Henri Michaux (1899-1984) was born in Namur, Belgium, the son of a lawyer, and educated at a Jesuit school in Brussels. He contemplated entering the priesthood, turned to the study of medicine, then left school entirely, enlisting instead as a stoker in the French merchant marine. Michaux’s travels, throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa, were to inspire his first two books, the extraordinary travelogues Ecuador
and A Barbarian in Asia
(later translated into Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges). Settling in Paris, Michaux began to write and paint, and his work, especially his prose poems recounting the strange and very funny misadventures of the character he called Monsieur Plume, drew the attention and praise of other writers, among them André Gide. In 1948 Michaux’s wife died after accidentally setting her nightgown on fire; devastated, Michaux devoted himself increasingly to his distinctive calligraphic drawings in ink. He also began to take mescaline at regular intervals, recording his deeply disorienting, often traumatic experiences in a series of unflinching texts beginning with Miserable Miracle
. Celebrated in France and around the world for his accomplishments as a writer and artist, Michaux remained averse to publicity and public honors throughout his life, and in 1965 refused the French Grand Prix National des Lettres. For many years the only photograph of himself that he allowed to circulate showed his right hand holding a pen over a sheet of paper on a chaotic writing desk.