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Translation of book about gay life in Europe goes into second printing

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


"Third Sex" book cover
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"The Third Sex" is a gay guidebook to the back door/backstreet/underground institutions of homosexuality, quite literally – the bars, casinos, clubs, dance halls and saunas – in France, Germany and Italy. First published in Paris in 1927, the book – the first of its kind – had all but disappeared.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Within only a few months of its release in English, a university press’s exposé of the hidden “queer world” of Europe in the 1920s is going into a second printing.

“Anybody who thinks scholarship is for the stuffy needs to rethink modern translation,” said Willis Regier, the director of the University of Illinois Press, which just published “The Third Sex.”

The book is a gay guidebook to the back door/backstreet/underground institutions of homosexuality, quite literally – the bars, casinos, clubs, dance halls and saunas – in France, Germany and Italy. First published in Paris in 1927, the book – the first of its kind – had all but disappeared.

No one knows who wrote the book, but the popular French novelist, “Willy” – a pseudonym for Henry Gauthier-Villars – signed it. Gauthier-Villars “most assuredly did not write it,” says the person who translated it, Lawrence R. Schehr, a professor at the University of Illinois and an eminent scholar of 19th- and 20th-century French literature and queer studies.

According to Schehr, Gauthier-Villars was something of a literary magpie – even worse, a word-thieving intellectual scoundrel – who made a cottage industry out of hiring ghostwriters, keeping them locked up until they produced, paying them a pittance and then slapping his name on their works. He even operated this way with Colette, the French novelist, who also was his wife for a time.

Whoever he was, the author reveals some of the most conspicuous and some of the most covert homosexual venues and personalities of the era.

The reader will learn about “Magic-City,” “Chez ma Cousine” and “Leon’s,” and larger-than-life personalities such as Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a champion for sexual tolerance; Barbette, the American transvestite trapeze artist; and Marcel Proust, among others.

Schehr rediscovered and recovered the “lost” book, then arduously translated, annotated and introduced the new edition, which was published in mid-September. Although slim, the book is full of piquant notes referencing people, places and puns.

Schehr had known about the French version for some time, but when he went to track it down while doing research for another book, he couldn’t find a copy anywhere; every known copy, save one, was either missing or reported stolen.

“The motive, I surmise, was the beauty of the cover,” Schehr said, conceding that it was the cover that drew him to the project.

The cover is by anyone’s standards alluring: an androgynous Boy George-ish face provocatively framed. Not surprisingly, the U. of I. Press used the original cover design for its translation.

Schehr eventually found an original copy of “Le Troisieme Sexe” in the rare-book room of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (the French National Library, the equivalent of the Library of Congress). With the help of several used-book dealers, he flushed out a few more copies and donated one of them to the U. of I. Library; it, in turn, made a facsimile copy of the book that could be sent out on interlibrary loans.

All of Schehr’s investigative and scholarly efforts have paid off. Not only is the translation selling well, but the book is bringing to light a wealth of cultural, intellectual and historical information previously unknown to most readers of English. For example, “Willy” observes:

• “Germany is undoubtedly the only modern country that raises pederasty to the level of a philosophical institution. It flourishes abundantly and proliferates in the virile fatherland of Il Duce.”

• “The Isle of Capri is a sodomic capital in miniature, the Mecca of inversion, a Geneva or a Moscow of the future internationalism of homosexuality.”

• Proust “expanded his mind and carefully hid his life. This man of the world flirted willingly, as we all know, with ‘budding young women.’ And he even loved, very intensely and very purely a dazzling blonde. Assuredly, his flirtations did not all succeed, but who could brag about hitting the bull’s-eye every time?”

Schehr concedes that “Willy’s” morally superior attitude and condescending language may strike some readers as “problematic” and that his overall strategy of mixing pseudo-scientific discourses, deprecating remarks and titillating anecdotes “may not have been the most convincing and certainly would not be today.” However, readers must remember, Schehr said, that Willy was taking on a subject – homosexuality and the practice of it – “that, in the public’s mind, was both offensive and fascinating.”

“In so doing, he actually succeeds in making it more palatable to some, by showing both its ubiquity and its total ordinariness. Gay culture is all around you, he seems to be saying. Don’t think that this is something recondite, perverse, or esoteric. Just take the metro to Place Blanche and walk north on the rue Lepic – you’ll find it soon enough.”

Reviewers have been enthusiastic about the quirky little book.

A New York Times critic wrote: “This slender volume offers a fascinating glimpse not so much of exotic homosexual practices but of something much more delicate and transitory: the moment just before homosexuality became an identity, before sexual acts had been organized into the solid categories we recognize and traffic in today.

“A collision of conflicting impulses and wildly incongruous discourses, ‘The Third Sex’ does not know what it is – gay Baedeker, cautionary tale, scientific treatise, literary essay, opportunity to slander the Italians and the Germans – and that is what makes it so delightful. It’s not about the love that dared not speak its name; it’s about the love that didn’t quite know what its name was yet …”

Schehr says he’s not sure why the book is finding such a strong audience.

“But I’d guess that there is fascination with an era that seems both remote and close to us, very different, yet oddly the same.”