For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Marion Boyars: Last Of The Mavericks

Pulling down from the shelf Yevtushenko's poetry collection, The Face Behind The Face, the other day, I was reminded of its publisher, Marion Boyars, who died just over 11 years ago, in February 1999, at the age of 71. In the early 1990s Marion commissioned me to sell her books in the Midlands and North of England. It was a tough assignment. These were books published out of love, radical commitment and a passion for ideas. She published the books she believed in, books which lived up to her high literary and aesthetic standards. Consequently they proved a difficult sell into the UK's general bookshops which, as ever, were looking for middlebrow potboilers, TV celebrity bestsellers and a quick turnover.

Marion was one of the great, maverick, independent publishers of her day, and the last of her kind. She was the first American and, I believe, the first woman to enrol at Keele University, the first of the new English redbrick universities to be built after WWII. At Keele she was also the first student who was already married and the first to own a car - a sports car which she used to drive at breakneck speed. In 1964 she bought into the small independent publisher, John Calder. Calder and Boyars went their separate ways in 1980, and Boyars struck out on her own. Over her career she published Henry Miller's Tropic Of Cancer, William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Hubert Selby's notorious Last Exit To Brooklyn, the subject of a famous obscenity trial in 1968, which Marion won after a second appeal with help from barrister and writer, John Mortimer.

Her reading was wide and global - she loved Russian, French, German and Eastern European writers, Tolstoy, Rilke and Thomas Mann, as well as Plato, Joyce, Shakespeare, Updike and Hemingway. She published several writers (Elias Canetti and Kenzaburo Oe for example) who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a host of radical intellectuals such as Georges Bataille, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ivan Illich, John Cage, Michael Ondaatje, Julian Green, the celebrated film critic, Pauline Kael, and the feminist philosopher and sociologist, Julia Kristeva. With John Calder she also published Samuel Beckett.

A tiny figure in full make-up, chainsmoking, stern but smiling, I met her only a couple of times, though every few months she would ring to berate me about my sales figures, phone calls I came to dread...

To be continued...

2 comments:

George McHenry said...

A beautiful and inspirational tribute, SW. I look forward to reading the rest of it.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

A very nice tribute, SW. With the advent of the web having thrown the future of publishing into so much uncertainty, it is nice to see someone take a look back and thank the unheralded 'maverick' publishers who have done so much for all of us.