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Reviewed by:
  • Pierre Loti by Richard M. Berrong
  • Akane Kawakami
Pierre Loti. By Richard M. Berrong. (Critical Lives.) London: Reaktion Books, 2018. 216 pp., ill.

This short and readable biography of Julien Viaud — better known, of course, as Pierre Loti — attempts to restore his fame and reputation, which were considerably greater at the time of his death ninety-six years ago than they are today, in the eyes of both the general and academic reader. As the author notes, Loti’s life was at least as eventful and romantic as anything in his novels, partly because his novels were mostly autobiographical, but also because Loti himself took pains to create and recreate his life as if it were a novel, even as he lived it. After a happy childhood in Rochefort, Viaud became a writer almost by accident — his original plan was to become an artist — and managed to sustain this profession alongside his career as a naval officer. Indeed the one obviously fed into the other, as material from his travels in Tahiti, present-day Turkey, Senegal, and Japan was almost directly reproduced in his travelogues and autobiographical fiction. French literature specialists will know all this, but it is useful to be reminded of how phenomenally successful works such as Le Mariage de Loti, Mon frère Yves, or Pêcheur d’Islande were at their times of publication. To a certain extent his success was due to the fact that his travel writing perfectly matched the reading public’s delight at the time in tales from exotic places, but his romantic and painterly style was another source of his popularity. Richard M. Berrong points out various parallels between Loti and Monet in their separate art forms, and while his arguments are not always convincing they are certainly of interest, especially given Loti’s own abilities as an artist. But even more significant characteristics of his writing are his predilection for alter egos, his more or less open acknowledgement of his sexuality, and the all-pervasive nostalgia that is almost his trademark. As this is a literary biography, Berrong analyses these aspects of the novels, but never in great detail, given his commitment to introducing the writing to a non-professional audience. A more in-depth examination of the roots of Loti’s nostalgia would have been fascinating: it is the trait that is most responsible, in my view, for Loti’s ‘datedness’, and I would have appreciated a more developed analysis of its origins in Loti’s innermost self, mostly hidden behind his multiple alter egos and carefully staged personalities. Berrong’s description of the multiple personages that made up ‘Loti’ will be of interest to students and scholars of celebrity today. Loti was one of the first real celebrity writers, far more famous and fêted than contemporaries such as Zola who are better known to us now, and suffered both its delights and perils: during his lifetime he generally got and did whatever he wanted with impunity, but he was also tricked and exploited by the désenchantées, as Berrong relates. Overall this is an excellent account of Loti’s dramatic life, highly readable and almost rollicking; it should certainly attract new readers to his relatively neglected œuvre. [End Page 641]

Akane Kawakami
Birkbeck, University of London


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