Coming Out without the Vocabulary
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Published in: January-February 2023 issue.


A Gay Man’s Intimate Confessions to Émile Zola
Edited by Michael Rosenfeld with William A. Peniston
Columbia U.  Press. 272 pages, $30.



SOME TIME around 1888, a 23-year-old Italian aristocrat wrote an anonymous, undated letter to the French writer Émile Zola, in which he confessed to “the plight of a soul who seems to be pursued by a horrible fatality.” The Italian—who described himself as “a pretty, cute, perfumed, irreproachably elegant, frivolous, and secretly debauched being”—was a homosexual, and he wanted to give Zola, an author he greatly admired, material the French master might use in one of his novels.

            To that end, the Italian recounted his experiences as an adolescent, when he first realized that he felt an irresistible attraction to men. He told Zola about his early passions: a love of literature, the pomp of Catholicism, and “dresses with trains.” He was particularly keen on the heroes of the Trojan War, especially Paris, “imagining myself as Andromache in order to be able to hold him in my arms.” As for his sexual awakening, by thirteen he had learned about masturbation from the family’s groom; another servant let him stroke his “virile member.”

            During the Italian’s military service, when the contrast between his pretty face and his hussar’s uniform lent him the “charms of a transvestite,” he enjoyed his first consummated homosexual experience with a barracks mate. When the friend was killed in a drunken quarrel, the Italian vowed “not to revert to the horrible error of my senses.”

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Philip Gambone, a regular contributor to these pages, is the author of As Far As I Can Tell: Finding My Father in World War II (2020).