Rolfe (1860-1913) was an abusive, learned English writer (pen name: Baron Corvo) whose most famous work was Hadrian the Seventh. Set in Venice, the novel at hand was written in 1904 (a year before Mann's Death in Venice) but not published until 1934, with its homoeroticism pruned. This is its first complete, nonbowdlerized publication. Rolfe's relatives detested the posthumous manuscript and though it should be burned. Like Rolfe, its hero—Nicholas Crabbe- -has a genius for making enemies and, like Rolfe, Crabbe is rejected for the priesthood by the Roman Catholic Church (to which he'd converted at 25), takes up painting, then writing, and at the beginning of the story here is first seen aboard a small boat he's provisioned with the intent of retreating utterly from mankind for several months. But one night an earthquake ashore destroys a town before his eyes, and the next morning he rescues the only creature there still alive: an androgynous but breastless boy/girl of 17 who goes variously as Ermengilda and Zildo and who becomes Crabbe's shipboard servant. The surprised Crabbe falls into an obsessive craving for Zildo while sinking into dire poverty amid the glories of Venice. Though brought up as a boy, Ermengilda is the daughter, through many generations, of three Doges of the Middle Ages, has the gait of a goddess, radiant splendor, magnificent muscular curve of neck and shoulder, superb saturnian form, a clear-souled gaze, and the unwrung pluck and poise of ages past. Crabbe must marry Gilda/Zildo and have his/her ``bud''—but, first, can Crabbe's exquisite angel save him from starvation? A bizarre gay fantasy finds the right age at last.
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