Copyright
Edmund Gosse.

French profiles online

. (page 14 of 25)
Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 14 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


chooaea. The critiiul apiiit la powerleaa u^ainat ii p<ii
so ileliidtely atmaitivt!, ai> canulilti o( \Aa\'[\\\\ with
maateiiy eltect <ui all the tin«v ati>pa dI o\ir eiuotuuia.

livt^n tli« aeiii|Mtt'rnal ymitli »>t I oti. however, is
waniuf-'; awaN', ami we aie at'MsiMo iii Id l^dstirt that the
vildlit\ ot Ihti wilier is not wluil it Wiia when lie iiiaile
hia hisl estcipiuU's tii Senegaiuhia, iii I\loi»tenegi»>, in
lain 1 1 Doubt leas, the austeiity of the theme exchulea
iiuhscietion ; there is Utile room tor acanihil m the
monasteiy »>f Mount Sinai or in the desert ot I ili. lint
tlu^ st^irt^t ol lti<'. .ii>\'eitii(^n iliaiiii ot l.»>ti lias always
l»cHMi the exaititiule witli w tiu ti liis writing lias tran-
scribed Ins finest and most tleeting emotions. ll> lias
lu^ld uj. Ins pagea like wax tablets and has pressed tlu-m
U) his heart, riiis deep sincerity, not really obscured
to any degree by his transparent affectations, has given
Ins successive books then poignaiuy. .And tic has
dlways kiutwii liow to lomtnnr lliis sinierit\ wiili tact,
no living wiilii iiiiilerslandiiig nuut^ cu(iitll\ tiow to
arrange ami to suggest, to heighten mystery or to arreat
an indolent iiti.udon Hence it wiuild not be tike him
to conceal the ail\aiues of niifMU- age, oi to atten\pt
to ileceive ns We liml ni /-<; Pdsdtt a Loli w lio is as
tiiitlitiil to liib lolly live yeara aa the autluM of" La
Komun d'nn Spahi was to his ftve-and-twenty. The
curiosity ni mankiiul, .m.l m particular in himself, seema
to have gri>wn less acute; the oufloi>k on the world is
clearer and firmer, less agitated auil less hysterical.
'V\\c. lentrdl ilianii, flie eMpnsiti'. iiiaiiner of e.vpress-
ing pcMJeitlv bii id iinpiessioiis, remains absolutely
llliiiiodltled

I li, boi.k I > iIk^ record of an expedition x\ liich occupied

jllbt torn weeks. .\iiiieil \Mtll a safe n'lidih I iiom the



204 French Profiles

powerful Seid, Omar El Senoussi El Hosni, at the end
of February, 1894, and in company of a noble friend
whose name does not occur in his pages, although
it constantly occupied the newspapers of Paris, Pierre
Loti started from Cairo on his way to Palestine. His
great design was to pass through the heart of Idumasa,
by the route of Petra, it having been ten years since
any European had crossed that portion of the desert.
The sheik of Petra, it appears, is in revolt against both
Turkey and Egypt, and has closed a route which in
Stanley's day was open and comparatively easy. Loti
was unable, as will be seen, to achieve his purpose, but
a unique fortune befell him. In the meanwhile, he
started by Suez, landing on the other side of the gulf,
ascended Sinai, descended again eastward, reached the
sea, and marched beside it up to the head of the bay,
halting in that strange little town of Akabah, which
represents the Eziongaber of Scripture and the 7E\a.ma.
of the Crusaders. From this point he should have
started for Petra ; but as that proved quite impossible,
the expedition held a little to the west and proceeded
north through the singular and rarely visited desert of
Tih, the land of the Midianites and the Amalekites.
On Good Friday they crossed the frontier of Palestine,
and three days later dismounted in one of the most
ancient and most mysterious cities in the world, Gaza
of the Philistines, a land of ruins and of dust, a cluster
of aged minarets and domes girdled by palm-trees.
The book closes with the words, " To-morrow, at break
of day, we shall start for Jerusalem."

The sentiment of the desert has never been so finely
rendered before. Without emphasis, in his calm, pro-
gressive manner, Loti contrives to plunge us gradually
in the colour and silence and desolation of the wilder-



Pierre Loti



205



ness. His talent for bringing up before the eye delicate
and complicated schemes of aerial colour was never
more admirably exercised. He makes us realise that
we have left behind us the littleness and squalor of
humanity, lost in the hushed immensity of the land-
scape. There are no crises in his narrative; it proceeds
slowly onward, and, by a strange natural magic in the
narrator, we sweep onward with him. The absence of
salient features concentrates our attention on the vast
outlines of the scene. As they left the shores of the
Gulf of Suez, the travellers quitted their European
dress, and with it they seemed to have left the western
world behind. Every night, as they camped in dark-
ness, the granite peaks still incandescent about them,
the air full of warm aromatic perfumes, they descended
into a life without a future and without a past, into a
dim land somewhere behind the sun and the moon.

This is the class of impression which Pierre Loti is
particularly fortunate in rendering. We turn from his
pages to those of a traveller who was, in his own class,
an admirable writer, a quick and just observer. Forty
years before Loti set forth. Canon (afterwards Dean)
Stanley attempted almost exactly the same adventure,
and his Sinai and Palestine is still a classic. It is very
instructive to see how the same scenes struck two
such distinct minds, both so intelligent and subtle, but
the one a philosopher, the other an artist. One of the
most singular spots on the earth's surface must be the
desolate shore of the still more desolate Gulf of Akabah.
This is how Stanley regarded it : —

" What a sea ! what a shore ! From the dim silvery
mountains on the further Arabian coast, over the blue
waters of the sea, melting into colourless clearness as
they roll up the shelly beach— that beach red with the



2o6 French Profiles

red sand, or red granite gravel, that pours down from
the diffs above — those chffs sometimes deep red, some-
times yellow and purple, and above them all the blue
cloudless sky of Arabia. Of the red sand and rocks I
have spoken ; but, besides these, fragments of red coral
are for ever being thrown up from the shores below, and
it is these coralline forests which form the true ' weeds '
of this fantastic sea. But, above all, never did I see
such shells. Far as your eye can reach you can see
the beach whitening with them, like bleaching bones."

This is eloquent, and Stanley is seldom so much
moved. But how much broader is the palette on Loti's
thumb, and how much more vivid is his fragment of
the same landscape : —

" L'ensemble des choses est rose, mais il est comme
barre en son milieu par une longue bande infinie, presque
noire a force d'etre intensement bleue, et qu'il faudrait
peindre avec du bleu de Prusse pur legerement zebre
de vert emeraude. Cette bande, c'est la mer, I'invrai-
semblable mer d'Akabah ; elle coupe le desert en deux,
nettement, crument ; elle en fait deux parts, deux zones
d'une couleur d'hortensia, d'un rose exquis de nuage
de soir, ou, par opposition avec ces eaux aux couleurs
trop violentes et aux contours trop durs, tout semble
vaporeux, indecis a force de miroiter et d'eblouir, ou
tout etincelle de nacre, de granit et de mica, ou tout
tremble de chaleur et de mirage."

The analysis of such a passage as this, and it is not
exceptionally remarkable, tends to show the reader what
a singular, perhaps what an unprecedented gift Loti has
for recording, with absolute precision, the shades and
details of a visual effect. His travels in the desert, where
there is scarcely anything but elementary forms of light



Pierre Loti 207



and colour to be seen, have given him an unparalleled
opportunity for the exercise of a talent which is less
frequent than we are apt to suppose, and which no
recent French writer has possessed in equal measure.
There are pages of Le Desert with which there is nothing
in European literature, of their hmited class, to compare,
except certain of the atmospheric pictures in Fromentin's
two books and in Modern Painters. How bad this sort
of thing can be in clumsy hands, the gaudy sunsets of
William Black remind us. We turn in horror from the
thought, and re-read the descriptions in Le Desert of
morning and evening from the ramparts of the monastery
on Mount Sinai, of the enchanted oasis of Oued-el-Ain,
of the cemetery of Akabah at midnight. These, and a
score more pictures, seem to pass in the very reality of
vision before our eyes, as the author quietly rolls them
out of the magic lantern of his journal.

The lover of adventure will find nothing to excite
him in Loti's panorama. The Bedouins were amiable
and exacting, the expedition never lost its way, such
dangers as threatened it proved merely to be mirages.
If the travellers met a panther in a cave, it merely opened
half a yellow eye ; if robbers hovered in the distance,
they never came within rifle shot. Sir Henry Rider
Haggard would make our flesh creep in a single para-
graph more than the amiable French pilgrim does in his
whole volume. In the deep and sonorous desert Loti
went to seek, not a sword, but peace. One central
impression remains with the reader, of a great empty
red land, a silent Edom, red as when Diodorus Siculus
described it two thousand years ago, unchanging in its
dry and resonant sterility. Loti's book is simply the
record of a peaceful promenade, on the backs of swaying



2o8 French Profiles

dromedaries, across a broad corner of this vague and
rose-coloured infinity.

1895.

Jerusalem

In the midst of that persistent and maddening search
for novelty which is the malady, and at the same time
the absurdity, of our feverish age, there is present in
most of us an instinct of a diametrically opposite nature.
If no quarter of a century has ever flung itself against
the brazen door of the future with so crazy a determina-
tion to break into its secrets, to know, at all hazards,
what to-morrow is to be like, it is equally certain that
no previous epoch has observed with so deep an attention
the relics of the extreme past, nor listened with an ear
bent so low for a whisper from the childhood of the
world. The bustle of modern life cannot destroy our
primal sense of the impressiveness of mystery, and
nothing within our range of ideas is so mysterious as
the life which those led who imprinted on the face of
our earth indelible marks of their force two or even three
thousand years ago. Of all the human forces which
interest and perplex, those of the founders of religion
overpower the imagination most. If we can discover
on this earth a city which has been the cradle, not of
one mode of faith, but of many modes, we may be sure
that around the crumbling and defaced walls of that
city a peculiar enchantment must depend. There is
but one such place in the world, and no processes of
civilisation, no removal of barriers, no telegraphs or
railways, can part the idea of Jerusalem from its
extraordinary charm of sacrosanct remoteness. The
peculiar sentiment of Zion is well expressed for us in



Pierre LotI 209



the volume which Pierre Loti has dedicated to it, a
book which none of those who propose to visit the
Holy Land should fail to pack away in their trunks.
M. Loti is the charmer par excellence among living
writers. To him in higher degree than to any one else
is given the power of making us see the object he
describes, and of flooding the vision in the true, or at all
events the effective, emotional atmosphere. He has no
humour, or at least he does not allow it to intrude into
his work. To take up a book on the Holy Land, and to
find it jocose — what an appalling thing that would be !
We fancy that Jerusalem is one of the few cities which
Mark Twain has never described. May he long be
prevented from visiting it ! A sense of humour is an
excellent thing in its place ; but the ancient and mysteri-
ous cradles of religion are not its proper fields of exercise.
Mr. Jerome's Three Men do very well in a Boat ; but it
would require the temper of an archimandrite to sojourn
with them in Jerusalem. M. Loti is never funny; but
he is pre-eminently sensitive, acute, and sympathetic.

With most of us the idea of Jerusalem was founded
in childhood. We retain the impression of a clean,
brilliantly white city, with flat roofs and a few scattered
domes, perched on the crag of a mountain, while preci-
pices yawn below it and a broken desert spreads around.
To enhance the whiteness of the shining town, the sky
had usually been surcharged with tempest by the artist.
We formed the notion that if we could climb to its
neatly-fashioned gates and escape the terrors of the
dark gulfs below, something very exquisite — above all,
very fresh, trim, and lustrous — would reward us inside
those strange ramparts. It is thus that Jerusalem
appears to-day to hundreds of thousands of spiritual
pilgrims. The hymns we sing, and the sermons we
p



2 10 French Profiles

listen to support this illusion. They confound the
New Jerusalem with the old, and they suggest the
serenity and beauty of broad white streets and saintly
calm. Nothing could be falser to fact. The real
Jerusalem is what Lord Chesterfield calls, in another
sense, " a heterogeneous jumble of caducity." It is a
city that has turned reddish with the concentrated dust
of centuries. Under this coating of dust there lurk
fragments of all the civihsations which have swept over
it, one after the other, one in the steps of the other.

This is the solemnising (even the terrifying) aspect
of Jerusalem. Its composite monuments, in their
melancholy abandonment, speak of the horrors of its
historic past. Nowhere can this past be heard to speak
more plainly than in the wonderful kiosk, covered with
turquoise-coloured faience, which stands close to the
Mosque of Omar in the Haram-esh-Cherif. M. Loti
describes its double row of marble columns as a museum
of all the debris of the ages. Here are Greek and Roman
capitals, fragments of Byzantine and of Hebrew archi-
tecture; and among these comparatively historic speci-
mens there are others of a wild and unknown style, at
the sight of which the imagination goes back to some
forgotten art of the primitive Jebusites, the very nature
of which is lost in the obscurity of remote time. It is
the peculiarity of Jerusalem that, whilst nothing has
been completely preserved, nothing has been wholly
lost. Jealous rehgions have fought with one another
for the possession of this rocky sanctuary which they
all have claimed. None has entirely succeeded, and
gradually all have settled down to an uneasy toleration,
each scraping away the dust and fashioning an altar
for itself among cyclopean stones which were ancient
in the days of Solomon, inside fortifications which Herod



Pierre Loti 21 1



may have built over the place of martyrdom of some
primitive and fabulous saint.

At the very foot of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, where
the path has crossed the Kedron and is just about to
mount again towards Gethsemane, there is an extraor-
dinary example of this sordid and multifarious sanctity.
A melancholy mausoleum is seen, in the midst of which
an ancient iron door admits to the Tomb of the Virgin,
a church of the fourth century, which, for more than
a thousand years, has been the theatre of incessant
ecclesiastical battle. At the present moment the
Western Churches are excluded from this singular con-
venticle; but the Greeks, the Armenians, the Syrians,
the Abyssinians, the Copts, and even the Mahometans,
make themselves at home in it. The visitor enters, and
is met by darkness and a smell of damp and mildew.
A staircase, dimly perceived before him, leads down
into the bowels of the earth, and presently introduces
him to a church, which is more like a grotto than a
human construction, and continues to sink lower as he
proceeds. This strange cavern is dimly lighted by
hundreds of gold and silver lamps, of extreme antiquity,
hung from the low roof in wreaths and garlands. Within
this agitating place, which is full of dark corners and ends
of breakneck stairs that climb to nothing, five or six
religions, each halting the rest, carry on simultaneously
their ancient rituals, and everywhere there ascend dis-
cord of incoherent prayer and distracted singing, with
candles waving and incense burning, processions in
mediaeval brocades that disturb kneeling pilgrims in
the green turban of Mecca ; a chaos of conflicting religions
humming and hurrying in the darkness of this damp
and barbarous cavern. Nothing could give a stronger
impression of the bewildered genius of Jerusalem.



212 French Profiles

It was the privilege of M. Loti to be admitted to the
arcane treasuries of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem,
a privilege which, we understand him to say, no previous
traveller has enjoyed. Under the special patronage of
His Beatitude the Patriarch, and after a strange diplo-
matic entertainment of coffee, cigarettes, and a conserve
of rose-leaves, the French writer was permitted to visit
one of the oldest and most curious churches in Jerusalem.
Its walls and all its massive pillars are covered with the
lovely azure porcelain which is the triumph of ancient
Arabic art. The thrones of the Patriarchs are wrought
in mosaics of mother-of-pearl of an almost prehistoric
workmanship. From the roof hang golden lamps and
ostrich-eggs mounted in silver, while the marble floors
are concealed from view under thick Turkey carpets
of extreme antiquity, faded into exquisite harmonies
of yellow, blue, and rose-colour. It was in front of the
high altar, in the midst of all this profusion of superb,
archaic decoration, that pale priests, with clear-cut
profiles and black silky beards, brought out to M. Loti
one by one the pieces of their incomparable and unknown
Treasure,— a missal presented nearly seven hundred years
ago by a Queen of Cilicia, mitres heavy with emeralds
and pearls, tiaras of gold and rubies, fairy-like textures
of pale crimson, embroidered with lavish fohage of
pearl-work, in which the flowers are emeralds and each
fruit is a topaz. Then, by little doors of mother-of-
pearl, under ancient hangings of velvet, through sacristies
lined with delicate porcelain, the visitor was hurried from
chapel to chapel, each stranger and more archaic than the
last, while his conductor, as though speaking of the latest
historical event which had come to his knowledge, loudly
lamented the cruelties of that sacrilegious king Khosroes
II. and the ravages he had committed in Jerusalem.



Pierre Loti 213



This is an excellent specimen of the surprises that the
sacred city reserves for pious visitors. It is a mass of
decrepit fragments, a dust-heap of the religions of
centuries upon centuries, preserving here and there,
under the mask of its affliction and its humiliation,
folded away in its mysterious sanctuaries, remnants of
the beauty of the past so complete, so isolated, and so
poignant, that the imagination finds it almost painful
to contemplate them. " Jerusalem, if thou hadst
known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things
which belong unto thy peace ! But now they are hid
from thine eyes."

1895.

La Galilee

The trilogy of travel is now concluded with La Galilee.
The completed work certainly forms the most picturesque
description of the Holy Land and its surroundings which
has yet been given to the world. We close this third
volume with a sense of having really seen the places
which had been a sort of sacred mystery to us from
earliest childhood. Loti is a master of enchantment,
and so cunningly combines the arts of harmony and
colour in writing that he carries us, as though we were
St. Thomas, whither we would not. In other words, by
the strange and scarcely analyzable charm of his style,
he bewitches us beyond our better judgment. But a
reaction comes, and we are obliged to admit that in the
case of La Galilee it has come somewhat soon.

It was only while reading this third volume that we
became conscious that Pierre Loti was doing rather a
mechanical thing. In Le Desert we were ready to beheve
that nothing but the fascination of wild places took him
across the wilderness and up into that grotesque shrine



214 French Profiles

of Christianity that lurks among the fierce pinnacles of
Mount Sinai. In Jerusalem, led away by the pathos
of the scene and the poignant grace of the pilgrim's
reflections, we still persuaded ourselves to see in him
one who withdrew from the turmoil of the West that he
might worship among the dead upon Mount Moriah.
But in La Galilee the illusion disappears. Loti crosses
Palestine, embarks upon the Sea of Gennesaret, ascends
Mount Hermon, winds down into the rose-oasis of
Damascus, no longer as the insouciant and aristocratic
wanderer, " le Byron de nos jours," but as a tourist
like ourselves, wrapped in a burnous, it is true, and not
personally conducted by Messrs. Cook & Sons, yet not
the less surely an alien, manufacturing copy for the
press. He is revealed as the " special correspondent,"
bound, every night, however weary he may be, to " pan
out " sufficient description to fill a certain space on the
third page of the " Figaro."

There is nothing dishonourable in being a special
correspondent, nor is there a journalist living who might
not envy Pierre Loti the suppleness and fluid felicity of
his paragraphs. But this is not the light in which we
have learned to know him. He has very carefully taught
us to regard him as one to whom literature is indifferent,
who never looks at a newspaper, whose impressions of
men and manners are formed in lands whither his duties
as a sailor have casually brought him, who writes of them
out of the fullness of his heart, in easy exquisite numbers
cast forth as the bird casts its song. We have had an
idea that Loti never looks at a proof, that some comrade
picks up the loose leaves as they flutter in the forecastle,
and sends them surreptitiously to kind M. Calmann
Levy. When he is elected to the French Academy, he
is the last to know it, and wonders, as he is rowed back



Pierre Loti



215



from some Algerian harbour, what his men are shouting
about on board his ship. All this is the legend of Loti,
and we have nourished and cherished it, but it will not
bear the fierce light that beats upon La Galilee. We
cannot pretend any longer; we cannot force ourselves
to think of a romantic pilgrim of the sea, flung ashore
at Aleppo and wandering vaguely up into the spurs of
Carmel. Certainly not ! This is a Monsieur Loti who
is travelling in the pay of an enterprising Parisian
newspaper, who does his work very conscientiously,
but who is sometimes not a little bored with it.

The reader, who finds out that he has been played
with, grows captious and unjust. The result of dis-
covering that Pierre Loti, notwithstanding the burnous
and the Arab carpets, is nothing better than a glorified
commis voyagcur, has made us crusty. We are displeased
that he should travel so fast, and be willing to scamper
through the whole of " ce pays sacre de Galil " in six
weeks. It is really no matter of ours whether he fingers
or not, and yet we resent that he should push on as
monotonously as any of the Cookites do, about whom
he is so sarcastic. Our disgust invades us even when
we read the famous descriptions ; we feel, not that they
impressed themselves irresistibly upon him, but that
he went out for the purpose of making them, and made
them as fast as he could. He becomes, to our affronted
fancy, a sort of huge and infinitely elaborate photo-
graphic machine, making exquisite kodaks as his guides
hurry him along. All this, we admit, is very unfair, but
it exemplifies the danger of admitting the public too
far into the works of the musical box. We find our-
selves glancing back at our old favourites with horrid
new suspicions. Was he paid so much a line to make
love to his plaintive bride in Tahiti ? Did some news-



21 6 French Profiles

paper cngaf^e Inm to pursue Aziyadc so madly through
tlic Icugdi and ijicadlh of Stamboul ? Was the Press
kept waiting while 'lanlc (Claire was dying ? These are
hideous questions, and \v(^ thrust llicni from us, but
l^ierre Loti should really be mad(; to realise that the
romantic, attachment which his readers bear him is a
tender i)lanl. lie holds Ihem because he is so wayworn
and desolalc, but if lie read his Shelley he would learn
that " desolation is ;i drlicalr lliiug."

We would not be s»ij)posed to deny that La GaliUe
is full of pages which I.oli only could write, pictures
which he alone could jjaint. Here is a nuirvellous
vignette of that sondne and sepulchral city of Nablous,
so rarely visited by (^hristians, so isolated in its notorious
bigotry, which an outrage; on a small Protestant mission
lias just brought pronnnently before us. Here is


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryEdmund GosseFrench profiles → online text (page 14 of 25)