The Enigma of Pierre Loti

Published in: March-April 2019 issue.



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.

         Proust said that there is no reason to believe that even masterpieces will last. There is a shelf in the little library in a small town in Florida that I frequent that’s lined with twenty or so novels by an author I’d never heard of about young women going off to work in China as nurses, etc., that were published in the 1930s and ’40s to great popularity. So it is, to a lesser degree, with Pierre Loti, which was the penname of Julien Viaud.

         Born in 1850, Viaud grew up in Rochefort, a port on the west coast of France with a large naval base. His older (by fourteen years) brother Gustave was a surgeon in the French navy who wrote letters home from Tahiti when little Julien was living in a household composed almost entirely of women, which caused Gustave to worry when he came home on leave that Julien was not being exposed to masculine influences. “Perhaps he understood,” Loti wrote in a passage from his autobiographical novel The Story of a Child, “that I was experiencing a real intellectual overload as far as the arts went; that Chopin and my little theater productions with dolls, staged with the help of a female friend, were equally dangerous to me; that I was becoming excessively refined … and that almost all my games involved fantasies and dreaming.” Gustave made Julien take riding lessons “out of fear that I was being raised too much as a little girl.” Indeed, Gustave seems to have been the template for Loti’s own masculinity, even though, when his older brother died in Indochina in 1865, the family learned that Gustave had left behind large gambling debts, which his father, who worked for the Rochefort town council, tried to pay off by embezzling municipal funds. Instead, he was sent to jail and the family home had to be mortgaged.

         The man who adopted the nom de plume Pierre Loti eventually paid off that mortgage—by becoming a naval officer himself, and then a successful author whose bestsellers allowed him to buy the house next door, where he created rooms that reproduced the exotic interiors he had loved in places like Istanbul and Japan (and which now constitute the Pierre Loti Museum). He never stopped traveling. Like the sailor in “A Simple Heart,” the classic short story by Gustave Flaubert (Loti’s favorite writer), he was gone for much of his life—to places like Indochina and Japan. (Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthemum was one of the inspirations for Madame Butterfly.) After moving to Paris in 1866, he also placed himself at the heart of 19th-century French culture. He was elected to the French Academy. He went to many of the salons in which the young Proust got his start. He was friends with Princess Mathilde and Sarah Bernhardt, for whom he wrote plays, and the Impressionists, whose philosophy of art Berrong finds in both Loti’s own artwork and his prose style.

     We see this in both his drawings and illustrations—which were the first things that Loti published in a Parisian periodical. Read any of his books and you will notice the precision with which he describes whatever he is looking at. His most famous novel, Iceland Fisherman, opens with a verbal painting of sailors huddled together below deck by candlelight; his most homoerotic work, My Brother Yves (so homoerotic the title became French slang for a homosexual man), contains descriptions of Brittany as luminous as anything by Claude Monet. When Loti gave his inaugural speech to the French Academy, he argued against the naturalism that Émile Zola was championing at the time; Loti saw himself doing in print what the Impressionists were doing in paint.

         Loti had been writing down his impressions of places like Vietnam (where the French were already engaged in a military campaign that Loti found “absurd and mad”) in his journal, which his fellow officers urged him to submit for publication. Throughout his career he divided his output between what we might call travelogues and novels in which the heroes are mostly sailors. Genet’s sailor Querelle came from Brest, a city in Brittany where Loti placed his heroes as well. Brittany had a special meaning. After France was so soundly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, the French people became convinced that French men had become decadent and unmanly, which led not only to a boom in gymnasiums and sports programs—Loti himself became a body builder—but a kind of racial introspection. The view was that France was populated by Franks (Germans who had invaded France long ago) and Celts; and the Celts, who could be found mainly in Brittany, were the “real” Frenchmen. The opening pages of Iceland Fisherman convey perfectly the tender and loving light in which Loti regarded his Breton men. Though Loti charged Zola with making the lower classes far more vile than they were in real life, Loti was accused of idealizing the Breton peasant, whom Guy de Maupassant called “a sort of intermediary between man and beast.”

         Berrong’s previous book about Loti is titled In Love With A Handsome Sailor (2003), and the handsomest of all of Loti’s male companions was a Breton named Leo Thémèze, whose stunning photograph graces this biography. A main strand in this book is the series of male friendships between Loti and men like Thémèze, each one handsomer than the last, with whom Loti shared his life in France and abroad. A naval school classmate named Joseph Bernard was the first, though he moved back north after setting up a household in the south of France with Loti, because Loti seems to have spoiled things by introducing a woman into the household.

         There were often a male and a female in Loti’s domestic arrangements. His houseboy Daniel and the woman Loti had an affair with in Istanbul were the first. But then there was Pierre Le Cor, a Breton sailor with “the arms of Hercules, and muscles of iron,” Loti wrote in his diary. “When Pierre takes off his clothes, you would say he’s a Greek statute.” Loti and Le Cor were so inseparable that they were referred to as Monsieur and Madame at the hotel in Turkey where they dined. And after Pierre Le Cor and Leo Thémèze, there was Osman Daney. And while we cannot know exactly how sexual these relationships were, there seems to have been heartbreak, even human wreckage, in their wake. Le Cor got married, and Loti helped him buy a house, in which there would always be a room reserved for Loti, but Le Cor also became an alcoholic (to whom Loti remained loyal nevertheless).

         Thémèze wrote to Loti, years later after being replaced by Osman Daney: “I feel very clearly that there is something broken between us, and it is with a sorrowful heart that I foresee the beginning of the end. I would, though, if I am no longer anything in your affection, like to be a little something in your friendship.” But what was the nature of this friendship? We can only speculate. Loti’s journal is the main source for Berrong’s study (though Loti, and his survivors, severely edited it); and in it he wrote that Thémèze was “still the one whose soul I feel to be closest to mine and the most similar. The true brother, who understands me to my depths, and whom I would like to have near me in the hour of my death.”

         But for all the liaisons Loti had with young men like Bernard, Le Cor, Thémèze, and Daney, Loti was constantly having sex or affairs with women. He also married (to bring order to his household) and acquired a mistress (in order to have a son). And when living in Istanbul, he had an affair with a woman and formed an attachment with a young man named Daniel—though the night his houseboy tried to get in bed with him, Loti said: “No … that’s not what I want from you. my poor Daniel. You’ve misunderstood. In my country this sort of love is condemned and forbidden. Don’t do this again, or I will have you arrested tomorrow by the police.”

         So what was Loti—bisexual? Or a homosexual trapped by 19th moral codes he did not believe in? As Berrong points out, because Pierre Loti was a creation of Julien Viaud, one cannot always tell who is talking. In Istanbul Loti/Viaud wrote in his journal: “There is no God, there is no morality. … My unique rule is always to do what pleases me, in spite of all morality, all social conventions.—I believe in nothing and no one. I love no one and nothing. I have neither faith nor hope.” And from Salonica he wrote a classmate: “everything that is pleasing is good to do, and you always need to spice as best you can the stew of life.” Still, one is left with questions. Even in this age of gender fluidity and non-binary Millennials, even after reading Berrong, it’s impossible to “classify” Loti.

         “Being accepted by men, by ‘real men,’ was very important to Viaud,” Berrong writes of Loti’s handsome sailors. “Thémèze, like Le Cor before him, was a ‘real man’ who was willing to accept Viaud as he was without ridicule. That, along with his great physical beauty, seems to have made him very attractive to the author.” But even Thémèze wrote Loti: “I can figure you out but I cannot say who you are … your depths remain mysterious.” Other people speculated, after the Oscar Wilde trial had cast “a pall of paranoia” over the subject of homosexuality in France, about Loti’s sexual orientation. One of his Parisian hostesses had to defend him by saying “People reproach him for a defect that is a matter of bad luck, the worst luck in the world.” Others were less kind. “Viaud,” according to Berrong,


already did enough … in society to make himself the butt of ridicule, such as wearing built-up heels and leaning forward to compensate for his short stature. He must have been accustomed to, if not happy with, a lot of half-hidden snickering when he entered a room. After reading a mocking attack on him in the press, he had confessed in an unguarded moment: “If I am really like that, at least up until now I have been in the company of people charitable enough and with enough taste not to let me know it.”


         Despite the curious qualities that may tempt a modern a gay reader to recognize in the photographs of Loti what we would call a gay man, there remains something completely enigmatic about him. He belongs to a classic tradition of the man who goes to sea to get away from a society into which he doesn’t fit—like the Herman Melville who wrote Typee and Omoo, or the Lafcadio Hearn who went to Japan. Ships were an all-male confraternity where Protestant morality was not so oppressive. (Morocco would serve the same function for another homosexual French Protestant: André Gide.) Back on land, in France, things were more perilous. “I only know how to unveil my intimate nature and my feelings about life,” Loti wrote in his journal when he was worried about publishing My Brother Yves. He both wanted, and did not want, to disclose himself. “One can almost imagine Viaud seeing himself as some sort of very complex Salome; it is almost as if there is a feminine element in him,” Berrong writes, “that wanted to perform that dance, and a conservative element that hesitated. After Viaud’s death, his legitimate son Samuel … wrote that ‘Loti wanted to be made out under his mask and got irritated when he was not. Timidity? Shame? The need to be unmasked tormented Loti his whole life.’”

         The photographs of Loti in this wonderfully illustrated biography convey the problem. Loti, a small man whose head seems slightly large for his body, is always gazing at us from a slight angle, his head held back, wearing an impassive, cool, blank expression that defies one to characterize it. His large dark eyes, short hair, and enormous moustache give him the look of a clone at Studio 54; but the moustache is also that of the villains in 19th century melodramas—curled upwards at the ends—which makes Loti look slightly comic, especially in drag. The drag is over the top: his medal-encrusted naval uniform in three photographs, an acrobat’s tights in the gayest of all the images, Loti dressed as a Turk in his Turkish room, Loti in a World War I uniform over which a fur coat is draped, as glamorous as a movie star. There are also the extraordinary costumes that Loti liked to wear. On page 114 he is dressed, though that word seems insufficient, as the Egyptian god Osiris for a costume ball in Paris. The costume is so elaborate, so complete, so gorgeous, that it took Loti and his family a week to put it together. Then again, the comic note enters in: “The only problem,” Berrong writes, “was that Viaud was upstaged in some of the women’s eyes by the very handsome orderly in Turkish attire whom he brought with him. People assumed that he was Viaud’s ‘brother Yves.’”

         If all this leaves Loti as mysterious to the reader as he was to Thémèze, one suspects Loti may simply have been protecting himself with that blank gaze. He seems to have been both idealistic and without illusion. When Loti took a Basque woman as his mistress in order to have sons, he told her: “I hope I will find a little peace in my life, for lack of happiness, which is impossible.” Even when awarded the Croix de Guerre at the age of 68 for his service in World War I, he wrote in his diary: “I hardly dare believe it. I am so unaccustomed to having even slight joy.” He remains a true romantic—someone who dreamt of something he never quite obtained, and regretted losing it when he did. “Come back, my dear Daniel, I love you,” he wrote years later on a second sojourn in Constantinople, about the houseboy he’d reprimanded for climbing into bed with him: “my friend, my brother, I feel it now. I will probably never see you again, but when I come back in the evening to my deserted house, my heart tightens because you are no longer there.”

         For all the documentation of this extremely well-researched and absorbing book, Loti remains a sphinx—a poignant sphinx, though Berrong certainly accomplishes what he says, in the last line, is his purpose in writing it: to get us to read Loti. I started with My Brother Yves—a beautifully written novel that, for all its stirring descriptions of storms at sea, sailors in irons, and rural Brittany, reflects the contradictions Berrong has written about. Half 19th-century romanticism, half modern psychodrama—based, apparently, on Loti’s relationship with Pierre Le Cor—My Brother Yves is suffused with an extraordinarily tender regard for another man that’s intensely erotic yet never expressed in sexual terms. Which leaves us, I suppose, where we began.


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