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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pierre Loti (1850–1923)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
PIERRE LOTI was the pen-name chosen by Louis Marie Julien Viaud, the French novelist and poet who was born at Rochefort, France, on January 14th, 1850, of an old Protestant family. He studied in his native town; and it was while at school that he received from his comrades the nickname “Loti,” which he adopted later as a literary pseudonym. He was extremely bashful and retiring as a boy; and his playmates in derision called him Loti, the name of a tiny East-Indian flower which hides its face in the grass. He must have left school very early; for he was only seventeen when he entered the French navy, having obtained an appointment as midshipman (aspirant de marine). For several years he saw a great deal of active serving; particularly on the Pacific Ocean, where his vessel was stationed; and this unquestionably gave him that love for and that knowledge of those exotic countries which he has so admirably and faithfully described in his books. Ever since he joined the navy (1867) he had given much attention to literature, and his fellow officers often teased him on account of his retiring and studious disposition. He was regarded by them as a dreamer; but no one had ever any criticism make concerning the manner in which he performed his duties.  1
  It was not until 1876 that he published his first book, ‘Aziyadé,’ although it is possible that some of the many volumes he published after that were written before that time. ‘Rarahu’ appeared in 1880, and was afterwards given the title ‘The Marriage of Loti.’ Had the French author been familiar with Herman Melville’s ‘Typee,’ he would have hesitated to write his own book lest he be charged with imitation. In 1882 the war with Tonquin broke out, and Loti distinguished himself in several engagements with the enemy. About this time he committed an imprudence which, however pardonable in a writer, was inexcusable in an officer on active service. He sent to the Paris Figaro an account of the cruelty of the French soldiers at the storming of Hué; and this so incensed the French government that he was at once placed upon the retired list. But by that time Loti was a public favorite, and there was a loud clamor for his reinstatement. The government, perhaps in an attempt to regain some of its lost popularity, gave way, and Loti was restored to his command the following year. Shortly afterwards (1886) he published ‘An Iceland Fisherman’; a volume full of poetic feeling and dreamy impressionism, and which is considered by many critics his best work. It won for him the Vitet prize of the French Academy, and had the honor of being translated into the Romanian language by the Queen of Romania. In 1887 he was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor, and in this year he published one of the best known of his books, ‘Madame Chrysanthème,’—less a novel than impressions of a sojourn in Japan.  2
  Loti was now one of the most prominent authors of his day, and his election to the Academy was looked upon as a matter of course. In 1890 he published another remarkable book, entitled ‘Au Maroc’; an account of the trip to Morocco by an embassy of which the author made part. In ‘Le Roman d’un Enfant’ (1890), which is autobiographical in character, he shows how he was won over by modern pessimism; how, chilled by the coldness of Protestantism, he was for a moment attracted by the glittering ritual of the Catholic Church, only in the end to lose his faith utterly. ‘Le Livre de la Pitié et de la Mort’ (1891) contains reminiscences of the divers incidents and periods during his career which had cast shadows on his life and thoughts. On May 21st, 1891, he was elected to the seat left vacant in the French Academy by the death of Octave Feuillet, receiving eighteen votes out of thirty-five cast. He was on board the man-of-war Formidable when he was told of his election.  3
  His main works are as follows:—‘Aziyadé’ (1876); ‘Rarahu’ (1880), republished in 1882 under the title ‘Le Mariage de Loti’; ‘Le Roman d’un Spahi’ (1881); ‘Fleurs d’Ennui’ (1882); ‘Mon Frère Yves’ (1883); ‘Trois Dames de la Kasbah’ (1884); ‘Pêcheur d’Islande’ (1886); ‘Le Dèsert,’ ‘Madame Chrysanthème’ (1887); ‘Propos d’Exil’ (1887); ‘Japoneries d’Automme’ (1889); ‘Au Maroc’ (1890); ‘Le Roman d’un Enfant’ (1890); ‘Le Livre de la Pitié et de la Mort’ (1891); ‘Fantômes d’Orient’ (1892); ‘Le Galilée,’ ‘Jerusalem Matelot’ (1895); ‘Ramuntcho,’ a Story of the Basque Country (1897); ‘L’Inde sous les Anglais’ (1903); ‘Vers Ispahan,’ ‘Judith Renandin’ (1904); ‘Les Désenchantés’ (1906); ‘La Mort de Philæ’ (1908); ‘Le Péterin d’Angkor’ (1912).  4
  Pierre Loti’s success was largely due to the peculiar sympathy and charm with which he depicted the simple, open, and naïve life of the Orient and of the far East. The sensations, the ideas, the types of civilization,—in brief, the whole life and manners of the people and countries,—successively set forth in ‘An Iceland Fisherman,’ ‘To Morocco,’ ‘The Desert,’ ‘Phantoms of the Orient,’ and ‘Madame Chrysanthème,’ contrasted so vividly with the formal, complex, and sophisticated civilization of France, England, and America, and this life was laid bare with such penetration and insight, and withal invested with such spirit and poetry and romance, that it is slight wonder it appealed strangely and strongly to the overwrought and overstrained nerves of our Western peoples.  5
  Loti had apparently been one of those young spirits, so frequently to be met with nowadays, to whom the intense, highly developed, and artificial life of the time brought even with a first taste a pall of ennui. With a cry of anguish and discouragement he had fled to far distant lands. As a naval officer he was able to give rein to his antipathy, and the years that followed found him searching this corner and that of the earth in quest of the unconventional and the unique. It was awakening Japan which appeared to have given him his first literary impulse; and it was the curious and richly colored volume in which he describes his love affair with one of the daughters of that country, to whom he gave the fanciful title of Madame Chrysanthemum, which won for him his greatest acclaim in the field of letters. Other volumes of a similar character followed rapidly, and the young writer quickly found himself elevated in popular esteem to the first rank of French littérateurs. It was an open door and a step into the Academy.  6
  It is to be noted in passing, that the Orient and the desert—their life, their customs, their literature, and their religions—have always exercised a strong attraction for the French mind: a fact exemplified in the long line of writers from the stately declamation of Volney’s ‘Ruins,’ and the weird tales of arabesque and grotesque, down to the poet Leconte de Lisle, whose melancholy and majestic verse has so strongly influenced the poetry of the day.  7
  Loti caught a phase of this life which had been touched upon by no other writer. The East, to Volney, was the inspiration of philosophical reflections upon the rise and fall of nations; to Gautier, a land wherein his imagination and love of the antique might run riot; to Leconte de Lisle, a sermon upon the evanescence of all earthly things. To Loti it was none of these. With the eye of the poet and with the pen of a realist he saw and painted the lands and people which he visited. And into these pictures he infused a sympathy and a human interest which lifted his pages from the dull and commonplace routine of ordinary sketches of travel, into an atmosphere whose warmth and glow afforded a new and rare sensation to the reading public. Above all, there is in Loti’s work a delicacy, a subtlety of understanding, a poetic instinct, and the play of a dainty and lively fancy, that lend to his descriptions a quality which is hardly elsewhere to be found.  8
  Loti translated ‘King Lear’ in collaboration with Émile Vedel, and wrote with Judith Gauthier the drama ‘A Daughter of Heaven,’ which was presented to the New York public in 1913, with only slight success, in spite of its artistic production.  9
 
 
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