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Loti, Pierre (Julien Viaud) (1850-1923)  
 
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One of the most popular and respected French novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Julien Viaud, who wrote under the name Pierre Loti, created a series of novels that chronicle the struggle of a man to understand his feelings and their implications for him.

Biography

Viaud was born in Rochefort on January 14, 1850, to one of the city's few Protestant families. On his mother's side, he was descended from survivors of the exile or forced conversion imposed on French Huguenots in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. This history instilled in Viaud early on the feeling of belonging to a group that was subject to exclusion and persecution.

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Until he was twelve, Viaud's family chose to have him educated at home, in part because of his delicate health. (Viaud would later write that he regretted having been pampered as a child.) He attended high school in Rochefort, and then the Lycée Napoléon (today Henri IV) in Paris to prepare for the entrance exam for the Naval Academy.

While he was there he also studied art, and for the rest of his life found pleasure in drawing and painting. The works that survive show a real talent, and some of the drawings reveal a clear interest in the male body.

Graduating from the Naval Academy in 1867, he began a career as an officer that extended over 43 years and took him to many of the exotic lands that he used as settings for his books. Unlike Conrad or Melville, who left the sea to pursue writing, Viaud published his more than twenty novels and travelogs while still in the service.

In 1886, in part to end pressure from his family, in part because he wanted a son, Viaud married Blanche de Ferrière, a woman whom his mother had picked out for him while he was away at sea. The marriage was not a happy one, and in 1906 Blanche Viaud returned to her family.

In 1910, despite his efforts to remain on active duty, the navy finally forced Viaud to retire. When World War I broke out, however, he managed to obtain a commission in the army as assistant to General Galliéni, military governor of Paris after the flight of the French government in the face of the Geman invasion. In addition to diplomatic missions that he was able to perform because of his friendship with several of the crowned heads of Europe, Viaud covered the war for the Parisian daily Le Figaro and the weekly L'Illustration.

Back in civilian life after the War, Viaud became subject to depression and declining health. He published several volumes of somewhat fictionalized memoirs and, with the help of his son Samuel, revised the diary he had been keeping since he was sixteen. Viaud died of uremia and pulmonary edema on June 10, 1923, shortly after a last visit from his friend Sarah Bernhardt.

Sexuality

Because of the homosexual themes in a few of his early novels and Viaud's sometimes flamboyant lifestyle, the French popular press of his time depicted him as gay in satirical cartoons. These cartoons and the rumors that gave rise to them fixed Viaud in the public's mind as gay, to the extent, for example, that French senator Cécile Goldat grouped Viaud with Gide and Cocteau as a distinguished gay writer when legislation concerning homosexuality was debated in the 1980s.

Notwithstanding these widespread assumptions, however, there is no definite evidence that Viaud ever had homosexual relations himself. Edmond de Goncourt, in his diary entry for September 21, 1890, wrote that Viaud had been caught in flagrante delicto with a sailor, but Goncourt was a malicious gossip and not always reliable, so this entry proves nothing.

Viaud's family, especially his grandson, has always denied that he was gay. Near the end of his life, Viaud and his son Samuel went through his diaries, excising and rewriting, so even if they had contained evidence of his homosexuality at one time, they no longer do.

Viaud's Works

In the speech that he gave upon being received into the Académie Française in 1891, Viaud declared that "A critic worthy of the name who has to speak about a writer would be fortunate if he were . . . to read him . . . from beginning to end in the exact order in which his books had been written, and in that way to follow the development of his talent, the appearance of his personality, if he has one, and to see take shape in his work the unity without which there is neither greatness nor duration." If one approaches Viaud's own novels in this way, one finds that they are carefully coded, the later ones referring back to the earlier ones in ways that reveal the presence of a constant and progressively more complex homosexual subtext, their "unity."

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Pierre Loti at his home in 1895. Photography by Dornac.
  
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