Finn on Rosenfeld, ed. with Peniston.; trans. by Erber and Peniston (2022)

Rosenfeld, Michael, editor, with William A. Peniston; translated by Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston. The Italian Invert: A Gay Man’s Intimate Confessions to Émile Zola Columbia UP, 2022, pp. xxiv + 244, ISBN 9780231204880

The work under review is an adaptation and a translation of Confessions d’un homosexuel à Émile Zola, edited by Michael Rosenfeld and published in 2017 by Nouvelles Éditions Place. The study is a detailed, finely crafted archival reconstruction of two late nineteenth-century confessions. Dr. Georges Saint-Paul was first editor of these documents and explorations of the Saint-Paul family archives and those of Émile Zola have recovered a wealth of material that now frame the two confessions: exchanges of letters with Zola, unpublished fragments of text, deletions, the original French of episodes published in Latin, and Saint-Paul’s sometimes arbitrary alterations to the original confessions.

This richly documented study offers the reader an irresistible window into what we might call the quarrel of homosexuality at the turn of the 19th century. Members of the powerful medical community, a few of them actual specialists of sexology, were thought to wield the scientific truth on what constituted the sexually natural. Opposing such certainty but also looking to science to help explain their own “abnormality” were a range of homosexual men inspired by a profound desire to see the subject of homosexuality addressed more accurately in some public way. This was the case of a gay Italian with elegant French who wrote to the novelist Zola in 1889.

The Italian homosexual, who has never been identified (however the editor includes an imagined family tree for him), hoped that his vivid account of a homosexual man’s life and loves might perhaps work as the basis for a novel by the prestigious author of the Rougon-Macquart. But Zola demurred, unable to imagine how to fit such an explicit, gay confession into publishable form. The letter therefore sat dormant in his files. Meanwhile, a young doctor named Georges Saint-Paul, had contacted Zola requesting comments on his proposed medical thesis topic. The two became acquainted, and Zola handed over the unworkable confession to Saint-Paul who first published it in the journal Archives d’anthropologie criminelle (1894–95). The following year Saint-Paul, signing his name as Dr. Laupts, made it a centerpiece of his study Tares et poisons. Perversion et perversités sexuelles, titling the Italian’s confession Roman d’un inverti-né [Novel of a Born Invert; henceforth, Novel].

But here a truly exciting second archival story begins. For the anonymous Italian obtained a copy of Tares et poisons, read his own story and Zola’s letter handing over the Novel to Laupts. Taken aback by the medical framing of his confession, the Italian penned a second confession titled by Laupts Suite du roman d’un inverti-né (henceforth, the Sequel). The manuscript of the Sequel was discovered by Alain Pagès in 2011 in Saint-Paul’s papers.

The manuscript of the Novel is lost, but Rosenfeld has unearthed a separate, handwritten document where Saint-Paul recorded some fifteen sections of the original Novel which he censured, translating some of these into Latin. With the manuscript of the Sequel in hand, Rosenfeld demonstrates in some detail how the text of this second confession was massaged, edited, reordered, and abridged to shift its lessons to correspond more closely to medical wisdom of the day about male on male love. (Indeed, writes Rosenfeld, Saint-Paul published only about one third of the actual Sequel.) The editors question the scientific basis of questionnaires that Saint-Paul developed to guide doctors in identifying and interviewing homosexuals; they also grant that Saint-Paul encouraged interviewees to discuss and explain their own inclinations.

The two confessions together make a powerful read. It is impossible not to be moved, even humbled, by some of the Italian’s admissions. The discussion of erotic tastes and casual sex encounters is set against the backdrop of a profound attachment to two individuals: the Italian’s first real love, an officer he met during military service, and “le capitaine,” an older man, rougher, satyr-like, but an unforgettable, polished sexual coach. The text also makes clear that the Italian is narcissistic to a fault. He writes, after describing at length the beauty of his physical traits, “I don’t believe I have told you about my hands, which are truly superb” (92). One notable difference between the Novel and the Sequel is the attitude of the Italian to his sexual lifestyle. In the former, one encounters much self-flagellation: he is debauched, his love life is a “depravity;” he cannot enjoy sex body and soul; he has a cruel streak. Seven years later, his attitude in the Sequel is calmer: “I know what I am and what I want” (102).

Often Saint-Paul feels compelled to circumscribe the Italian’s exuberance: the latter’s defense of homosexuality, an abnormality, is exaggerated, overly ardent. When the Italian writes that homosexuality is “an error of the heart,” the doctor substitutes “[it is] an inherited vice” (139). Honesty about his early gender trouble leaves the Italian open to medical categorization. Nevertheless he includes in his confession the following text which Saint-Paul translated into Latin and listed under passages to be suppressed: “One of my regrets is that I cannot receive [my lover’s] ejaculation, his semen that to me is virtually the essence of his being, inside my body. This is perhaps my greatest regret, and maybe I will never stop regretting not being a woman” (82).

The editors demonstrate that a number of Zola’s depictions of homosexual characters were influenced by his reading of the Italian’s confession. Zola mused in preparatory notes about including a gay character in La Bête humaine. Maurice and Jean in Le Débacle appear to act out a love/passion that imitates an episode in the Novel. And there are more resemblances in Paris and La Curée.

Zola’s distaste for homosexuals is well documented. He stated that shaking hands with a gay man in a social situation caused an instinctive repulsion. But in his letter/preface to the Novel, Zola shows much compassion for the homosexual, born naturally as he or she is. Yet it seems as well that his attitude was inevitably attached to his fervent natalism. His preface to the Novel concludes with this remark: “Man and Woman are surely here on earth only in order to have children and they destroy life the day when they no longer do what they must.” Or, as Zola put it less elegantly: “So much seed is wasted in Paris in one night. What a pity that all of it does not engender children” (194, note 12).

The second half of the The Italian Invert is less focussed editorially on the confessions and more on sidebar issues, perhaps two of which are important. Saint-Paul’s questionnaire and guide for interviewing homosexuals spell out in wounding detail what it meant to be a homosexual in 1896. In a view that evolved only slightly over the years, Saint-Paul maintained that homosexuality was a malady, a defect, that there were few such individuals in France, and that the defect was contagious.

The Italian Invert is an inviting work. Although writers of confessions were not necessarily writers per se, their narratives form a vibrant part of a fin-de-siècle surge in writing about unconventional sexuality. They register and look forward to the challenges medicine would face as gay writers sought truth in fiction and the imaginative, and not in science. The Novel and the Sequel are vibrant confessions, and what persists in the mind after a reading of The Italian Invert is nothing literary but the passionate outpouring of a desire that longs for human understanding and liberation from judgement.

Michael R. Finn
Toronto Metropolitan University