Origins 1936 – 1963
« Right from the start he was a complete organism, bearing in himself the seeds of his future development. »
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, on Pushkin, in A Writer’s Journal
Born in Glasgow, south side of the river, in the notorious Gorbals district. Father, railway signalman, socially-minded, avid reader of books. Grandfather, musician, dancer, bartender.
Raised on the west coast of Scotland : sea, woods, hills and moor. Physical movement in this territory. Schooling at Fairlie Primary, Largs Higher Grade, Ardrossan Academy. At church, less absorbed in the sermon than in the contemplation of a stained-glass window showing a monk (Kentigern) on the seacoast, with a book in his hand. Works on farms and on the shore (shellfish-gathering for the Billingsgate market), also as postman and purser on the Clyde steamers. Studies local geology and archaeology (first public text on the archaeology of Ayrshire). At the end of this period, begins to collect a library, adding to his early naturalist readings (Ruskin, John Muir, Gilbert White) the more « transcendental » works of Thoreau, Whitman and Melville.
Student at the University of Glasgow : French and German, with Latin and philosophy. Does a lot of reading in the University library : all sections, from mineralogy to metaphysics. Particular affinities with Ovid, Rimbaud, Hölderlin. Goes for long walks from the city to the coast.
In Munich, lodged in a wooden shack on the banks of the Isar. Reading Nietzsche and Heidegger. Tough winter, beautiful spring.
Back in Glasgow. Double First in French and German. Named first student in the Faculty of Arts. Meets Marie-Claude Charlut. With a postgraduate scholarship, leaves for Paris.
Marriage with Marie-Claude Charlut. Lodged in 7th-floor rooms in Paris. Exploring Surrealism (Breton, Artaud) and connected fields (Daumal, Michaux). Gives English lessons to pay the rent.
Settles out in Meudon, where he reads Biely, Dostoyevsky and Gogol. Begins the manuscript that will become Incandescent Limbo. Buys Gourgounel, an old farm in the mountains of the Ardèche, with several acres of moor, wood and rock. Hermit kingdom ! Spends there summers and autumns, handling mattock and scythe, studying Eastern literature and thought (Taoism, Ch’an Buddhism). Works at the manuscript that will become Letters from Gourgounel
Teaching at the Sorbonne. The students of English publish his first book of poems under the title Wild Coal, a technical term for the rarest coal, the one that contains most energy.