1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Loti, Pierre

LOTI, PIERRE [the pen-name of Louis Marie Julien Viaud] (1850–), French author, was born at Rochefort on the 14th of January 1850. The Viauds are an old Protestant family, and Pierre Loti consistently adhered, at least nominally, to the faith of his fathers. Of the picturesque and touching incidents of his childhood he has given a very vivid account in Le Roman d’un enfant (1890). His education began in Rochefort, but at the age of seventeen, being destined for the navy, he entered the naval school, Le Borda, and gradually rose in his profession, attaining the rank of captain in 1906. In January 1910 he was placed on the reserve list. His pseudonym is said to be due to his extreme shyness and reserve in early life, which made his comrades call him after le Loti, an Indian flower which loves to blush unseen. He was never given to books or study (when he was received at the French Academy, he had the courage to say, “Loti ne sait pas lire”), and it was not until 1876 that he was persuaded to write down and publish some curious experiences at Constantinople, in Aziyadé, a book which, like so many of Loti’s, seems half a romance, half an autobiography. He proceeded to the South Seas, and on leaving Tahiti published the Polynesian idyl, originally called Rarahu (1880), which was reprinted as Le Mariage de Loti, and which first introduced to the wider public an author of remarkable originality and charm. Le Roman d’un spahi, a record of the melancholy adventures of a soldier in Senegambia, belongs to 1881. In 1882 Loti issued a collection of short studies under the general title of Fleurs d’ennui. In 1883 he achieved the widest celebrity, for not only did he publish Mon frère Yves, a novel describing the life of a French bluejacket in all parts of the world—perhaps his most characteristic production—but he was involved in a public discussion in a manner which did him great credit. While taking part as a naval officer in the Tongking War, Loti had exposed in the Figaro a series of scandals which followed on the capture of Hué (1883), and was suspended from the service for more than a year. He continued for some time nearly silent, but in 1886 he published a novel of life among the Breton fisher-folk, called Pêcheur d’islande, the most popular of all his writings. In 1887 he brought out a volume of extraordinary merit, which has not received the attention it deserves; this is Propos d’exil, a series of short studies of exotic places, in his peculiar semi-autobiographic style. The fantastic novel of Japanese manners, Madame Chrysanthème, belongs to the same year. Passing over one or two slighter productions, we come in 1890 to Au Maroc, the record of a journey to Fez in company with a French embassy. A collection of strangely confidential and sentimental reminiscences, called Le Livre de la pitié et de la mort, belongs to 1891. Loti was on board his ship at the port of Algiers when news was brought to him of his election, on the 21st of May 1891, to the French Academy. In 1892 he published Fantôme d’orient, another dreamy study of life in Constantinople, a sort of continuation of Aziyadé. He described a visit to the Holy Land, somewhat too copiously, in three volumes (1895–1896), and wrote a novel, Ramuntcho (1897), a story of manners in the Basque province, which is equal to his best writings. In 1900 he visited British India, with the view of describing what he saw; the result appeared in 1903—L’Inde (sans les Anglais). At his best Pierre Loti was unquestionably the finest descriptive writer of the day. In the delicate exactitude with which he reproduced the impression given to his own alert nerves by unfamiliar forms, colours, sounds and perfumes, he was without a rival. But he was not satisfied with this exterior charm; he desired to blend with it a moral sensibility of the extremest refinement, at once sensual and ethereal. Many of his best books are long sobs of remorseful memory, so personal, so intimate, that an English reader is amazed to find such depth of feeling compatible with the power of minutely and publicly recording what is felt. In spite of the beauty and melody and fragrance of Loti’s books his mannerisms are apt to pall upon the reader, and his later books of pure description were rather empty. His greatest successes were gained in the species of confession, half-way between fact and fiction, which he essayed in his earlier books. When all his limitations, however, have been rehearsed, Pierre Loti remains, in the mechanism of style and cadence, one of the most original and most perfect French writers of the second half of the 19th century. Among his later works were: La Troisième jeunesse de Mme Prune (1905); Les Désenchantées (1906, Eng. trans. by C. Bell); La Mort de Philae (1908); Judith Renaudin (Théâtre Antoine, 1904), a five-act historical play based on an earlier book; and, in collaboration with Émile Vedel, a translation of King Lear, also produced at the Théâtre Antoine in 1904.  (E. G.)