“The Italian Invert: Intimate Confessions of a Homosexual to Émile Zola” by Michael Rosenfeld and William Peniston— Uncensored

Rosenfeld, Michael and William Peniston. “The Italian Invert: Intimate Confessions of a Homosexual to Émile Zola”, Harrington, 2020.


Amos Lassen

In the late 1880s, a young Italian aristocrat confesses his life story to the famous novelist Émile Zola. He candidly describes his seduction as a teenager by one of his father’s (male) friends, his first love affair with a sergeant in his military regiment, and his “extraordinary” personality. Judging it too controversial, Zola felt that it was all too controversial so he gave it to a young doctor, Georges Saint-Paul, who published a censored version in 1896 in a medical study on sexual perversion. A few months later, the Italian finds this medical treatise in a bookstore and is shocked to discover that the doctor censored and distorted the most daring parts of his text in order to support his own theories. His protest comes via a long, unapologetic, and even more daring letter to the doctor, defending his right to lead his own life.

The book is based on the newly discovered manuscript of the letter to the doctor, along with some additional resources. This edition is the first complete, unexpurgated version in English of this very famous gay autobiography. We read about the uniquely nineteenth-century experience of a privileged young man, forthrightly expressing his desires and defending his right to pleasure. Additionally, there are two analytical essays―one by Michael Rosenfeld on the relationship between Zola, Saint-Paul, and the Italian “invert,” and the other by Clive Thomson on the doctor’s career and they give further context to this story.

What makes this book unique is that a gay man frankly describes his desires, loves and life at the end of the nineteenth century. Originally written in French and previously published in censored versions only, recently discovered manuscripts lets readers discover (for the first time) in English the complete story of this young Italian aristocrat who dared to defend his right to sexual pleasure. As an original source for the study of autobiographical texts as historical documents, this is quite a historical document.  Researchers in Jewish studies will be interested in the author’s revelations about his Jewish mother and her family. It is also an important addition to existing publications for historians of medicine, psychology, and sexology.

A brilliant archival discovery, a triumph of careful scholarship, an unsuspected episode in modern literature, a moving testimony about sex and love, and a fascinating, previously censored chapter in the history of sexuality. This is a classic text of nineteenth-century sexology and it also contains here with critical notes, and gives us a revised and expanded version of the primary documents available in English. It also adds important essays that situate and enlarge their scope.

The uncensored letters of the young Italian homosexual . are an autobiographical account inspired by the long tradition of letters sent to great writers by anonymous readers. . It is still relevant as a manifesto that protests medical dogma and defends the right to happiness and love between men.

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