Philip Mansel reviews Pierre Loti: Travels with the Legendary Romantic by Lesley Blanch

Born in France, Pierre Loti loved the East. No one could understand his desire to exchange the greyness of France for ‘the far horizons of a sailor’s life’ better than Lesley Blanch, author of such celebrated evocations of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Russia as The Wilder Shores of Love, The Sabres of Paradise and Journey into the Mind’s Eye. In this haunting biography she shows herself a sympathetic historian, consulting manuscript letters and diaries as well as Loti’s innumerable publications. Her book is a labour of love, an enquiry into a very complex man, as well as one brilliant escapist writing about another. Who, then, was Pierre Loti?

Loti-Viaud
Loti in yet another change of costume. Syrian or Algerian, the bedouin or the Effendi … all were escapes into another life.

Loti was born in 1850 as Julien Viaud, son of a respectable Protestant family living in the port of Rochefort on the Atlantic Ocean. His father was an official in the Mairie. In 1867 he entered the French navy, in which he would continue to serve until 1910. This extremely unconventional man proved a good officer. Most of his superiors appreciated his ‘agreeable character, very good education’, and later his literary fame, though some fellow officers noticed a cold manner.

The French navy was sufficiently broad-minded to employ an officer who wore rouge, dyed his hair and adopted disguises. More unsettling even than dressing as an acrobat, a Turk or a Bedu, Loti often wore the uniform of a rating rather than an officer. Moreover his friendships with handsome sailors, (Julien, Leo, Samuel, many others}, which such clothes facilitated, were no secret. As his daughter-in-law told Lesley Blanch: ‘Loti loved both men and women passionately and if there had been a third sex he would have loved that too.’

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