John Antoine Nau (1860–1918), real name Eugène Léon Édouard Torquet, was a French poet and writer most famous for his novel Enemy Force, which won the first Prix Goncourt in 1903.
He was born on November 19, 1860, in San Francisco, California and was thus an American citizen. His father, an engineer and businessman, had emigrated from France to California about 1845 and become a naturalized citizen. Attacked by typhus, he died in 1864, leaving a widow and three children. In 1866 they returned to France, first to Le Havre and then to Paris. In 1881 at the age of 21 years Nau boarded a three-master doing business in Haiti and the West Indies as a pilot’s assistant. Later he became Assistant Commissioner and traveled to Colombia, Venezuela and New York.
He returned to France during 1883 and married in 1885. For their honeymoon Nau and his bride went to Martinique, planning to stay, but family obligations forced them to return to France. Nau would never return to Martinique. In 1886 he lived in San Raphaél; 1887 in Piriac; then elsewhere. While living in Carteret in La Manche he wrote his first book of poetry, Au seuil de l’espoir (On the Threshold of Hope), which he published in 1897 at his own expense. He was 37 years old. Then to Majorca in 1898, to Tenerife in the Canaries. In Puerto de la Orotava he began his novel, finished in Andalusia. Between 1903 and 1906 he settled in Saint Tropez. In 1903, again at his own expense, he published Enemy Force. It was a commercial failure, and was not even reviewed because the author did not send it to the critics. But he never wrote to make a living; he wrote only for his own pleasure. He relocated to Algers, then to Corsica for seven years (his record). The war caused him to return to Paris from 1916–17, then to Tréboul in Brittany, where he died on March 17, 1918, at the age of 57 years.
In 1903, age 43, he was awarded the first Prix Goncourt for Enemy Force, his first novel. It tells the story of Phillipe Veuly, a poet, who awakens in an insane asylum. He does not know how he got there or why, but learns this in time. He becomes enamored of a female inmate who eventually leaves, he becomes inhabited by a being from another planet, is tortured by the ‘doctors’ of the establishment, escapes and travels the world in search of the female ex-patient. Darkly humorous and satirical, it is considered by many to be a forgotten masterpiece of science fiction.
It is said that he was called Gino by family and friends and thus his name—pronounced the same as J. Nau in French; and that it is a mixture of his American birth (John) and French heritage (Antoine); and that Nau means ‘vessel’ in Catalan, showing his love for the sea; and that it is in homage to the Haitian poet Ignace Nau; or all or none of the above.
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