The French novelist Pierre Loti (1850-1923) is noted for his picturesque romances, abounding in descriptions of the exotic spots he visited in a lifetime of travel.
Pierre Loti was born Julien Viaud at Rochefort on Jan. 14, 1850, to Protestant parents. Deeply religious as a child, he lost his faith during adolescence, and in his later writings he frequently expressed a longing to regain it. In 1867, after graduating from navy school, he went to sea as a midshipman, was promoted to lieutenant in 1881, and received his first command in 1898. Loti's naval career necessarily entailed long absences from France. He spent much time in Levantine ports and in the Far East. In the course of his travels Loti had various love affairs that, often with slight alterations, provided the plots of his exotic novels. His first book, published anonymously in 1879 under the title Aziyadé, told of his amours with a Circassian slave girl he had met during a stay in Salonika and Constantinople 3 years previously. Le Mariage de Loti (1880) related the less poignant, more sensual relations he had enjoyed with several native girls at Tahiti, where he had spent some time in 1872. It was followed by Le Roman d'un Spahi (1881), the action of which occurred in Senegal, and by Madame Chrysanthème (1887), in which Loti evoked the temporary marriage he had contracted with a Japanese girl at Nagasaki.
Loti's fin-de-siècle readers were captivated by the blend of gentlemanly eroticism and fashionable melancholia that his books exuded. The novels for which Loti is chiefly remembered, however, were set in France. Mon Frère Yves (1883) told the story of Loti's Breton friend Pierre Le Cor and the single vice—drinking—of which Loti succeeded in curing him. Its sequel proved to be Loti's masterpiece: Pêcheur d'Islande (1886) dealt with the heroic lives of the Bretons who sailed every year to dangerous fishing grounds in Icelandic waters, and with the lives of their wives and sweethearts, who often never saw them again. Ramuntcho (1897) has also retained its charm. Set in the Basque country, this story centers on the conflict between human love and the claims of religion.
In addition to his novels, Loti wrote a great number of travel books. The best include Au Maroc (1890)—he visited Fez before Morocco became a French protectorate—and Vers Ispahan (1904), which narrated a journey he undertook through Persia in 1900. These books present an interesting picture of certain Islamic countries immediately before they became subject to Western commercial exploitation and were overrun by tourists—developments that Loti deplored.
The French Academy elected Loti a member in 1891. He died, after a long illness, at Hendaye on the Basque coast on June 10, 1923.
Further Reading on Pierre Loti
A biography of Loti in English is Edmund B. F. D'Auvergne, Pierre Loti: The Romance of a Great Writer (1926). Brief studies of Loti are in Albert L. Guerard, Five Masters of French Romance (1916), and Denis Saurat, Modern French Literature, 1870-1940 (1946). For general background see William A. Nitze and E. Preston Dargan, A History of French Literature (1922; rev. ed. 1927), and Alan William Raitt, Life and Letters in France: The Nineteenth Century (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Blanch, Lesley, Pierre Loti: portrait of an escapist, London: Collins, 1983.
Blanch, Lesley, Pierre Loti: the legendary romantic, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.