Review by Vincenzo Bavaro
Derek Duncan, Reading and Writing Italian Homosexuality: A Case of Possible Difference, Ashgate, Hampshire, UK, 2006, pp 178.
Homosexuality. I must admit that at first the word didn’t look “right” to me on the cover of Duncan’s 2006 book. I was wrong. Living in New York city for a few years now, I don’t hear or read that word very often; the words that I hear the most in my communities are queer, gay, or lgbt (I almost never add the q and the i, but this is another story). In Italian, “homosexual” is, together with “gay”, still predominant, and queer as a word is almost absent from the public discourse. But the few times that I hear or use the word “homosexual” in English is either when someone is mimicking a repressive, pseudo-scientific or pseudo-religious voice or for a clear ironic purpose. This perceived difference of uses of the word between a U.S. queer capital and Italy may be eloquent, and in some way it goes towards the direction pointed by Duncan’s work.
By choosing the H word, Derek Duncan is making a first, significant gesture: disentangling his work from both the powerful legacy of modern gay identity—evocative of struggles, civil rights, community, pluralism, marketing—and the influential and potentially disruptive academic discourse on queer subjectivities, while at the same time engaging some of the crucial questions born out of both queer theory and gay liberation. Reading and Writing Italian Homosexuality is the first book in English to examine constructions of male homosexuality in Italian literature. The author tries to map and investigate the emersion of “something like a subject” in twentieth-century Italian literature, focusing on writers and texts spanning from D’Annunzio to the late 1990’s, thus considering dramatically dissimilar cultural and social contexts. Whereas in the first half of the book Duncan reads literary works produced when homosexuality as a concept was yet to be crystallized—let alone crystallized in the terms that we are familiar with now—the latter half engages with writers and texts coming from a post-Gay Liberation Movement era, with a somewhat distinct level of cultural and political gay self-awareness.
Besides the different understandings of homosexuality within the book itself, the author highlights the possibility of a specific difference for the Italian literary and cultural context, hence the book’s subtitle; for Italian studies scholars may be helpful to consider the specific history of sexuality in the Italian national and international context. For Northern Europeans, as Duncan’s introduction reminds us, Italy has traditionally been seen as a “hot-bed of sodomitical practice” and, as a country, it has nurtured the myth of so-called “Mediterranean bisexuality” which on the one hand emphasizes the virile masculinity of Italian men, while on the other fantasizes on their sexual freedom. In some sense it may read like this: “all Italian men are straight, and all of them have occasionally sex with other men”.
Interestingly enough, this entire discourse on Italian men’s (homo)sexuality highlighted by this view from abroad has generally been unrecognized and unspoken of within the country. A fascinatingly productive side-effect of this imagery, however, is that in Italy sexual acts and sexual identifications have a tradition of being thought of as independent one from the other: men having sex with other men were still likely to consider themselves and to be considered comfortably straight. Italy has never had a cultural figure like Oscar Wilde or André Gide to ignite both a national debate on homosexuality and a literary “tradition”. Contrarily, representations of homosexuality in Italian letters seems to be characterized by silence, reticence and, as Francesco Gnerre would say, “masking”. Instead of reading them through the lens of a well-established binary between expression and repression, Derek Duncan investigates brilliantly the specific cultural locations of these literary and sexual articulations, the discursive production of “something like a subject” through the act of writing and reading literature.
One of Duncan’s major interests is the body, the body of the homosexual and its legibility. At the beginning of the book the author evokes the Fascist laws introduced in the Thirties to “defend the race” and the attempts by a public prosecutor in Catania to identify and consequently repress through forced exile/relocation the city’s homosexuals. The suspects were subjected to medical examinations and convicted as “passive pederasts”. The evocation of the Fascist “Race Laws” not only points to the necessity of both “reading” the homosexual body and producing its inherent difference, but introduces also the issues of racial degeneracy and racial identity that will prove extremely effective in some of the following chapters.
In the opening chapter on Gabriele D’Annunzio, Duncan first evokes Cesare Lombroso’s (1835-1909) influential ideas of homosexuality as an atavistic symptom akin to criminality: the proof of homosexuality was to be found on the body of the “born invert”, in a series of clearly recognizable traits. As far as the choice of sexual objects is concerned, D’Annunzio’s men are resolutely straight; however, bearing in mind Lombroso’s etiology of homosexuality, Duncan suggests that some homosexual traits do characterize them. By investigating D’Annunzio’s ambiguous articulations of masculinity, and particularly the tensions governing the relations between men, Duncan reveals a crisis in nineteenth-century normative heterosexuality.
In Chapter 3 the critic’s close reading focuses on Giovanni Comisso’s travel writings from Asia in 1932 (articles published on newspapers and decades later fictionalized as autobiographical accounts), part of the government cultural project aimed at developing a “colonialist spirit in the Italian nation to lend support to Mussolini’s imperial, militaristic ambition”. Comisso’s texts reveal not only his (and Italy’s) orientalism, but also the strategies enacted by an individual writer in order to cope with the dominant discourses on racial identity and sexuality while struggling with his own homosexual desire. The erotic commodification of the East in Comisso’s texts is coupled with the production of a pastoral space, boundless and out of time, where homosexuality is possible, and is indeed “part of the package”.
Duncan’s treatment of race, as it intersects with male sexuality, is extremely fascinating. According to Fascist imagery, homosexuality was a threat from abroad, it was something foreign to the “Italian race”; similarly, many of the antifascist writers also embraced heterosexuality as a defining feature of resistance, often depicting Fascists and Nazis as feminized or homosexual males. Chapter 2 focuses explicitly on race and space through a reading of Vasco Pratolini’s Il quartiere (1944) and Giorgio Bassani’s Dietro la porta (1964), interrogating their position and their representations of masculinity within this cultural context.
Chapter 4 investigates Pier Paolo Pasolini’s representation of the male body. Duncan recognizes the disturbing position that Pasolini occupies within the contemporary Italian gay culture, and after analyzing the author’s misreading of the allegedly Arab body in Il fiore delle mille e una notte, he reads Pasolini’s depiction of Friuli with some of Eve K. Sedgwick’s considerations on the functions of the “closet” as a problematic space of confinement where homosexual desires can be articulated. Finally, Duncan highlights the writer’s eroticization of poverty and his conflation of sexuality and class difference, his overall envisioning of a somewhat archaic model of homosexuality.
The last two chapters, together with an excellent Afterword, are my favorites, and probably the most compelling in Duncan’s work: they have the cohesion, and a steady pace that sometimes lack in some articulations in the first half of the book. Chapter 5 analyzes two works by Pier Vittorio Tondelli. We first learn about the technologies of gender and sexuality at work in the military, and the potentialities of a gay alliance, through a reading of Pao Pao (1982), a work stimulated, in Duncan’s view, by the energy and optimism of the gay liberation movement and the pioneering gay organization FUORI. The national reception of this book paradoxically tended to ignore the homosexual element altogether. Similarly, Camere Separate (1989) is a book that is generally read as an AIDS novel abroad, contrarily to what happened in Italy where critics sought to minimize the very significance of the characters’ homosexuality. The novel can highlight the peculiar history of AIDS representations in Italy and its related silences. The last chapter investigates precisely the balance between silence and expression in gay autobiography, by articulating a brilliant critique of works by Mario Fortunato, Pino Pelosi, Piergiorgio Paterlini, and Brett Shapiro, among others.
Derek Duncan’s Reading and Writing Italian Homosexuality is clearly a significant contribution to the field of Italian Studies and gay studies. I was generally impressed by his intelligent intertwining of complex networks of signification: sexuality, gender, race, geography and space, cultural and historical specificity, class, education. His bibliography is stunning, both in terms of his theoretical sources, and the way he reads them, and in terms of the Italian primary sources. Readers will have the opportunity of learning about minor authors and to reevaluate the centrality of established and young writers. I hope that Duncan’s work will be the first of an enduring investigation on Italian homosexuality, and I hope that Italian studies scholars in the Italian universities will join the conversation soon.
- Vincenzo Bavaro holds a PhD in English at the University of Rome “Sapienza” and is currently a Fulbright graduate student at Dartmouth College, NH, USA. He has done research in American Studies, Queer Theory and Ethnic Studies at the Kennedy Institute in Berlin and New York University. He is a contributor in Queerdom. Gender Displacements in a Transnational Context (Bergamo University Press, 2009).