Berrong on Quella-Villéger (2019)
Quella-Villéger, Alain. Pierre Loti: Une vie de roman. Calmann-Lévy, 2019, pp. 436, ISBN 978-2-7021-6319-1
Writing a good biography of anyone who lived a full life is a challenge. In the case of Julien Viaud (1850–1923), who wrote under the pen name Pierre Loti, the task is particularly daunting. In addition to being a very successful author, he was an officer in the French navy for most of his adult life, which allowed him to travel the globe. He also had a romantic life—not just an erotic one—with many partners, some of whom inspired characters in several of his best-known novels. To further complicate matters, he delighted in creating fictional stories about himself, developing a persona, Pierre Loti, who captivated the imaginations of many readers as much as his literary works. Recounting the highlights of all that coherently in a chronological narrative is a challenge. And there have been obstacles. Viaud’s one legitimate child, Samuel, and Samuel’s daughter-in-law rewrote parts of the author’s diary, destroying other parts to keep the public from knowing just how far Viaud went to escape the confines of his middle-class, Huguenot, provincial upbringing.
No one is more qualified to handle all these difficulties than the author of this book. Sometimes by himself, often with his colleague Bruno Vercier, Alain Quella-Villéger has spent the last four decades studying and writing about Viaud’s life, including a six-volume edition of what is left of Viaud’s diary. These publications and his training as a historian have given Quella-Villéger a command of the subject that has allowed him to present the author as he is best seen, against the social and political history of Western Europe and the Orient during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Quella-Villéger recounts Viaud’s life chronologically—which is not easy, because the author often led more than one life at the same time, sometimes using pseudonyms to hide some of them. Though he was attached to his family, Viaud did not enjoy life in provincial Rochefort. From an early age he dreamed of escaping to exotic lands, dreams fueled by the illustrated travel magazines he devoured as well as the tales his much older brother brought back from his own adventures in the French navy. When financial reversals made it impossible for the teenage Viaud to study engineering in Paris, he went to naval officer’s training school to support his recently widowed mother. While in Paris to prepare the entrance exam, he spent time in the Louvre pursuing another of his passions: painting.
By 1872 he was in Tahiti as part of his first long tour of duty. From that voyage he brought back not only ideas for one of his early novels, an exotic love story that would appeal to French readers fascinated by tales of their colonial empire, but also a collection of drawings and paintings that were published in some of the major illustrated Parisian magazines. At that point he still saw his naval career as temporary, a way to salvage his family’s precarious finances before he embarked on painting.
By 1876 Viaud was stationed in Istanbul, where he had an affair with a young woman that he recorded in his diary. Back in France, he read those pages to fellow officers. They encouraged—and indeed helped—him transform them into a novel, which they also helped him publish. The work, Aziyadé (1879), did not have an initial success. It nonetheless convinced Viaud that writing might provide the artistic outlet he sought. The success of his Tahitian narrative, Le Mariage de Loti reinforced that idea the following year. It is one of his weakest works, but at the time was widely praised, even by Alphonse Daudet and Stéphane Mallarmé. It is, supposedly, the work that convinced Gauguin to travel to Tahiti in search of new colors, new light, and a new way of painting.
Thereafter Viaud continued to draw from his travels a series of best-selling novels. His masterpiece, Pêcheur d’Islande (1886), shows the author’s efforts to adapt a Monet-style impressionism to literature, to allow him to paint with words. Part of it also constituted a critique of French colonial wars in Indochina, despite the fact that a critical article Viaud had published while in Indochina had come close to ending his naval career. A later work, Les Désenchantées (1906), done in collaboration with feminist writer Marie Léra, offered a sharp critique of the harem system that Viaud had romanticized a quarter-century before in Aziyadé. He also wrote travel narratives. In them he focused on artistic description to the exclusion of plot. The best of them are like a stroll through an art gallery.
In 1910, the French government forced Viaud and many other older officers to retire. Somewhat at loose ends, he took up journalism, not always to his credit, covering international and, during World War I, political topics for some of the major French papers. With his son Samuel, he also started to rewrite his diary for publication. As Quella-Villéger explains, this was yet another effort to shape his public persona, this time for posterity. By 1921 his health started to fail him. He died in 1923, and was accorded a state funeral, parts of which are preserved on silent film.
In France Pierre Loti is remembered for his best literary works: Pêcheur d’Islande, Ramuntcho, Le Roman d’un enfant—the last of which inspired Proust, who memorized whole pages of it, and who derived the madeleine passage in Combray from several passages in Mon Frère Yves. Recent American academic scholarship has focused instead on Viaud's earlier works because of their Orientalism. Quella-Villégar does not try to dispel such readings of works like Le Mariage de Loti, Le Roman d’un spahi, and Madame Chrysanthème, but shows that there is much more to Loti than that.
My only quarrel with this book, and it is a small one, is its lack of an index. Given all the interesting people Viaud associated with, that is unfortunate. This new biography, which is already winning awards in France, is a major achievement, one that I hope will go some way to restore a balanced view of Viaud and, more importantly, his best work.