The Enigma of Pierre Loti

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Pierre Loti
by Richard Berrong
Reaktion Books. 216 pages, £11.99

 

PIERRE LOTI was a 19th-century French writer who was admired by writers as various as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and Marcel Proust, but is now almost totally forgotten. When Loti was alive, Henry James considered his novels to be those of “a man of genius … one of the joys of the time … the companion of my own selection.” Willa Cather said she “would swoon with joy if anyone saw traces of Loti in her work,” Joseph Conrad used one of Loti’s books for Heart of Darkness, and Marcel Proust used another for Swann’s Way.

         The initial reason for Loti’s fading as a novelist outside of France was that the books about his trips to Asia and other exotic lands as an officer in the French navy were promoted by English and American publishers at the expense of his fiction. But interest in him has recently revived, according to Richard Berrong’s new biography, and the reason is that, following Edward Said (whose book Orientalism accused western writers of distorting places like the Middle East with a romantic lens), graduate students have been feasting on Loti’s books as examples of racism.

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Andrew Holleran’s fiction includesDancer from the Dance, Grief, andThe Beauty of Men.

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