He wrote the novel which inspired the opera Madame Butterfly. He made the whole world dream with his travel narratives in exotic countries, and he lived a life which was as extraordinary as his writing.
Pierre Loti, born Julien Marie Viaud, is a great figure in French literature. Member of the French Academy at the age of 41, navy officer, born into a bourgeois family from the city of Rochefort… viewed from a certain angle, it was the model of respectability at the end of the 19th century.
But behind this façade, there was a completely different person: one of an iconoclast who liked to ride the limits of respectability.
Sebastian Le Boucher tells his story:
-He was born in 1850, on January 14 to be exact. He was the third and last child of a Protestant bourgeois family from Rochefort. He was raised in a very strict Protestant tradition, and later on, when he gave tribute to his family in "The Story of a Child", he explained in fact that he had been too coddled.
He entered into the navy at the age of 17. He somewhat followed in the wake of his older brother Gustave who, sadly, died when he was barely 15, struck with cholera while he was stationed in the South China Sea. He was a man who would be profoundly marked by this painful absence and who would live to be a bit haunted by the ghost of his brother. He would keep hold of, I would say, a deep sadness, a despondency. And so, he was a man who, I would say, was going to fight God. He no longer believed in God, who neither saved his brother nor a childhood girl friend who died sometime afterward and to whom he was much attached, and additionally, his father, who probably ended his life when Julien was 20 years old. Indeed, his father was badly affected by the accusations of embezzlement which were thrown at him.
So, he was for a long time comforted by the letters of his brother, Gustave, who had gone off on explorations, in particular, to Tahiti. His brother was a navy surgeon, and at that time, in fact, the description of theses exquisite islands was going to ignite little Julien’s imagination, who wanted himself, of course, to travel and to escape somewhat from an atmosphere which was monotonous, gloomy, strict.
So, young Julien entered the navy as an officer:
-He was a man in fact… who admittedly was searching for a definite genuineness, a definite simplicity, and I would say that he found that in the navy because the relationships with the men there were very close, I’d say, and so he had close friendships, I’d say, with his travel companions. And also, this was a man, I’d say, who was going to cross the boundaries which separated different social ranks because it was imposed on them, I’d say, to stay within… to have nothing to do with their subordinates, and he, well, he didn’t hesitate to, I’d say, have fun with them.
He’d already had, since his teenage years, a need to write in his diary, and in the evenings when he’d return to his cabin, he began to write about the day’s events. Furthermore, he also had the need to make time stand still, time which was fleeting. He later admitted, when he wrote to Princess Alice of Monaco, that he was nothing but a witness of time which was fleeting.
This taste for writing was, if you like, a means of escape. He wrote about what had happened during the day to focus on good memories because he was a very sensitive person. He had a sensitivity and keen wit, so he was, in fact, a person who was extremely moving because he would have friends who were, I’d say, completely opposite of himself, colourful characters, I’d say… he was looking for genuineness, and so he tells about all of this in his diary, and it was this diary which served as a basis, in fact, for his illustrated reports or even his novels. But it’s important to know that he would later be dubbed “the magician” because he possessed the art of being able, in fact, to mix all at once, a vivid imagination with also reality, I’d say. The two are extremely well intertwined.
The real and the imaginary are even blended together in his choice for a pseudonym:
Loti, because in Tahiti at 22 years old, he got sunburned, so a young servant of Queen Pomaré nicknamed him “Roti” which in Tahitian means “pink” or “pink laurel flower”, and so he adopted this name at the age of 31 when he signed “Le Roman d’un Saphi” which leads you to Senegal.
From the start, his works experienced great popularity. It was the colonial era, and the public had a great thirst for travel narratives. But Loti’s stories weren’t ordinary reflections about values: they broke conventions. The most excellent example is that of Madame Chrysanthème who would have given birth to Madame Butterfly by Puccini, a work which tells of the love a French officer has for a Japanese geisha:
It’s an exacerbated romanticism. It’s a bit gothic sometimes, since, well… it’s the period when, in particular, Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. So, it’s therefore someone who kept alive the taste for what was morbid. A taste for love stories which were always unhappy, where there’s a death, where there’s love and there’s death.
Pierre Loti was an unbelievable womanizer, always on the search for genuineness. He had affairs with a lot of women. There’s even an illegitimate line which he was very proud of because he kept in Rochefort, right under the nose of people of Rochefort who were, I would say, very moralistic, a young woman name Clositte Agenza who was 16 years younger and who came from the Pays Basque, and who gave him three sons. Nevertheless, imagine the scandal for good society.
Loti also wanted to make a distinction between a having the true spirit of an adventurer and English-style tourism. He even titled one of his novels “Egypt with the English”, unfortunately.
There were already visits there through the tour operators like Thomas Cook & Son, which was extremely well known at that time, and so, Pierre Loti protested because he, with his keen wit, asked himself how the bourgeoisie ladies on their donkeys with their sunglasses and their black outfits could understand something about this Egyptian civilization. So, he protested particularly when they had their meal on a sarcophagus, for example. Additionally, he protested against the huge expansion in tourism because they were building hotels with materials which were only imitations of the real stuff… fakes… having this will to copy the architects of Ramsès II, for example.
In a permanent rebellion against the values of the bourgeoisie, Loti transformed his bourgeoisie home in Rochefort into a huge monument dedicated to exoticism. It’s open for visit today. Sebastian Le Boucher is a year-round guide. The visit is a wonderful experience which is not to be missed if you ever pass through the Rochefort region. It’s worth the side trip. You enter in through the door of a home which is completely classic and you discover a palace of dreams, disorderly arranged, with a large mosque in the interior, a gothic room, a Renaissance room, and still much more…
It feels like being like a theatre. There was a producer who had a great time, in fact, making a contrast between the Rochefort home, which was typical of the 17th century, with its austere-looking front, and so, behind is hidden the magician’s den with an extraordinary decor which always surprises the many who visit this home.
He was a very refined man who enjoyed creating an eclectic decor… a decor which still finds itself between reality and fiction.
He was also a wonderful interior architect. He knew perfectly, I’d say, how to balance a room. When you go into the mosque, you are literally flabbergasted, I’d say, by the accuracy of the proportions, the balance in his work.
In the evenings on his boats, he would think about what he was going to do. He did drawings because he was a superb illustrator, and these drawings would be useful in doing his plans. So, he had immediately the dimensions, he saw immediately what they were… what he could do in his home. So, he fit the mosque’s dimensions, for example, into an Assyrian ceiling decor.
And if you’d like to deepen your knowledge of Pierre Loti, you can discover his works, even if you are a beginner in French…
Pierre Loti is easy to read because he’s an author who has a very simple writing style, I would say.
By Pierre Loti, we know in particular "Pêcheur d’Islande" (Island Fisherman), Ramuncho, or Madame Chrysanthème. I’d say that his novels, they’re novels about the surroundings. He has few adventure novels… “Pêcheur d’Islande” would be an exception, but it’s true that you need to let yourself be led, I’d say, in Loti’s path which will guide you into surroundings of both reality and unreality.
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