Escape Artist

Pierre Loti: The Legendary Romantic

by Lesley Blanch
A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 336 pp., $15.95

When Lesley Blanch ran into André Malraux in the Bibliothèque Nationale and told him she was working on a biography of Pierre Loti he exclaimed: “Quel numéro!…Of course you must do it. The English know nothing about him—and it’s high time he was re-read here.”

Malraux was wrong about the English. There used to be a school edition of Pcacheur d’Islande, and plenty of people can remember laboring through its special glossary where most of the words turned out to have meanings like mizzen or marlinespike. The advantage of this novel over Loti’s others was that it was free from scenes of sexual ecstasy; the disadvantage, a desperately nautical vocabulary. It is set among the fishermen of Brittany who spend the whole summer trawling off Iceland. Possibly the more exotically set novels are what middle-aged French readers recall, having throbbed to their passion and despair in adolescence. In Rochefort, the Musée Pierre Loti in the rue Pierre Loti occupies the house where the writer was born and died. It is worth a visit for reasons that will emerge. Loti was a best seller in his day, and when he died in 1923 the French government gave him a national funeral. Three warships carried his coffin to the Isle d’Oléron where he wished to be buried with his maternal ancestors. Meanwhile in Constantinople the flags were flying at halfmast. Not all best sellers have such a send-off.

Quel numéro is the best possible comment on this bizarre naval officer, part Casanova, part René, and part Baron Müunchhausen. Unlike the baron’s tall tales, though, Loti’s improbable fictional adventures were true; at least that is what Lesley Blanch concluded after studying his unpublished letters and diaries as well as his published work, which includes travel books and war reports from Indochina, Turkey, and China during the Boxer rebellion. Everything he wrote, novels included, is at least partly autobiographical. The line between fact and fiction barely exists because Loti (who was born Julien Viaud in 1850) was himself his own fictional creation and lived his picaresque fantasies instead of just imagining them.

Lesley Blanch reads both his writing and his life as escapes from reality—a conventional but in this case convincing line of psychobiography to take. But what makes Loti so extraordinary and this book so enthralling is not that he was an escapist, but that he was an escapologist, getting out of scrapes and away with behavior that would normally lead to disaster, disgrace, even death—as in the case of the Turkish lady whom he abducted from her husband’s harem night after night and sometimes for days on end. This adventure forms the subject of his first published novel, Aziyadé (1877).

What Loti was escaping from was, of course, his childhood, which was first idyllic, then suffocating, then humiliating. His parents were Protestants in the little port of Rochefort, which had once been a Huguenot stronghold. His father was the town clerk …

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