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Letters from Gourgounel

London, Jonathan Cape, 1966.

Extract from the Prologue

     After five years at university (with a break of isolation in between, at Munich) I left Scotland where I knew I would live more and more by reaction only, and went to Paris. But after two years in that city, I found reaction again setting in, and removed a few miles out of it to the relative quietude of Meudon, where I lived in a house surrounded by a garden of pear trees, apple trees, plum trees, peach trees, cherry trees, and began to feel and live and express the kind of life I wanted.
     In the same year that I removed out of Paris (a chambre de bonne on the seventh floor, Avenue de Saxe) to Meudon (a room in that villa), I went on a spring trip to the South. I had heard that houses could be bought cheap in the Ardèche, and I had got together some extra cash by doing translations and several other odd jobs. I left from the Gare de Lyon and arrived one April morning in Montélimar. There I hired a bicycle for one franc fifty a day (a new tyre thrown in) and set out for this Ardèche I had already heard and read so much about. Michelet, for example, in his book The People, writes “…in the month of May 1844, travelling from Nîmes to Le Puy, I crossed the Ardèche, that harsh country where man has created everything. Nature had made it so awful…” It sounded like one of those “desert places” the old hermits were always looking for, a kind of Thebaid. That was what I wanted.

     I go to sleep to the sound of thunder, and I wake to the sound of thunder. The sky is grey and black, the forests are green, dark green, into black.
     I no longer need to wash. I just take a step out of the house in the mornings and stand naked for a while in the rain. Then I come back into the house, rub myself down, and pull my chair to the mectra and begin my meditations. It is usually still half-dark and I can hardly see. Sometimes I light a candle. Sometimes I simply wait till enough light comes.
     This morning there was a woodpecker at the mulberry trees, around five o’clock. I do not know if it is a recognized sign but it seemed to me he was calling the thunder. The Tanargue replied to him just a little later.
     The whole Cévennes is whirling with storms.

Extract from the chapter “Cimmerian Notes”

     There was a shirt-seller in Valgorge the next Sunday, and I needed a shirt. He had his van parked, and his stall laid out beside it. Shirts he had, all sizes, pink, blue and grey. No one was buying a shirt till I stepped up.“What size do you think ?” I asked the shirt-man. “Two”, said he, the shirts being marked from one to four. I off with the shirt I was wearing, and tried the two, but it was on the tight side. So I off with it, and tried the three, which was fine. Which colour had been for me a matter of hesitation. Tempted by the pink, and then fingering the blue, I finally took the grey. And I went on down Valgorge with my new shirt on my back and the old one in my hand.
     At the café Rieu, a man appeared with an accordion, and shouted to me :
     “Do you want to dance ?”
     “I don’t know how”, I said and went on dancing down the road. I was just a little sorry for the man with the accordion.
     I’m not an organized dancer, I dont’ know any special steps, just the old pedestrian one-two, one-two, but there is a dancing god within me, and I have a dancing soul. Sometimes it feels more like a lurch than a dance, but it’s a movement anyway, vigorous and sprightly whereas souls in general are flaccid and flat, or hard as nails. I’m a dancer, all right, but you’ll never get me in a ballroom, I don’t like to follow the band, I am wary even of an accordionist. What do I dance to ? – let’s say, the music of the world. Not the spheres, no, just the world, the common-or-garden world.

Extract from the chapter “The Music of the World”

Kenneth White introduces himself to his own countrymen in prose an verse, simultaneously. […] His is a new voice, distinctive and resonant, and although after several readings I am still not sure of his destination, I approve of his direction. He takes life and literature seriously. His aim is Truth or bust. […]
When he is writing as a gossipy reporter about life in the primitive Ardèche he is first-class, and you wish he would do more of it. But he has a deeper purpose. […] There is an acknowledged influence of Whitman, unacknowledged influences or echoes of Blake and D. H. Lawrence, and a strong reminder of the Jefferies of The Story of my Heart. In another way, Mr White reminds me of Colin Wilson, though they are very unlike except in this deadpan confidence which they share. Wilson is the intellectual side of the coin, White the poetic. What they share is this confident bright ring, this quality of being outside the “main-stream” (or muddy-eddy) of contemporary classifications. Good luck ! […]
So. Here are the first-fruits of a writer who may amount to something sizeable. At twice the length, with twice the trivia and twice the documentation, Letters from Gourgounel would have rivalled Ring of Bright Water in popularity (and surpassed it in profundity). As it stands, it is a fascinating curiosity of literature, and may portend much more.
     Maurice Wiggin, The Sunday Times

This little book on the Ardèche reminds one of Travels with a Donkey. White doesn’t have Stevenson’s smoothness, thank God, and he seems more genuinely eccentric. There is an absurd hymn to mushroom hunting which would make an excellent school anthology piece. […] And as an old-fashioned study of man in communion with Nature, à la Richard Jefferies, Letters from Gourgounel has an almost hilarious irrelevance to our space age. Why go to the moon, Mr White asks, when you can worship her, standing buck naked in any field ?
     John Montague, The Guardian