MiniReview: "Camere Separate" [Separate Rooms] by Pier Vittorio Tondelli

The author, around the time of the book's publication. 

What is it?

A novel by Italian writer Pier Vittorio Tondelli, first published in 1989.


Why does it appear to have two titles?

It’s not actually in print anymore in the English translation. I read it (somewhat laboriously) in Italian. So the Italian title is the one I read.


Aren’t there enough books available for you in the English language?

I particularly wanted to read this. It was a landmark novel in the rather thin field that is Italian gay literature. And I can read Italian (somewhat laboriously) . . . and there’s a pandemic, and not a lot happening . . . so I had time . . . and I’d picked up the book while in Italy in 2008, and—


Okay, enough about your travels. What is this landmark Italian gay novel about?

It opens with the main character, Leo, being called to Munich to say goodbye to his former lover, Thomas, who is dying. The rest of the book is essentially an account of Leo’s attempts to come to terms with Thomas’s death, and with Death more generally. But also with Life: What’s it all about? What role does love play in his life? As he moves forward into this post-Thomas existence, he reviews their relationship, and his gay life more generally.


Sounds . . . slow-moving, intellectual. Perhaps a tad dull?

This is definitely not a book to read if you’re looking for plot. But it is not dull. It is immensely wise, perceptive, forgiving, moving. It is a remarkably frank and detailed portrait of a particular type of gay man—one who is profoundly solitary, who decides that he could never live with a lover but that they must always have “separate rooms,” who ultimately decides that emotional intimacy is more important to him than sex, and that he wants to have a family of gay men around him without necessarily being in a relationship himself. This all resonated with me, but I’m not sure it’s a view of gay life that would be widely seen as desirable in 2021. Leo is not a gay man who dreams of marriage and children.


Maybe we’ve moved on since 1989.

In some ways. But even in Italy in 1989, the narrator sees that he is something of an oddball in the gay world, and that he has in fact always been the consummate outsider, one who stands on the sidelines and observes more than he participates. I do believe that this reflects a type of gay sensibility that is not uncommon, even if it’s not the “norm.” As Tondelli explains beautifully, this psychology leads to the creation of the consummate artist, one who lives largely in the imagination—for better and for worse. Leo comes to see his sexuality as inextricably linked with his vocation as a writer, as one who looks on. At one point, he says: “Ancora una volta il paradiso è sempre per gli altri” (Once again, paradise is always for other people). This is raw, but I know it’s a feeling that many gay men have had at some point, if it’s not their default—a sensation that we are never living out the dream that everything in society tells us is “paradise.” That’s reserved for straights.


You indicated that the book is wise, and you seem to like it. What more would you say about it? What makes it worth reading?

Really, I cannot say enough good about this book. While being absolutely a “gay novel” inasmuch as it concerns itself with gay life (Leo and one of his lovers develop an amusing categorization of different types of gay men) and gay sex (there is an extended, detailed, raunchy sex scene that is unforgettable), this isn’t just a great gay novel; it’s a great novel. It’s about life, loss, solitude, the search for meaning. Those are universal themes, and it amazes me that Tondelli, at the age of 34, was able to write with the wisdom of a venerable sage. This is just a gorgeous, exceptionally inspiring novel, as if Tondelli was summing up everything that was most important to say about life as he had experienced it up to that point.

          He died two years after the book’s publication, of AIDS.


Maybe he knew it would be his last book?

It sure reads that way, but who can say? The last word in the book is “addio.”

          I was particularly touched that the final section of the book takes places in Quebec! Leo flies into Montreal and then takes a bus to Quebec City for a literary conference. The book ends as he’s on a plane from Quebec to Montreal, on his way back to Italy. I was already feeling so close to Leo emotionally. I love to think that he flew right above where I write these lines!



Three. This is a great novel. Period.

Write a comment

Comments: 0