|French literary history|
Louis Marie Julien Viaud (January 14, 1850 - June 10, 1923) was a French sailor and writer, who used the pseudonym Pierre Loti.
Viaud was born in Rochefort, Charente-Maritime, France. His education began in Rochefort, but at the age of seventeen, being destined for the navy, he entered the naval school in Brest and studied on Le Borda. He gradually rose in his profession, attaining the rank of captain in 1906. In January 1910 he went on the reserve list.
His pseudonym has been said to be due to his extreme shyness and reserve in early life, which made his comrades call him after le Loti, an Indian flower which loves to blush unseen. Other explanations have been put forth by scholars. He was in the habit of claiming that he never read books (when he was received at the Académie française, he said, "Loti ne sait pas lire" ("Loti doesn't know how to read"), but testimony from friends and acquaintances proves otherwise. In 1876 fellow naval officers persuaded him to turn into a novel passages in his diary dealing with some curious experiences at Constantinople. The result was Aziyadé, a book which, like so many of Loti's, seems half a romance, half an autobiography. He proceeded to the South Seas as part of his naval training, and several years after leaving Tahiti published the Polynesian idyll originally called Rarahu (1880), which was reprinted as Le Mariage de Loti, the first book to introduce him to the wider public. Le Roman d'un spahi, a record of the melancholy adventures of a soldier in Senegambia, belongs to 1881.
In 1882, Loti issued a collection of four short studies under the general title of Fleurs d'ennui (Flowers of Boredom). In 1883 he achieved the widest celebrity, for not only did he publish Mon frere Yves ("My Brother Yves"), a novel describing the life of a French sailor in all parts of the world. The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911) described this as "one of his most characteristic productions". While taking part as a naval officer in the Tonkin War, Loti had exposed in Figaro a series of scandals which followed on the capture of Hue (1883), and was threatened with suspension from the service.
In 1886 he published a novel of life among the Breton fisherfolk, called Pêcheur d'Islande (Iceland Fisherman), which the 1911 Britannica characterized as "the most popular and finest of all his writings." In 1887 he brought out a volume "of extraordinary merit, which has not received the attention it deserves" (1911 Britannica), Propos d'exil, a series of short studies of exotic places, in his characteristic semi-autobiographic style. The fantastic novel of Japanese manners, Madame Chrysanthème—a precursor to Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon—belongs to the same year.
Passing over one or two slighter productions, we come in 1890 to Au Maroc, the record of a journey to Fez in company with a French embassy, and Le Roman d'un enfant (The Story of a Child), a fictionalized recollection of Loti's childhood that would greatly influence Marcel Proust. A collection of "strangely confidential and sentimental reminiscences" (1911 Britannica), called Le Livre de la pitié et de la mort, (The Book of Pity and Death) belongs to 1891.
Loti was on board his ship at the port of Algiers when news reached him of his election, on May 21, 1891, to the Académie française. In 1892 he published Fantôme d'orient, another recollection of time spent in Constantinople, a sort of continuation of Aziyadé. He described a visit to the Holy Land in three volumes (1895–1896), and wrote a novel, Ramuntcho (1897), a story of contraband runners in the Basque province, which is equal to his best writings. In 1898 he collected his later essays as Figures et Choses qui passaient (Passing Figures and Things).
In 1899–1900 Loti visited British India, with the view of describing what he saw; the result appeared in 1903: L'Inde (sans les Anglais) (India (without the English)). In the autumn of 1900, he went to China, as part of the international expedition set up to fight against the Boxer Rebellion. He described what he saw there, after the siege of Beijing, in Les Derniers Jours de Pékin (The Last Days of Peking, 1902).
Among his later works were: La Troisième jeunesse de Mme Prune (The Third Youth of Mrs. Plum, 1905); Les Désenchantées (The Unawakened, 1906); La Mort de Philae (The Death of Philae, 1908); Judith Renaudin (produced at the Théâtre Antoine, 1898), a five-act historical play based on an episode in Loti's family history; and, in collaboration with Emile Vedel, a translation of King Lear, produced at the Théâtre Antoine in 1904.
He produced a play at the Century Theatre in New York City in 1912.
He died in 1923 at Hendaye and was interred on the Île d'Oléron.
Loti was an inveterate collector, and married into the money that helped him support this habit. His house in Rochefort, a remarkable reworking of two adjacent bourgeois row houses, is well preserved as a museum. One elaborately tiled room is an Orientalist fantasia, including a small fountain and five ceremoniously draped coffins (with the desiccated bodies inside). Another room evokes a medieval banqueting hall. Loti's own bedroom is rather like a monk's cell, but mixes Christian and Muslim religious artifacts.
The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition gave the following assessment of his work:
At his best Pierre Loti was unquestionably the finest descriptive writer of the day. In the delicate exactitude with which he reproduced the impression given to his own alert nerves by unfamiliar forms, colours, sounds and perfumes, he was without a rival. But he was not satisfied with this exterior charm; he desired to blend with it a moral sensibility of the extremest refinement, at once sensual and ethereal. Many of his best books are long sobs of remorseful memory, so personal, so intimate, that an English reader is amazed to find such depth of feeling compatible with the power of minutely and publicly recording what is felt. In spite of the beauty and melody and fragrance of Loti's books his mannerisms are apt to pall upon the reader, and his later books of pure description were rather empty. His greatest successes were gained in the species of confession, half-way between fact and fiction, which he essayed in his earlier books. When all his limitations, however, have been rehearsed, Pierre Loti remains, in the mechanism of style and cadence, one of the most original and most perfect French writers of the second half of the 19th century.