Pierre Loti was a man of many characters, frequently reinventing himself and his outward appearance to satisfy his desire for change and love of the exotic
Looking at photographs of Pierre Loti, in which soulful eyes burn above a curved, prominent nose and important moustache as he poses in many different - sometimes startling - forms of dress and undress, it is impossible not to smile. Yet Loti (born Julien Viaud in 1850; died 1923) deserves more. His spirit, his passions, his imagination, his ego, were huge; he was a true eccentric who, in his hankering after physical perfection, continually reinvented himself because, he said wistfully, "je n'etais pas mon type". In his desire to change the shape of his body, Loti developed his muscles and became an accomplished acrobat and trapeze artist. His height he could only alter with high-heeled boots. He wore make-up, he adored ethnic dress.

All that Loti was, all that he became, and all that he created, sprang from what modern scientific lore considers neuroses, and with the best intentions sets about remedying. No sooner was he in one place, or character, than he was off again. From a life ashore, he escaped into the far horizons of a sailor's life. From the Huguenot austerity of his background, he sought the glow of Islam. Wearing foreign clothes, he escaped his identity - during his illicit affair with his Circassian mistress, Aziyade, he assumed an Armenian identity and Turkish dress. Loti's fetish for objects, often of little value except by association, nourished the nostalgia that was his drug. His home, like the photographs he posed for, became an allegory for Loti himself; behind a plain bourgeois facade in Rochefort, France, lay attics and parlours transformed into Loti's dreams and memories - the Chinese room with its opium den, reminding him of his quarters in the Summer Palace, a medieval hall hung with tapestries - and the mosque which crowned these extravaganzas was the ultimate escape from West to East, smuggled stone by stone from Syria.

Women found Loti irresistible, and he had an undeniable gift for friendship. That such an outrageous character also made a lifelong career in the French navy and was popular with officers and crew alike, while Sarah Bernhardt made detours in her schedule in order to dine with her beloved "Julien le fou", seems fittingly surreal. Loti saw active service, was highly decorated for courageous conduct, and for three years was naval attache to the French Embassy in his beloved Constantinople. But it is as a writer who entranced armchair travellers that Pierre Loti earned the title, "the Magician".

Pierre Loti's writing is romantic in a way no longer fashionable; he dives perilously into sentimentality through tangles of exclamation marks, yet at his best creates an intimacy which enchants the reader with the simple, subtle elegance of style that resulted in his election to the Academie Francaise on 7 April 1892. Loti was then 42, the author of 15 books, and among the candidates he defeated was Emile Zola. The publicity which buzzed round Pierre Loti's academic candidature gave him every occasion to pose: when newspapers requested a photograph he teased, sending one of himself in a fez or burnous, or even naked, superbly muscled. Proust was one of Loti's avid readers, and on one occasion electrified a dinner table, at the mention of his novel Aziyade - Loti's first, published in January 1879 - by quoting whole pages, on the spur of the moment.

It is the autobiographical nature of Loti's first three books that makes them so revealing, so haunting and so essential to the understanding of his complicated nature. Each has an exotic setting and high passions kindled by someone of another race or class, and lastly the inevitable bitter- sweet separation that Fate (or Loti) always decreed. Rarahu the Polynesian, Cora the mulatto of Senegal, Suliema the Algerian, Madame Chrysantheme the Japanese: each ultimately impossible, honing the blissful knife-edge of anticipation. Better the storms than the calms, which were for Loti always the doldrums. To be calm, he had need of storms. He married because he wanted sons, but marriage is an unsuitable state for such a personality whose compulsion is escape. Far better to be one of his many adored cats than his wife Blanche. It was said of Loti that he loved both men and women passionately, and if there had been a third sex he would have loved that too. Philippa Scott

Photographs and letters of Pierre Loti are included in Sotheby's sale of continental books and manuscripts on 4 December

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