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literature

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Loti, Pierre (Julien Viaud) (1850-1923)  
 
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The first of them, Aziyadé (1879), is among the most open in the presentation of a homosexual subtext. Roland Barthes, with much exaggeration, referred to it as "a little Sodomitic epic." It recounts the story of an English naval officer stationed in Turkey, Harry Grant, who meets first a handsome young boatman, Samuel, and then a young harem resident, Aziyadé. While recounting the relationship between Harry and the young woman, Viaud uses a series of parallels to suggest that the relationship between the young officer and the boatman is equally romantic and erotic.

In his fourth novel, My Brother Yves (1883), there is no heterosexual romance cover. Viaud recounts the love of his protagonist, French naval officer Pierre Loti, for the handsome Breton sailor Yves Kermadec in a fairly direct manner. (Jean Genet alludes to this novel repeatedly in his own tale of a naval officer's love for a Breton sailor, Querelle [1953].) The mystery, never resolved, is to what extent Yves reciprocates that love and shares Pierre's homosexual feelings.

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In his next novel, Iceland Fisherman (1886), Viaud's masterpiece, the author relates the apparently heterosexual tale of Gaud Mével's love for Breton fisherman Yann Gaos. Much of this novel is structured to recall its predecessor, however, so that, in recounting Gaud's love for Yann, it at the same time further elaborates Pierre's love for Yves.

Madame Chrysanthemum (1888) became one of the sources of Puccini's Madame Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon. In it Pierre "marries" Madame Chrysanthemum for the duration of a tour of duty in Japan. The author makes it very clear, however, that, unlike in the theatrical works derived from it, the officer has no romantic interest in the young geisha. He is, rather, more than a little worried that Yves might become involved with her.

Viaud's next novel, The Story of a Child (1890), is a biography of the young Pierre based on the author's own childhood. In it, Pierre tries to understand his feelings of difference and speculates on the function of literature to help readers understand each other by bringing out the commonalities that join them.

Ramuntcho (1897) is the story of a young Basque pelote player and contraband runner who also struggles with feelings of difference and alienation from those around him. He considers marrying Gracieuse, a friend from childhood, but cannot bring himself to go through with it. In his effort to understand himself he finds a picture of his father, a sophisticate who recalls Oscar Wilde or Robert de Montesquiou. Ramuntcho does not want anyone to see his resemblance to him, however; he is not comfortable with that role, either. He finally leaves the world of his childhood, which constantly seems to be closing in on him, for the open possibilities of the New World, just as Pierre, at the end of The Story of a Child, had decided to join the navy.

Viaud came back to Oscar Wilde in his play Judith Renaudin (1898), which was staged by André Antoine. Based on an incident in Viaud's own family history, the drama recounts the story of a young Protestant woman who is forced to leave her family behind and flee to Holland upon Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Written during the Wilde trials, it is a dramatization of how legislated intolerance of difference tears families apart when it forces some individuals to leave their own country.

Viaud's last novel, The Awakened (1906), deals most extensively with the situation of gay men. As in Iceland Fisherman and Judith Renaudin, Viaud uses female characters to tell the story, in this case three young Turkish women, like Aziyadé trapped in the harem system. Through their leader, Djénane, the novel deals with the plight of individuals who live on the margins of society and are forced to marry against their will.

Djénane corresponds with André Lhéry, a French novelist who much resembles Viaud himself. As they plan how she will help him write a novel about her situation, Viaud reflects on the importance of community for gay men, something that Viaud's younger contemporary and admirer, Proust, would argue fifteen years later in Sodom and Gemorrah to be impossible to achieve. Viaud also explores the value of literature for learning about one's true self when society is trying to shape our minds and self-images in ways that suit it.

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