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Publisher John Calder was a ‘towering figure in the fight against censorship’

Publishers John Calder and Marion Boyars pose with a copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn in this 1967 file photo, during a trial to decide whether or not the book contravened the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

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Influential publisher John Calder, who championed avant-garde authors and battled censorship, has died, a colleague said Wednesday. He was 91.

Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books said Mr. Calder died on Aug. 13 at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital after several weeks of declining health.

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Born in Montreal in 1927 to a Canadian mother and a Scottish father, Mr. Calder worked in the family timber business before founding the London-based Calder Publications in 1949. It published European writers including Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola, as well as modern authors – notably Samuel Beckett, whom Mr. Calder considered “the greatest of 20th-century writers.”

Mr. Calder published much of Mr. Beckett’s non-theatrical work – novels, poems and essays – and wrote several books about the Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer. The pair remained close friends until Mr. Beckett’s death in 1989.

Mr. Calder helped introduce British readers to continental writers including Eugene Ionesco, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and also championed edgy Americans, publishing Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.

In 1966 he was convicted of obscenity for publishing Hubert Selby’s gritty novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. The conviction was overturned on appeal in a landmark free-speech case.

Mr. Calder also ran unsuccessfully for Parliament, campaigned against nuclear weapons, organized a music and opera festival at his Scottish mansion and ran Calder Books, an idiosyncratic London book store.

Calder Publications was sold after his retirement to Alma Books, which said Mr. Calder had published 1,500 books, including works by 18 Nobel Prize winners.

Mr. Gallenzi said Mr. Calder was “a towering figure in the fight against censorship and the dissemination of international literature and culture in the U.K.”

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“His influence – as a publisher, as an author, as an intellectual and as a beacon for an entire generation of readers and writers – cannot be underestimated,” Mr. Gallenzi said.

Mr. Calder is survived by his third wife, Sheila Colvin, and by two daughters from previous marriages.

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