He was born in
Vichy, the only child of a
pharmacist. His father died when he was 8, and he was brought up by his mother and aunt. His father had been owner of the
Vichy Saint-Yorre mineral water springs, and the family fortune assured him an easy life. He travelled Europe in style. On luxury liners and the
Orient Express he carried off the
dandy role, with spa visits to nurse fragile health.
Poèmes par un riche amateur, published in 1908, received
Octave Mirbeau's vote for
prix Goncourt. Three years later, his novel
Fermina Márquez, inspired by his days as a boarder at Sainte-Barbe-des-Champs at
Fontenay-aux-Roses, had some prix Goncourt votes in 1911 but did not win; nonetheless, it is still considered to be a minor classic of French literature and one of Larbaud's best known works.
He spoke six languages including English, Italian and Spanish. In France he helped translate and popularise
Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Samuel Butler, and
James Joyce, whose
Ulysses was translated by Auguste Morel (1924–1929) under Larbaud's supervision.
At home in Vichy, he saw as friends
Léon-Paul Fargue and Jean Aubry, his future biographer. An attack of
aphasia in 1935 left him paralysed. Having spent his fortune, he had to sell his property and 15,000 book library. Despite his illness, he continued to receive many honorary titles, and in 1952 he was awarded the
Grand prix national des Lettres.
prix Valery Larbaud was created in 1957 by L'Association Internationale des Amis de Valery Larbaud, a group founded to promote the author's work. Past winners of this yearly award include
J.M.G. Le Clézio,
Emmanuel Carrère, and