Chasing a New Life

John Calder – Pursuit (Alma Books)

John Calder’s memoirs contain one of the best opening lines of any biography, Jeff Nuttall’s Performance Art Memoirs excepted, although even that was published by Calder. He writes:

‘I inherited genes that, once in my body, rebelled against those of my forebears and somehow became twisted out of all recognition of their sources.’

He describes his family and their wealth, the way they were part of The Establishment and wanted only to penetrate that establishment further:

‘Both sides of my family going two generations back, contained patriarchs and staunch conservatives, unthinking in their political views (which were those that stood to their greatest advantage) and in their religious ones (which consisted of a Roman Catholicism of total orthodoxy).’

He writes about growing up with a French cook and a Governess. He goes to prep school. In between the usual lines about smashing windows with cricket balls and a treasured Labrador puppy, there are astonishing historical glimpses:

‘Nearly all the Masters were monks. I only remember one lay teacher, a member of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, who taught arithmetic and was constantly saying in class that Britain’s natural enemy was France and natural friend Germany. I believe he was interned at the outbreak of war.’

Calder broke away from all this, although his idea of active politics was standing on a Liberal ticket in Scotland (sadly, he lost to the Tories).

But Calder was the last of a momentary historical flash: The upper class rebel who had the largesse and complete lack of risk aversion to support what he believed was good art.

Calder is frank, but likeable. He seems kind and even mildly sentimental. He is very far from an austere high priest of modernity. The Dedication is troubled and full of guilt: Calder is very much a human being, a mensch. The index tells you a lot. In the B’s we get:

Beuys, Joseph (artist)
Bila (dog)
Billiére, General Peter de la (army general)
Birtwhistle, Harrison (composer)
Black, Mr (tailor)

This is a weird but perfectly representative identity parade. The early passages show Calder’s direct links to the British elite, stretching back to the seventeenth century. He describes the strange political intrigues and fiefdoms of the whisky producing dynasties, the relatives of Dukes. This material is arcane, blueblood stuff. The middle of the book displays some wonderful photos of various lords and sirs, and portraits of Calder, who seems to have always worn the same slightly baggy, Churchillian face.

But we turn a page and there are Burroughs, Trocchi and Henry Miller. Calder published Beckett, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (a biggie for me) and Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, for which he endured an obscenity trial with his business partner Marion Boyars.

Just as scientists such as Rutherford, Cockroft and Walton took us into the nuclear age, figures such as Calder ushered in the cultural revolutions of the post-war period, those often encoded in shorthand as ‘the sixties’.

One snapshot late in the book sees Calder having drinks with Theodor Adorno, who was staying at the same hotel. The day after, Burroughs and Ginsberg drifted in and Calder ‘agreed to’ have dinner with them.

This astonishing single day in his life can be read as a metaphor for the man: Adorno refused to believe in the counterculture and held on to the high modern avant-gardes. Only Marcuse of the Frankfurt School put in his lot with the soixante-huitards. Calder did both, in a way, he spent most of his time and money pursuing opera, while backing the artists that blasted the polite literary scene out of the water. Who will do that in our time?

Another scene catches him between his roots and the future he helped to create: He takes a stroll in Berlin with Luigi Nono, whose wife was also Schoenberg’s daughter. Nono Asks Calder what he is doing that evening. Calder tells him that he’s going to see Karajan direct the Philharmonic, Beethoven and Brahms. ‘Can you still listen to all that?’ Nono asks, ‘I’d rather stand here in the street and listen to the traffic, it’s much more interesting.’

This book is essential for modernist literary scholars wishing to indulge their passion. They won’t gain any rare insights into Beckett, but then Beckett scholars know not to go looking for them.

But this is not just a book for culture vultures. It has a rare quality, being both readable and long (at 636 pages). It is never, ever boring, nor do I imagine that Calder was ever bored, not even for a nanosecond.

This is a book about a man, but it is also a book about the culture that he helped to bring into being: The history of a life and that life in history become indistinguishable; this is ultimately a book about the final shift from the ancien regime to our era of western individualism. Calder’s genes, mutating out of shape, mirror those processes exactly.

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