20 May 2010

Pierre Loti, Rochefort, and Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron, Île d'Oléron, Charente-Maritime (17), France

Pierre Loti (1850-1923) was a sailor as well as a writer, but then he perhaps wouldn't be remembered now if he were just a sailor – certainly not without his astonishing house, the place of his birth in Rochefort.

Loti's house is on the street now named after him.

But there are a few traces of the original street name: 'Rue Saint Pierre'.

Many other places in Rochefort make use of the name Loti, such as a bar, a Maison de Presse, and this HLM block.

But the town also remembers, on the corner of rue Pierre Loti, the fact that Emile Zola visited it on a few occasions.

To enter the house is to step into another world, with its salon Turque, its Renaissance room, its mosque, etc.

Loti was born Julien Viaud, the son of Théophile Viaud and Nadine Texier.

The house officially became a museum on the 50th anniversary Of Loti's death, in 1973.

The new(ish) plaque at the side of the house is rather disappointing, and 'where [...] we can follow his idle dreams' is hardly an accurate translation of 'où l’on peut poursuivre ses mélancholiques chimères', which in any case doesn't reveal anything of Loti's wish to be in Rochefort and at the same time in the exotic places he'd visited, and in vain attempted to re-create by bringing back many articles from far-off countries, re-constructing the interior of his externally ordinary town house over a period of about 12 years.

Loti would frequently dress up in the national dress of the country he happened to be staying in.

'On me mit au College, comme externe, bien entendu. La rentrée eut lieu à deux heures du l'après-midi par un de de ces délicieuses journées d'Octobre, chaudes, ensoleillées qui sont comme un adieu trés mélancolique de l'été...

Au milieu d'un flot d'enfants qui parlaient tous à la fois, je pénétrai.

J'avais douze ans et demi et j'entrais en troisième.'

Le roman de l'enfant (1885)

'I was sent to college, as an external student of course. The rentrée was at two o'clock in the afternoon on one of those gorgeous October days, warm and mildly sunny, that signal a kind of really sad farewell to summer...

In the middle of a sea of children all talking at once, I went in.

I was 12 and a half years old and I was beginning year three.'

It's quite amazing really that this school was named after Loti, as the series of three dots used here omits often long passages from Le Roman d'un enfant that the writer of this plaque obviously chose to censor because the missing text contains some very strong negative comments on the college. In fact, Loti hated the place, and considered that he wasn't being educated! Ah, the falsification of history...

At the back of Loti's monument in Rochefort is the information that it was funded by public subscription by a committee whose president was the Captain of the frigate Tessel.

Also at the back are a number of names of Loti's books.

Another of the many streets named after Loti is in Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron on L'Île d'Oléron, where the private house he chose to be buried stands.

'Ici dans le jardin de la maison des aïeules Pierre Loti repose sous lierre et lauriers.'

'Here in the garden of the house of [his maternal ancestors] Pierre Loti rests under ivy and laurels'.

The datestone on the front door reads '1739'.

The courtyard inside la maison des aïeules.

The gates leading to the garden where Loti was buried under a simple stone marked 'Pierre Loti'.

The garden itself.

Loti's house in Rochefort is an attempt to be 'ici et ailleurs', here and elsewhere, and an understanding of this is crucial to understanding Loti and his ideas about space: he seeks an arrestation of space, to be in many places at the same time, and the house at Rochefort is a (thwarted, Loti admitted) attempt to resolve the paradoxes. The house represents many of he places Loti visited, and which he sought to tame, to make his own.

Similarly, Loti wanted to remain a child, not to grow up: therefore to arrest time too. He had a kind of anarchistic spirit that refused to believe in legal formalities, and in spite of his ancestors' house being sold to an outsider, believed that it still really belonged to the family. His brief autobiographical story La Maison des aïeules (1899) tells of his having bought back the house, and of his taking his ten-year-old son to see it. From Le Château-d'Oléron, it then took an hour to reach Saint-Pierre-d'Oléron, although of course today Île d'Oléron, in spite of striving to maintain its separateness, is now firmly part of the 'continent'.

In this short narrative, Loti remembers asking his grandmother, as a young child, stories about the island. He notes that the bell-tower of Dolus-d'Oléron — halfway between Le Château and Saint-Pierre — has not altered, and eventually Loti and his son, plus a servant and another companion his son wanted to come along with them, wait outside the house that has not been in the family for 60 years. To Loti, it seems as if his son is waiting to enter Sleeping Beauty's castle, whereas his own feelings are more complex, more serious, even religious. Appropriately, he intertwines space and time with the present, and compares the white house set against the black sky with that of arab dwellings. As they wait for the obstinate key to turn, he feels more than ever the past enveloping him like a shroud.

On entering the courtyard, he notices that nothing has changed, apart from the disappearance of a very old almond tree.

And the abundance of grass, he feels, gives the place a funereal appearance.

In a bedroom in the servants' former quarters, as a young girl, his mother had scratched her forename on one of the windows with a diamond ring. Loti is amazed to find it intact: 'NADINE'! He imagines her writing this in about 1820, one day when she was bored, and when it was raining as it is on the day of Loti's arrival at the house. He remembers his Huguenot ancestors buried in the garden, being excluded from burial in Catholic cemeteries, and asks the three others to gather flowers for his ancestors buried in Rochefort while he goes on a few errands. On his return, he feels that he has really come home (although Loti never actually lived there).

But — another paradox — although his son wants to return to La Maison des Aïeules in the coming summer months, Loti has decided that nothing can be done to the house, and that to return to that mournful little island and wake up and see the garden-cemetery every morning is impossible for him. He recalls his friend Alphonse Daudet telling him that he (Loti) sprang from his ancestors like a devil from a box, and feels an enormous gulf between them and him. For Loti, the best thing would be to shut the door of la Maison des aïeules and never open it again.

A little further down the rue Pierre Loti is a square where there is a sculpture of Loti's bust, made by Raymond Sudré in 1953, on the 50th anniversary of Loti's death.
  An anchor lies at the side of his bust. Loti's body would have been transported across the mainland by boat, a far cry from the link today that makes the island very much a part on the continent.

Ile d'Oléron bridge 'is 3027m long, one of the longest bridges in Europe. It has 45 piers and extends to 23m above sea level. Completed on 13 March 1966, it also has sidewalks and cycle paths too so people can profit from the view.'

It's not quite like crossing the Mississippi or the Missouri, but it'll do.

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