchi and Girodias are discussed. Calder claims that Trocchi and John Esam, a poet from New Zealand, were behind the mystery of the missing money at the 1965 Albert Hall reading. Most of the poets never got paid and Calder says that Christopher Logue told him that he saw Trocchi and Esam stuffing the box-office receipts (around £2,000) into bags. It's not the only story about Trocchi and money going astray. As for Girodias, he was sleeping with three different women, drinking the profits from the bar in his restaurant, and trying to keep Olympia Press afloat. He did have money coming in from other publishers who had subcontracted several of his best-selling titles, but very little of it seems to have reached the authors. I got the impression, reading about Girodias's problems, that he brought chaos on himself because of his failure to run any of his ventures - publishing, the restaurant, a gallery he opened - in a systematic and efficient way. I'm not sure that there was necessarily any planned deception in what he did. He simply wasn't cut out to be a successful businessman. And he was often involved in expensive legal fights with other publishers when books he'd originally brought out were taken over by them because Girodias had never bothered with proper contracts or other legal requirements. Calder provides information about such matters, and books have been written about Girodias's struggles over The Ginger Man (J.P.Donleavy almost made a crusade of his dislike of Girodias) and Lolita.

Barney Rossett wasn't as colourful a character as Girodias, but his Grove Press, and its house magazine, Evergreen Review, played a key part in the development of what came to be called the New American Writing of the late-Fifties and early-Sixties. And Rossett took on the job of publishing Burroughs, Henry Miller, Beckett, Jean Genet and others in America and was willing to go to court when their books came under threat. But Rossett was, from Calder's account of him, a more ruthless businessman than Girodias (or Calder) and his treatment of others not always admirable. But I don't want to give the impression that Rossett was just a sharp operator. I can well remember how eagerly I waited for each new issue of Evergreen Review in its early days, and the impact made by the Grove Press New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen who may, in fact, have been the main influence on the best contents of the magazine. Grove Press also published Trocchi's Cain's Book (Calder did it in Britain), Jack Gelber's play, The Connection, and many other worthwhile titles. It's true that Evergreen Review went into something of a decline when it changed its format and got involved with the Hippies, Black Power, student protest, rock music, and other Sixties concerns, but its first thirty or so issues have a place in any survey of literary activity in the United States between 1957 and 1963.

John Calder doesn't make a big thing about his own involvements, though he was obviously a major presence in the adventurous side of British publishing. I've always had a high regard for him and not just because of what he did to get Trocchi, Burroughs, Beckett, and others into print in this country. Earlier, he'd published books by left-wing American writers who were blacklisted in their own country. On my shelves are novels like Alvah Bessie's The Un-Americans, Albert Maltz's A Long Day in a Short Life, and the four books that made up the first two parts of (two volumes in each part) of The Seed , a trilogy by Lars Lawrence, who died before completing the third part. Lars Lawrence was the pseudonym of Philip Stevenson, like Bessie and Maltz a screenwriter who could no longer get work in Hollywood. Calder also published novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet , Nathalie Sarraute, and Marguerite Duras, and plays by lonesco and Arthur Adamov. The latter "remained always short of money, and he was usually drunk. He wandered around Paris bars, always in dirty old sandals and no socks, his face a stubble and his bad breath and body odour detectable two yards away." Bohemianism of that sort seems colourful to read about, but Adamov's final days were sad ones. Having exhausted the good will of his two publishers, Calder in Britain and Gallimard in France, and unable to scrounge any more money from them, he wrote to Martin Esslin, then Head of Drama at BBC Radio. Esslin, an advocate of Theatre of the Absurd, had supported Adamov's work and would have sent some money but never received the letters. A postman had stolen sacks of mail. By the time the thefts were discovered Adamov had committed suicide.

A final minor point concerns Peter Martin, co-founder with Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco. Calder says that he was the son of "an Italian anarchist, Carlo Martin, who had been assassinated in New York in 1943." His name was actually Carlo Tresca and he had been associated with radical and anti-fascist causes for many years. The mystery of his death was never properly solved as he had numerous enemies, including supporters of Mussolini, communist militants, and Mafia bosses. Dorothy Gallagher's All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca (Rutgers U.P., 1988) looks at the case in detail.

The Garden of Eros is a fascinating book and makes me nostalgic for the days when there were numerous independent bookshop, little magazines, adventurous publishers, and gatherings of writers that weren't organised by arts association bureaucrats. Now we have competitions, prizes, festivals, creative writing courses, and an obsession with celebrities, popular success, and money.