Pierre Loti

Portrait of Pierre   Loti

Pierre Loti [born Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud, Pierre” being a first name suggested by famous actress Sarah Bernhardt and Loti” the name of an island flower he found in Tahiti] (14 Jan. 1850, Rochefort, France — 10 June, 1923, Hendaye, France) was a French novelist, travel writer, eccentric art collector, who visited Angkor in 1901 and 1904, when he was already an established author — he had been elected to Académie Française in 1891 -, publishing Un pélerin d’Angkor [A Pilgrim in Angkor] in 1912.

A naval officer serving from 1885 to 1891 on French war ships in China Sea, appointed as ship’s captain in 1906, he became an avid traveler with a fondness for exoticism”, vising the Middle and Far East, Oceania, North Africa… His first novel, Aziyadé (1879) — which was later interpreted as the hidden account of an homosexual affair -, was an instant success, and his following books settled him as a popular writer: Le Mariage de Loti [originally titled Rarahu] (1880), Le Roman d’un spahi (1881), Pêcheur d’Islande (1886), Madame Chrysanthème (1887), Reflets sur la sombre route (1889), Le livre de la pitié et de la mort (1890), Ramuntcho (1897), Les Désenchantées (1906), Le Roman d’un enfant (1890), Prime Jeunesse (1919), Un jeune officier pauvre (1923)…

Married to wealthy heiress Jeanne Amélie Blanche Franc de Ferrière — who eventually left him as he kept a Basque mistress, with whom he had four children –, Loti gathered an astonishing collection of artworks, souvenirs, rarities such as sperm whale teeth, Egyptian cat mummies or Ottoman coffins, part of which is kept at the Maison Pierre Loti museum in Rochefort. 

In his foreword to Impressions by Pierre Loti (Archibald Constable & Co., Westminster, 1898), novelist Henry James wrote: He is extremely unequal and extremely imperfect. He is familiar with both ends of the scale of taste. I am not sure even that on the whole his talent has gained with experience as much as was to have been expected, that his earlier years have not been those in which he was most to endear himself. But these things have made little difference to a reader so committed to an affection.(…) I read and relish him whenever he appears, but his earlier things are those to which I most return. It took some time, in those years, quite to make him out he was so strange a mixture for readers of our tradition. He was a ” sailor-man” and yet a poet, a poet and yet a sailorman.(…) He has not been an explorer and is not of that race, but his perception so penetrates that he has only to take me round the corner to give me the sense of exploring. I have been assured that Madame Chrysantheme is as preposterous, as benighted a picture of Japan as if astranger, disembarking at Liverpool, had confined his acquaintance with England to a few weeks spent in disreputable female society in a vulgar suburb of that city. (…) Loti belongs to the precious few who are not afraid of being ridiculous; a condition not in itself perhaps constituting positive wealth, but speedily raised to that value when the naught in question is on the right side of certain other figures. His attitude is that whatever, on the spot and in the connection, he may happen to feel is suggestive, interesting and human, so that his duty with regard to it can only be essentially to utter it. The duty of not being ridiculous is one to which too many travellers of our own race assign the high position that he attributes to right expression, to right expression alone.(…) That is pure, essential Loti — poetry in observation, felicity in sadness.”

Pierre Loti in his house c. 1892.