- Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist by Lesley Blanch
Collins, 330 pp, £12.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 00 211649 9
Loti performs so beautifully as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains or what he doesn’t ... To be so rare that you can be common, so good that you can be bad without loss of caste ... The whole second-rate element in Loti becomes an absolute stain, if we think much about it. But practically (and this is his first-rate triumph) we don’t think much about it.
Henry James is not the first writer to have been impressed yet baffled by Pierre Loti. Anatole France, who called him the ‘sublime illiterate’, believed that, of all their contemporaries, he was ‘the most sure to last’. To his peers Loti was a distinct oddity: an outsider who clung to his career as a Naval officer while living a scandalous personal life, a philistine who boasted that he never read anything yet held his public spellbound with tales of amorous adventures in exotic settings and compelling images of life at sea or in remote, inhospitable places. The young Proust could recite whole passages of Loti’s first novel Aziyadé (1877) from memory and spent days in the Bois de Boulogne savouring his second, the dream-like Mariage de Loti. The public, which made him rich and famous, dubbed him the Magician – an apt enough nickname.
Loti’s style, as Lesley Blanch points out, does not translate well into English, nor has it been well translated. It is deceptively simple, relying on assonance and repetition to lull the reader into a somnolent trance in which the commonest words seem transfigured: ‘Les cinquante petits esclaves noirs se mettent à courir, à courir, pris d’un affolement subit, se deploient en éventail comme un vol d’oiseaux, comme une grappe d’abeilles qui essaiment’ (Au Maroc, 1890). Nor are there any real characters in his novels, only schematic figures drawn from life but invested with their author’s fantasies. Similarly, the exotic settings that made him so popular, though finely observed in the first instance, are reduced to mere extensions of the author’s mood. The details of architecture or landscape merge with his feelings to create an atmosphere of menace or melancholy, ecstasy or despair. Domes and minarets hang suspended over Old Stamboul, inviting Loti to pursue his amorous quest, the calm interior of the mosques is evoked in order to supply him with the sense of permanence he lacks in the face of life’s vicissitudes, or with resignation in the face of death. Using adjectives that would seem flat or inflated in the hands of almost any other writer – superbe, magnifique, effroyable – he entices the reader into his vision, making him his accomplice in banality, his partner in cliché. This effect is partly the result of the intensely visual character of Loti’s writing. His most accomplished novel, Pêcheur d’Islande, a tale of Breton fisherfolk, has barely a plot to speak of, while the characters are little more than figures in a succession of landscapes or tableaux vivants, powerfully juxtaposed to maximise their emotional impact. Pêcheur d’Islande came out in 1886, the same year as Gauguin’s first Breton paintings; and there is an obvious similarity between the two, although the sombre intensity of Loti’s portrayal of Breton peasant life is in some ways closer to Charles Cottet. Like Gauguin, Loti was attracted to the exotic in both Brittany and the tropics, finding a harsh mournfulness in the former which contrasted with the sensuous ease of the latter. In his allusiveness he is much closer to the Symbolists than to such Romantic or Post-Romantic travellers in the East as Lamartine or Gerard de Nerval. His lack of a literary education, however, makes the categories of painting seem more appropriate than those of literature. Like the Impressionists, he combines subjectivity with an almost scientific perception of natural phenomena: his seas, skies, storms and landscapes are informed by a meteorological exactitude, an awareness of geology and an understanding of light.
Loti’s reputation has declined in France, and he is not much read in England. Lesley Blanch rightly believes that he has been unjustly neglected and sets out to rehabilitate him. Unfortunately, her view of Loti is too one-sided to do him justice, either as a writer or as the subject of a biography. By concentrating on the extravagant and exotic aspects of his life, she diminishes his achievements as an artist. Indeed, by taking at face value the character he presented both to the world at large and in the privacy of his journal – the chameleon hero of the harem, impersonator of Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Albanians, ambidextrous lover of Circassians, Bretons, Maoris and Basques, pseudo-Muslim and fake Orientalist – she largely misses the point. The Loti of the fiction and the private diaries was himself at least in part a fictional character, the invention of Julien Viaud, an officer in the French Navy.
Loti’s second novel, Le Mariage de Loti, is about his affair with the Maori girl Rarahu, with whom he lives for a time, before returning to his ship and abandoning her to a life of debauchery and an early death in the colonial slum of Papeete. His first romance, Aziyadé, was about a similarly doomed affair between Loti and a young Circassian whom he encounters in Salonika and follows to Istanbul, where she visits him clandestinely in the house he rents there, disguised as an Albanian. In Aziyadé he establishes a theme that recurs in most of his writing, both fiction and travel: ‘I cherished an impossible project, to live with her somewhere along the Golden Horn, living the life of a Muslim – her life. I wanted to possess her for whole days at a time, to read her mind and heart, and understand strange wild things ... I wanted her to be wholly mine.’ Loti, the young officer in the navy of a great colonial power, nurtured on the sea-faring tales of his native Rochefort, seeks oblivion in the otherness of the worlds he visits, finding in their women – the Circassian odalisque, the Tahitian vahiné, the Moroccan whore or Senegalese negress – something he tries to grasp but which somehow eludes him, either because they reject him, or because he must return to his ship. The bitter-sweet ambiguity of seduction, the doomed enterprise of total possession, expands by subtle degrees into a metaphor for world conquest, the unattainable colonial dream. The otherness which Loti seeks to possess vanishes in the very act of possession. Rarahu is corrupted by him, Aziyadé doomed. Loti’s success, coinciding with the last and greatest phase of French colonial expansion, owed much to the manner in which he made the otherness of the worlds which France was in the process of destroying seem infinitely seductive – and ripe for seduction. In a sense, he is the great pornographer of imperialism, inviting his readers to participate vicariously in the act of conquest by seduction or rape. But unlike vulgar pornographers, he is alive to the ambiguities of conquest, the destruction implicit in possession. There is no jingoism or advocacy of empire: instead, a constant longing for lost innocence, a dwelling on the corrupting effects of Europe, a reverence for the traditional cultures, and, in the case of Islam especially, a yearning for the certainties of their religion.
Fact or pure fantasy? Rarahu appears to have been an invented character, a composite of several women Loti met in Tahiti. The Aziyadé episode, on the other hand, was apparently based on the author’s real-life experience. In the novel she dies, broken-hearted, after Loti’s ship is transferred to northern waters. According to the private journals, her original, Hakidje, died a few years later, in a manner similar to that described in the novel. In a later work, Fantôme d’Orient (1892), Loti gives an account of his visit to her grave; and on a subsequent visit to Istanbul he actually removed the headstone, or had a replica made, which he installed in the family home in Rochefort as the centrepiece of his ‘mosque’, an Oriental shrine consecrated to her memory. The cult of Aziyadé became his personal religion – Christian redemptive love in Islamic costume. Visitors to Rochefort were invited to pray there, and even ratings drilled in the movements of Muslim prayer in her honour.
The ‘real’ Loti revealed in the private journals largely corresponds to the public image projected by his writings, which is that of a man obsessed with mortality, desperately trying to live out his fantasies, and indulging in ecstasies of remorse as the price that must be paid. It is far from certain, however, that this is either an adequate or an accurate picture. Lesley Blanch claims to have examined all Loti’s unpublished journals; and having checked them against letters, family papers and ‘oral legends’, she comes to the conclusion that Loti ‘did indeed live these exotic episodes and many more, pretty much as he recounted them’. This is a bold conclusion to reach, but since Ms Blanch fails to provide any source-notes in her book, one is obliged to rely on her judgment. In two respects at least, this does not inspire confidence.
The first is her treatment of Les Désenchantées, a complicated tale of harem intrigue which proved immensely popular, and has run into more than four hundred editions since its original publication in 1906. In the novel Loti presents himself as the middle-aged André Lhéry, ‘a well-known romance writer’, who is approached by three veiled ladies who coax him into writing a novel which will draw attention to the miserable lot of Ottoman women. One of the ladies, forced to return to her husband, eventually takes poison, leaving a suicide note in which she declares her love for the writer. The story was apparently based on a real incident, in which Loti actually received letters from, and had clandestine meetings with, three veiled women similar to those described in the novel. Two of them were the daughters of Nouri Bey, a high-ranking Ottoman official known to Loti. After Loti’s death in 1926 the third, who commits suicide in the novel, revealed herself to be a Frenchwoman, Marc Helys. Lesley Blanch concludes that Loti, tricked by his longing to see himself once again as l’amant fatal, became the victim of a cruel hoax. However, she fails to mention that Marc Helys always denied this charge, claiming that the whole affair was an ‘innocent comedy’. It seems probable that, far from being a gullible sentimentalist, Loti deliberately exploited the women’s antics to provide him with a plot. Helys and Loti appear to have been engaged in a clever game of ‘duping’ each other. The result was a novel written partly by its characters – just what one would expect from a Magician. The publication of Mme Helys’s revelations led to a literary controversy that raged for many years. Ms Blanch has a right to her own view of the affair, however partisan it might be and however much it makes Loti appear the fool, but her failure to indicate that there is another side to the story is inexcusable.
A more serious deficiency is the relative lack of attention Ms Blanch pays to Loti’s Naval career. Given the absence of source-notes it is hard to gauge how much information is available and how much has been used here, but a considerable amount of documentation must exist that would indicate how the Naval authorities viewed Loti’s extravagant behaviour and continuous disregard for protocol. In his personal file in the Naval archives at Vincennes there is an important document which, rather surprisingly, Ms Blanch fails to mention. It is a permit granted by the Ministère de la Marine in June 1891, shortly after Loti’s election to the French Academy, allowing Lieutenant-Commander Viaud, as an exceptional measure, to publish without prior approval ‘all of his literary works, subject to the express reservation that they touch on no aspect of naval or military questions’. Loti’s reputation was an asset to the French Navy because the tales of his adventures, like those of Jules Verne, encouraged recruits. It would be surprising, however, if this were the only reason for the remarkably indulgent view the authorities took of his activities, real or alleged. Apart from his account in Le Figaro of the battle of Hué in 1883, which put him under a temporary cloud, Loti’s ‘autobiographical’ stories, however bizarre, never seem to have landed him in serious trouble. Can it have been that the Navy regarded them as harmless fictions – and with good reason?
The official toleration accorded Loti has considerable bearing on his writing. For nearly all his creative life he was a highly-regarded Naval officer. His career provided security and stability – the outer fabric of his life. He did not, like Gauguin, abandon a life of respectability, or, like Conrad, turn to writing after a career of seafaring. There is a danger in taking ‘Pierre Loti’s’ accounts of his own activities too seriously, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. Behind the Author, stands the Commander. The latter’s existence, his steadying presence, places the private journal in a rather special light. It is the sketchbook of an artist, not a captain’s log. A deliberate distance is created between Viaud the officer, Loti the author, and Loti (or Lhéry) the hero of the romances, which allows an element of ironic detachment to enter into the narratives. A somewhat similar effect is achieved, in the earlier novels, by Loti’s brother-officer Plumkett, whose letters in Aziyadé provide a down-to-earth commentary on Loti’s behaviour, giving the impression that the romance is to some extent a game being played between the two young men. Loti, unlike his biographer, dished up his stories with a pinch of salt.
No doubt Commander Viaud, like most of his readers, fell under Loti’s spell, and came increasingly to indulge his monstrous whims. The Commander married a respectable bourgeoise named Blanche, who successfully bore him a son at the second attempt. The death of the first child, born prematurely when its mother fell downstairs, produced an orgy of self-pity in Loti’s journals. ‘This little model of myself who would have had my thoughts, my problems, my agonies, and who was already turning to dust, the dust of eternity ...’ Not much thought there for the unfortunate mother, who was later to be subjected to the humiliation of having a Basque peasant-woman, procured through the services of a physician, installed as Loti’s mistress in Rochefort, to become in due course the mother of two bastard sons.
Pierre Loti never took over Commander Viaud completely. In the First World War, with France ranged against the Ottoman Empire, Commander Viaud, the patriot and anti-Dreyfusard, insisted on coming out of retirement to serve his country, after Pierre Loti the Turkophile had failed, in secret negotiations, to keep the Ottomans out of the war. The Navy refused his request for service afloat, but his friends in the Army found a use for him as a liaison officer and meteorologist. In April 1918 the Commander killed off the author, by closing his journal for ever. Later, in somewhat cantankerous retirement in Rochefort, he even condemned Pierre Loti’s books as immoral, and said he regretted having written them. This did not prevent him, however, from undertaking the lucrative task of preparing part of the journal for publication.