BLOG 73 06/11/2018 Pierre Loti: The Ultimate Orientalist.
Pierre Loti: The Ultimate Orientalist.
It is said that a picture says a thousand words. In the case of Pierre Loti, the opposite is true. It is his words that paint the romantic imagery of the oriental world in a way that few other authors have been able to do. As someone with a profound love of the Orient, his descriptions fed my imagination for scenes in The Embroiderer, and for future books to be set in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire.
Although largely forgotten today, Loti was unquestionably the finest descriptive writer of the day. Anatole France (1844 – 1924), a French poet, journalist, and successful novelist with several best-sellers, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921, and considered in his day to be the ideal French man of letters, had this to say about his Loti’s work – “they are savoured to the point of intoxication, of delirium, of stupor, even, the bitter flavour of exotic love.” Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849 – 1928), the English poet, author and critic was another who wrote about him in glowing terms. “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.”
Pierre Loti was born Julien Viaud in Rochefort, France, in 1850. At 17 he entered the naval school in Brest and was promoted to lieutenant in 1881. He received his first command in 1898. Loti’s naval career allowed him to spend long spells in Levantine ports and in the Far East. In the course of his travels he is known to have had various love affairs that provided the plots for his exotic novels. Perhaps it was his austere Huguenot background that made him want to disappear into exotic worlds. As a child it was said that there was something strangely sensitive about him. He had large, beautiful dark eyes which never failed to make an impression on those he met, especially women. “Those eyes! That gaze; a poet’s face framed in a small beard, the eyes large and dreamy, the lips sensual, the features harmonious.” He frequently wore makeup and was also attracted to both sexes. “I have the temperament of a Bedouin,” he later admitted. Bedouin, being used in the French sense of physical and sexual appetite.
For a Frenchman with romantic notions of the “other world”, he certainly travelled at the right time. The lure of the Orient was casting its spell over the West in literature, music and especially painting. Describing his first trip to Tahiti, it was everything he imagined: ravishingly pretty women – “noble savages” – who exercised their ardours over foreigners. Maybe not quite the way we would view things today, but in those days, people didn’t bat an eyelid at the use of “noble savage”. In fact, it was probably meant as a compliment.
Whether he was writing about Tahiti, Constantinople, or Senegal, he had the ability to evoke the landscape in the manner that Orientalist painters such as Liotard, John Frederick Lewis or Frederick Arthur Bridgman, and in the midst of a violent African setting, with its sinister ways, his love affairs were as torrid as the setting itself. Moreover, his words had the ability to shock; something else that drew readers to him. In 1881, he wrote – “the alleluja of Negro love, a hymn of seduction, chanted also by nature, by the earth, plants and perfume – a howling cry of unbridled desire – overheated by the sun. When she walked, she had that sway of the hips which women of Africa seem to have borrowed from the great felines of that country. She possessed a negro grace, a sensual charm and some power of seduction which was indefinable –the young virgin and the tigress.” Goodness knows what the women of the Victorian era would have made of that.
For anyone who has been to Africa, they will know that there are sounds, smells and curious rhythms that immediately conjure up the continent, and when spoken about later, have the power to transport us back there as if it was yesterday – “the eternal thumping beat of the pestle and morter as the women grind corn; the essential sound of Africa from Timbuktu to the coast. Thousands of graceful dark arms circled with jangling bracelets pounding in tireless monotony, the women chattering and quarrelling..”.
His first book, and the one for which he would be most remembered, was first published anonymously in 1879 under the title Aziyadé. It told of his affair with a Circassian slave girl he met during a stay in Salonika and Constantinople three years earlier. Another book, Le Mariage de Loti (1880) is set in the South Seas and relates to the more sensual relationships he enjoyed with several native girls at Tahiti where he had spent some time in 1872. This book was the inspiration for the opera, Lakme by Delibes. It was followed by Le Roman d’un Spahi (1881), which is set in Senegal. These were followed by Madame Chrysanthème (1887), the precursor to Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, in which Loti evoked the temporary marriage he had contracted with a Japanese girl at Nagasaki.
Aziyade, his greatest book, was first thought to be about his love affair with Constantinople and many thought his mistress never existed, yet his diaries and accounts at the time prove otherwise. This ‘delicious life’ was extremely dangerous. In it, he takes a Turkish woman from a harem in Salonika. It was a dangerous game, and had he been found out, could have caused an international incident, if not death. But he was able to wander around Salonika in a uniform with considerable ease. In the Moslem Quarter, with its overhanging close-latticed windows, he experiences the strange sensation of being watched. A veiled woman with green eyes observed him “at leisure.” Aziyade, or Hakidje, as she was called in real life, was the forbidden fruit and was to become the embodiment of his oriental mirage. The affair lasted barely a year but he spent his life trying to recreate his vanished Turkish life. His book, Fantome d’Orient is the sequel to Aziyade and describes his return to Constantinople.
Hakidje died in 1880 and was buried in Constantinople. Unfortunately, Loti’s naval career took him away and when returned, he was shown her grave by a woman who was possibly her close confidante. She suddenly shouted out, is here. “Aziyade is here. And it is you who brought her here.” Whether this is a reference to Aziyade’s affair being discovered by her husband, is not fully known. His naval career at an end, he returned to France, and along with a house he built as a shrine to Islamic design, replicated her headstone – no-one is quite sure if it was the original or a copy.
Loti was revered amongst the literary set in France and became great friends with Sarah Bernhardt, but his heart still lay in the Orient. At the beginning of WWI, he found himself on the side of the Allies and unable to go to Turkey. He lamented the war with the Ottoman Empire and did everything in his power to stand up for it, so much so that the Turkish nation held him in high esteem. Happily, his adventurous escapades were overlooked in favour of his literary works. On his death in 1923, a special delegation from the Turkish government in Ankara, presented his family with a carpet, specially woven for him. He still remains a revered figure in Istanbul today with cafes and hotels named after him. The Pierre Loti Cafe in the district of Eyüp, with its expansive views of the Golden Horn, is a popular tourist spot as it is said he often frequented the area to write.
Bibliography: “Pierre Loti” by Lesley Blanch
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