Victor Segalen

Victor Segalen (1878-1919) was born in Brest and trained as a naval doctor. His first literary work, Les Immémoriaux, is based on his experiences in Tahiti, where he held a medical post for roughly two years. Written upon his return to France in 1905, the book, part novel, part documentary, looks at the influence of French missionaries on native life, and departs from other colonial writings of its time by taking up the perspective of the colonized. In 1909, after studying Chinese for a year, Segalen made the first of many journeys to China, participating in several archaeological expeditions. The hieratic prose poems collected in Stèles (1912), his masterpiece novel, René Leys (1922), and Equipée (1929), an account of an imaginary expedition, were all inspired by his contact with Chinese culture. His other works range from Le Fils du ciel, an early novel about China, and a long prose poem, Thibet—both unpublished during his lifetime—to various essays on the arts and especially on the works of Gauguin and Rimbaud, as well as two libretti for his friend the composer Claude Debussy. Segalen’s death at the age of forty-one remains a mystery: his body was discovered in a Breton forest, bloodied, though the only apparent injury was to his ankle, with The Complete Works of Shakespeare opened to Hamlet alongside.