Book review: The Garden of Eros by John Calder

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IN THE past, there was a strange alliance between pornographers and radicals.

The Garden of Eros

John Calder

Calder Books, 360pp, £25

During the Regency in particular, the sales of French erotica were used by some booksellers to subsidise the publication of works like Thomas Paine’s The Rights Of Man in cheap editions. Since copyright was not extended to works which were deemed “blasphemous, seditious or obscene”, enterprising publishers would actively instigate proceedings against books such as Byron’s Don Juan or Shelley’s The Revolt Of Islam in order to make legitimate pirated editions. The polymath Sir Richard Burton delighted in falling foul of the censors – over, for example, his unexpurgated version of the Arabian Nights – since it would allow him to show, in court, that passages from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare ought to be bowlderised as well. The situation in Europe was equally surreal. Metternich, the great advocate of censorship in the Holy Roman Empire, did not require books over a certain length to be read by the authorities, reasoning that the working class would not bother with long books. Julius Campe, the publisher of Heine, had to cajole his authors into artificially extending their books to avoid the blue pencil. Although censorship has evidently waned – the Lord Chancellor no longer licenses plays, and one can buy copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Last Exit To Brooklyn or even Venus In The Cloister Or The Nun In Her Smock (the 1727 book which was the first to be suppressed as an obscene publication) with impunity, it still lingers into living memory: I remember my Latin textbooks at school would occasionally lapse into Greek for the more salacious parts of Martial and Ovid. Evidently if one was sufficiently mature to read Greek, one was also inoculated against the deleterious effects of reading Roman smut.

John Calder’s book, subtitled “The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-War Literary Scene”, deals with the dying days of censorship; the period when publishers such as Maurice Girodias would alternate between the profitable “dbs” (dirty books) and the avant-garde work of writers such as Nabokov, Henry Miller and Burroughs. It is a raggedy, gossipy book, which in some ways might have been even more entertaining as an audio book of anecdotes. There is an abundance of scurrilous reminiscence: for example, Joan Dillon, latterly the Princess of Luxembourg, worked as an intern at the Paris Review. The offices were visited by Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, who, in their drug-fuelled paranoia, were convinced they had to see the magazine’s correspondence with Ezra Pound. In order to try to get Dillon to leave, the pair decided to have sex in front of her. There’s another wonderful jab at Ginsberg: I had never read that he over-ran his allotted time during the 1965 Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation, only to be heckled by an anonymous Scottish voice shouting “This is McGonagall!”

Calder devotes much of the book to the career of Alexander Trocchi, whom he published. To my mind, he is slightly too lenient towards Trocchi the man rather than Trocchi the author, insisting on a fundamental morality despite Trocchi’s prostituting of his wife to fund his heroin addiction. This, I think, confuses Trocchi’s absolute self-belief with ethical integrity, and certainly Calder provides much more information on Trocchi’s flirtations with de Sadean perversity than any previous book. There is a melancholy note in Calder’s recollection of Trocchi saying, at his wife’s funeral, that he must now finish his work-in-progress The Long Book. “There was never any sign of The Long Book”, writes Calder, adding “for which I and several other publishers had signed contracts and paid advances”. There is another curious anecdote: in 1963 Calder had to leave his Sackville Street offices in a hurry; apparently Trocchi ransacked the archives after the staff had left and made (Calder reckons) £10,000 selling galley proofs corrected by Beckett and other significant literary ephemera.

There is significant and interesting material on the role the CIA played in funding experimental art and literature in the 1950s and 1960s. Their support of the Paris Review and Peter Matthiessen serves as an interesting counterpoint to Frances Stonor Saunders’ excellent book Who Paid The Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. More comical is the material on the rumour that Jim Haynes – founder of Edinburgh’s Paperback Bookshop, the Traverse Theatre, Suck magazine and latterly star of After Eights commercials – was a CIA spook. A less likely secret agent it is difficult to imagine, although Calder’s account of this could profitably be read alongside Harry Mathews’ My Life In CIA. (Indeed, with the exception of Raymond Queneau, it is surprising that Calder has so few dealings with the Oulipo group, of which Mathews was the only Anglophone member). Throughout the book, Calder has a sly gift for bathos.

In his first-hand account of the events of May 1968, Calder recollects one student saying to him “it wasn’t the army that ended the revolution but the hot piss”: it was, it seems, rampant gonorrhoea that put paid to the Situationist insurgence. As always with Calder, Samuel Beckett emerges as a kind of secular saint, whose steely determination contrasts so favourably with the orgiastic nonsense of some of his contemporaries (The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett is a fine volume, and I have high hopes of his forthcoming The Theology of Samuel Beckett).

The whole of The Garden of Eros is a kind of companion piece to Calder’s memoirs, Pursuit. There is far more about his relationships with Maurice Girodias and Barney Rosset, with Calder correcting some of the more fanciful parts of Girodias’ own memoir, also called Les Jardins d’Éros. It is humbling to read about a period when publishers actually did have convictions and moral bravery, and were willing to risk both jail and bankruptcy to counter a reactionary and conservative establishment.

The freedoms we currently have were won for us by individuals such as Calder, who more than any other publisher of the period attempted to effect a rapprochement between a moderately stuffy British literature and continental and American avant-gardes.