Appreciation - Marion Boyars

It was always a pleasure to receive a letter from Marion Boyars, who has died at the age of 71. Long, erratically typed (with amendments in her own hand) and buoyant with enthusiasm for her often neglected writers, her letters had a strange difference. And so did the woman and her list. Marion Boyars Ltd - along with Peter Owen and her former business partner John Calder - was one of the last great avant-garde houses, issuing books quite oblivious to fashion and commercial pressure. She specialised in experimental fiction, literature in translation, including the French nouveau roman of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet, musicology and politically radical non-fiction. She opened a New York office when most of her rivals were mired in the domestic market. And she was always a defiant internationalist; her second husband, Arthur Boyars, with whom she enjoyed a long and happy marriage, was an accomplished linguist and music scholar, and together they spoke Russian, German, French and Italian.

Marion Asmus was born in New York, the daughter of a Jewish publisher. After Keele University she married George Lobbenberg, with whom she had two daughters, and settled down for a life of quiet affluence in Shrewsbury. She quickly became bored. In 1960, she answered an advertisement, placed by John Calder in the Bookseller, seeking a partner in his company. Together they enthusiastically embraced the counter-culture of the 1960s, publishing Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller's long-banned Tropic of Cancer, Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book and Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. The last was the subject of a famous obscenity trial at the High Court, which Calder and Boyars, as the company was then called, won on an appeal, fought by John Mortimer, in 1968.

Calder and Boyars split in the mid-1970s. Under the imprint Marion Boyars Ltd, Marion continued to publish challenging work and had notable successes with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey; Julien Green, not much read in this country but a cult author on the Continent; and with the work of Pauline Kael. To the end, she was championing her authors, while stubbornly disregarding the hard commercialism of the modern book trade.

I first met Marion when I interviewed Kenzaburo Oe, whom she published long before he won the Nobel prize in 1995. She sat in on our interview, a small, stern, thin woman with heavy make-up and a rich, tobacco-scorched voice (she was an enthusiastic chain-smoker). We spoke and corresponded thereafter without meeting. The book business will be a duller place without her.

Jason Cowley

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think