• Email
  • Print

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Loti’s improbable fictional adventures were true; at least that is what Lesley Blanch concluded after studying his unpublished letters and diaries as well as his published work, which includes travel books and war reports from Indochina, Turkey, and China during the Boxer rebellion.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. His mother was better born than her husband, but her family was impoverished and the modest house filled with her needy female relatives, collectively known as “les chères vieilles.” Théodore and Nadine Viaud were in their forties when Loti was born; his sister was nineteen and his brother—who soon went away to cadet school—was twelve. So he was virtually an only child. The whole family doted on, spoiled, admired, and cossetted him. He was a serious and imaginative little boy, docile, timid, affectionate, tiny, and passionately fond of his mother. His diminutive size was probably the heaviest cross he had to bear. All his life he longed to be big, beautiful, and masculine: “Je n’étais pas mon type.”

Even as a small child he was imbued with an anxious and tragic sense of the transience of life. Death kept coming his way: the chères vieilles naturally died off one by one, leaving only his mother and his favorite aunt. His brother died overseas when Julien was fifteen; shortly after, his only intimate childhood friend, a girl two or three years his senior who had married young and gone to Guyana, was brought home to die of a tropical disease.

Then a different kind of catastrophe struck: Théodore Viaud was accused of peculation and sent to prison. He was eventually found innocent and released, but not reinstated or given any compensation. He died a few years later, and meanwhile the family was almost destitute: it was to pay their debts and keep them in the family house (now full of lodgers) that Loti later took to publishing travel pieces in magazines.

For the moment, though, the disaster turned into a blessing for him: after his brother’s death there would have been no question of his following him into the navy as he longed to do: now, however, the cadet school was his only hope of getting a good education. So he joined the navy and remained in it until he retired with the rank of commander in 1910.

The navy took him to exotic places where exotic mistresses blossomed like orchids and frangipani. Turkey produced Aziyadé; Tahiti gave him Rarahu, the fifteen-year-old half-savage heroine of Le Mariage de Loti (Loti was her nickname for him). She sang to him; put flowers in her hair, and fed him on breadfruit which fell from the trees round their hut on the beach. Whenever Queen Pomaré IV gave a ball at her half-Europeanized court, he would don his full dress uniform and waltz to the strains of Offenbach with Polynesian princesses in Paris toilettes. The navy was not demanding, and he led a lazy, amorous life; but he sensed the undertow of mysterious melancholy in the islanders that cast a shadow over their faces in Gauguin’s paintings. It chimed with his own melancholy at witnessing the dying years of a magical civilization undermined by Western customs, values, and drink.

Stationed on the West African coast Loti fell in love with the half-caste wife of a European. Forever after he referred to her as “ma bien aimée,” and when the couple moved to Geneva he went on battering on their door for years. At the same time he consoled himself with a black mistress whom he found slightly sinister, and who shares Le Roman d’un Spahi with la bien aimée.

Although occasionally moved to admiration by their physique, Loti considered blacks an inferior species. He did not care at all for the yellow races, although in Japan he lived for a while with “one of those doll-like mousmés whose families leased them out as a pastime for any gentleman desirous of their submissive company.” Loti never grew fond of her as he had of Rarahu, let alone obsessed by her as he always remained by Aziyadé and la bien aimée. In Algeria he bedded a prostitute who became (or was really called) Sulïema (his pet tortoise was Sulïema too). While serving in the Adriatic, he seduced a Montenegran shepherdess; she figures as Pasquala Ivanovitch in Fleurs d’ennui—rather a dismissive title for the poor girl; and besides these there were “a legion of other unlisted charmers whose colours ranged from ebony to ivory.”

His favorite colors, though, were in the range from ivory to bronze, whether permanent bronze, like Rarahu’s, or the tan on the neck of sailor—preferably a Breton sailor. Loti was in love with the Middle East, but unlike most Europeans with that particular crush, he preferred Turkey to the Arab countries—while finding himself in sympathy with Islam wherever it was practiced. Nearer home he preferred Bretons; theirs seemed a more romantic race than his own, though he liked to believe that during the Moorish invasions a drop of desert blood had got into his mother’s family on Oléron: his own eyes were famously black, melancholy, and irresistible. He loved men as well as women, and, a friend remarked, had there been a third sex, he would have loved that too.

Homosexuality is not mentioned in the novels except in tones of awed disapproval. Yet the homosexual feeling in them is so marked that some critics have thought that Loti’s heroines—or at any rate Aziyadé—were really boys like Albertine. The unpublished journals convinced Lesley Blanch that Aziyadé was definitely a girl. On the other hand, the young Jewish ragamuffin Samuel in the same novel who attaches himself to Loti expects a physical relationship and Loti is obviously very taken with him. The fictional Loti rebukes Samuel for trying to kiss him; in the journal, though, Loti follows him into the stews where “I have seen strange things: strange practices and prostitutions…. That is how things are in Turkey: women are for the rich, who can have many: for the poor, there are boys.” And he continues: “The fascination which I can exercise over a man plunges me into troubled thoughts…. Yet how can I repulse some humble creature?” How indeed? And why? Loti had lost his Christian faith long ago.

Rapturous descriptions of male beauty fall thick and fast. At times one seems to be leafing through the catalog of a male model agency. Sailors and fishermen keep flinging their arms round one another’s columnar necks in outbursts of boisterous camaraderie or deep brotherly devotion. Still, so long as French fin de siècle writers adopted a hushed tone when alluding or pretending not to allude to “the love that dare not speak its name” no one objected to an occasional illicit frisson.

There is nothing very shocking in Loti’s writings (except his descriptions of battle scenes which fall into a different category); his behavior was another matter. He wore lifts in his shoes and heavy maquillage as a matter of course. “Is made-up in a ridiculous manner,” his naval dossier read in 1890. “I shall not propose him for a command.” By the following year the admiral had changed his mind: “Excellent officer. Repays knowing better. I shall propose him for a command.” Loti’s cabin was decked out in brocade and Eastern bibelots, but he was an excellent officer and his crews loved him as he did them. At the age of twenty-five he had obtained leave to attend the Ecole de Gymnastique at Joinville in order to improve his weedy physique. He emerged from this grueling course still small, but at least “perfectly formed,” and with an acrobatic technique that enabled him, when on shore leave, to perform with a circus troupe.

When not on duty he was usually in fancy dress: startling photographs show him as a Turk, a sheik, a circus acrobat, all with expressions of proud defiance blazing out from behind huge mustaches. His more everyday get-ups were as a Breton fisherman in sweater and beret, or else a matelot with the becoming pompom and ribbons on his hat. He would go about accompanied by real fishermen and sailors, often members of his crew; they roistered in low dives and brawled around the streets of Paris; and he did not necessarily leave them behind when he crossed the thresholds of the beau monde. His literary fame had won him the entree, and at least two literary ladies patronized and entered into amitiés amoureuses with him, one of them being the influential Juliette Adam who had launched his career in her Nouvelle Revue.

It was before he was famous, though, that he captivated Sarah Bernhardt. She became a lifelong friend, and he described their games in his journal:

Three persons stand before the mirror looking at themselves, and holding hands. One is a skeleton [Sarah kept one in her bedroom along with a white silk-lined coffin] whose bones are white and polished like ivory…. Beside it, a young woman…of delicious prettiness with large sombre eyes, a grace, a distinction and a supreme charm…Sarah Bernhardt. The third person is a young man in an Oriental costume embroidered in gold as for a fête at Stamboul—Pierre or Loti, or better still, Ali Nyssim [this was the name under which he had pursued Aziyadé]…. What insanities we three have [known] here!

Unfortunately there was no photographer on hand. The Musée Loti, however, contains signed photographs of a number of queens, two of whom were on intimate terms with Loti: one was Elizabeth of Rumania who invited him to stay with her in her castle in the Carpathians and translated Pêcheur d’Islande; the other ex-Queen Natalie of Serbia, who lived at St. Jean de Luz and would visit Loti at Hendaye and Rochefort.

Among Loti’s closest friends at the other end of the social scale were Pierre le Cor, a Breton sailor who became the hero of Pêcheur d’Islande and Mon Frère Yves and drank himself to death, but not until he had married and produced a godchild for Loti. Then there was le beau Léo, a black-eyed seaman from the Midi who virtually joined the household with the chères vieilles and remained around after Loti’s improbable marriage.

Loti never got over Aziyadé and on one of his many visits to Turkey after her early death (perhaps from grief for him), he managed to have her tombstone shipped to Rochefort where he kept it enshrined in the mosque he had added to the little old family house, along with a Turkish room, an Arab room, a Renaissance banqueting hall where he gave a ball, a Japanese room, and a Chinese pavilion. But in spite of this memorial he managed to fall in love with a Breton girl glimpsed at the port in Brest. Without even speaking to her he rushed to ask her father for her hand in marriage, “for I love her as I could never love a young girl from my own world.” The girl refused.

The next step was to ask his friends to look out for a very small rich Protestant (the latter to please the chères vieilles). “He eyed matrimony without enthusiasm, but as-a means of ensuring that through his children something of himself would remain, a flesh and blood version of those journals which…recorded his life as a stand against the impermanence of all things.” A suitable bride was found from a well-to-do family in Bordeaux: he married her, fathered two sons (the first died in infancy), and otherwise quite politely ignored her. “The man was married,” his fan Sacha Guitry commented, “the officer less so, Loti not at all.”

Loti’s prestige with the literary establishment was confirmed in 1891 when he was elected to the Académie Française. About the same time he was posted to Hendaye on the Spanish border, where he proceeded to fall in love with the Basques as he had with the Bretons—another mysterious, ancient, and therefore glamorous race. He struck roots by buying a house in Hendaye, and soon decided that it would be genetically desirable to raise a Basque family: his surviving son meant little to him, whereas he had been thrilled and gratified by the birth of the first who, he thought, was the image of himself. By this time he was serving at Rochefort again, so he had to leave a friend to find a respectable but willing working-class girl. One called Crucita was duly dispatched to Rochefort where Loti set her up comfortably in a back street and she produced two sons. He would visit his second family regularly every week with the full knowledge of his bewildered but resigned wife. When her child grew up she quietly glided off to a property of her own. Compared with the death of his adored mother a few years earlier her departure was scarcely noticed.

Loti’s later life was mournful. For someone who worshiped youth, strength, and beauty as he did, aging was particularly painful, and the day came when he gave up rouge because he realized it had begun to make him look older instead of younger. He missed the navy from which he finally retired in 1910, having successfully resisted a move to make him do so earlier. And he grieved over Turkey, the country of his heart which was being gradually dismembered by the Western powers. The Turks—the old Turks of his youth, that is, not the Young Turks whom he hated—appealed to him because of their attachment to old customs and values, and their reluctance to enter the twentieth century. Steeped in his nostalgia for long ago as well as far away, he found their attitude both noble and sympathetic.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he unsuccessfully tried to use his considerable influence in Turkey to negotiate an agreement between Turkey and France; and even after she had entered the war as Germany’s ally, he went on intriguing to arrange a separate peace. At the same time he was positively imploring the admiralty to take him back into active service. He was refused and had to make do with the army, General Gallieni kindly taking him on as a liaison officer. But at sixtyseven he was burning to fight for his country and eventually managed to get to the western front, whose horrors he described as grimly as he had the war in Indochina. His fellow officers thought he was courting death, he was so keen to get into the trenches; but unlike all those many-hued charmers, death rejected him for the time being.

What about Malraux’s opinion that he should be reread? Lesley Blanch thinks that his travel books are better than his fiction. Certainly his magic can still grip one in descriptions of scenery and evocation of moods—nature’s and man’s, the two entwined in the old romantic fallacy. But his characters and their actions (not to speak of his often lachrymose attitude to them) seem hopelessly old-fashioned because they are so literary—in spite of the fact that he would proudly proclaim that he never read a book (Anatole France nicknamed him le sublime illettré). Or perhaps not in spite but because of this: only someone who did not think of himself as a professional writer could be so unselfconscious about clichés as he was. His characters come out of two molds: one is for the first-person narrator who is often called Loti. This Loti is an officer in the British navy—a strange disguise to choose, since the real Loti loathed the British and disapproved strongly of their form of colonialism. The English Loti has an alter ego endearingly called Plumkett—which was also the name Loti’s real-life friend Lucien Jousselin had to put up with. Loti is the archetypal post-Byronic hero: weary of pleasure, sick at heart, misunderstood, haunted by the transience of beauty and love, and utterly reckless, he starts each novel in a condition of Weltschmerz which is quickly, but never permanently, swept aside by passion. Plumkett is exactly the same, only more terre à terre: Horatio to Loti’s Hamlet. Both are sometimes tinged with a little fin de siécle morbidity: Sarah’s skeleton had left its mark.

The other mold produces the charmers, male or female. However exotic or tough they may respectively be, they always remain “pure.” Even if they have rolled around the brothels of a hundred ports like mon frére Yves or been brought up in a harem like Aziyadé, their souls remain pure, and so do their eyes, foreheads, profiles, lips. The adjective “pur” can occur any number of times on the same page. Besides being pure, the men are all brave, loyal, and loving, and the girls loyal, loving, and submissive.

But never mind. “Loti performs so beautifully,” Henry James wrote, “as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains or what he doesn’t…. To be so rare that you can be common, so good you can be bad…” Exactly. And in the travel books the question of content does not really arise: If you compare Loti’s Vers Ispahan, for instance, with Robert Byron’s still much admired The Road to Oxiana (not quite the same journey but near enough), * Loti is not only much more evocative, haunting, and poetic, but also much more concrete and visual. What he lacks is Byron’s sense of humor. He had absolutely none—either in life or in his writing, though he was fond of practical jokes and romping with his cronies. Or perhaps this is unfair. Two of his cats—there were many—had visiting cards which can be seen attached to their photographs in full human drag in the Musée Loti. They read: “Madame Moumoutte Blanche, lére chatte chez Monsieur Pierre Loti,” and “Madame Moumoutte-Chinoise, 2ème chatte chez Monsieur Pierre Loti.”

Loti was a modern traveler. As he grew older his passion for exotic places revealed itself more and more as a longing for the past that lingered, thoughthreatened, in the South Seas, the Orient, and the Maghreb; and also in poor and backward Brittany, where the women still wore their picturesque national dress when Loti first discovered it. He discovered it for himself but not alone: Gauguin and the school of Pont-Aven painters came flocking too. They were all pursuing what modern tourists look for when they take a bus to New Orleans or fly to Samarkand.

Lesley Blanch is a most congenial biographer for this eccentric man. Every fact about him seems bizarre in itself and ill assorted with the others, but she never bats an eyelid. She has a natural sympathy with people who live out their fantasies: her first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, was about European ladies who followed their Eastern dreams to logical conclusions in harems and suchlike places. She also has the sense of humor her subject lacks, and is very funny without ever being unkind.

  1. *

    1937; Oxford University Press, 1982.

  • Email
  • Print