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Between Friends: On the Writing of Hervé Guibert

By Luis Polanco.

Hervé Guibert, Written in Invisible Ink: Selected Stories, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Semiotext(e), 2020)

Hervé Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, translated by Linda Coverdale (Semiotext(e), 2020)

Hervé Guibert has known of his AIDS diagnosis for three months when To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life begins. He is alone in Rome, the T4 count in his bloodstream continues to decline, yet he has convinced himself that he will be one of the first to escape the disease. It is discomfiting, given the decade. One wonders whether he is privy to something obscured from the reader or just cruelly optimistic. Resisting his own spiritual and bodily collapse, Guibert wants nothing to do with the procession of strangers walking the street beside him. His friends, whose prudence he ignores, pester him with their phone calls of concern. His patience lasts only for his new book, “the only friend whose company I can bear at present.” At a time when his days have become desperately numbered, why must he insist on ill will?

Guibert died in 1991 at the age of 36, after a failed suicide attempt. To the Friend commences an autobiographical series in which the author becomes a character chronicling the last few years of his life. It is probably the most well-known of his books, although he had published a number of slim volumes notorious for their transgression and provocation since his early twenties. He even disturbed himself with the violent nature of his first book, Propaganda Death. It contains an anarchic performance of a young man’s fascinations with dissected corpses, voluptuous sexual encounters, and other wayward investigations. Following the tradition of other French writers from the Marquis de Sade to Pierre Guyotat, Guibert was enthralled with depicting the bond between sex and death. His interests usually favored the grisly and the deviant. As a photographer, he was attracted to the images of the lifelike statues in wax exhibitions and the preserved specimen in medical museums. His visits to these sites become the basis of a few of his stories in books such as Vice and Mauve the Virgin. In May, Semiotext(e) will be reissuing To the Friend and introducing a new selection of Guibert’s writing in English. Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Written in Invisible Ink presents Propaganda Death along with exemplary short texts drawn from Guibert’s other works, including Vice, The Sting of Love, Singular Adventures, and Mauve the Virgin. This latest compilation, spanning more than a decade’s worth of the writer’s life, shows Guibert reveling in his disobedience toward discretion.

In 1990, the year To the Friend was originally released in France, Guibert gave an interview in which he said that he considered his books as appendices to the all-encompassing project of his diary. His stories often began in his journals, posthumously published as The Mausoleum of Lovers. Among sketches of his days and his obsessions, he recorded the nuances of his body. Early on, Guibert understood that he could use himself as the springboard to guide his writing astray. “My body is a laboratory that I offer up as a performance,” he writes in the opening text of Propaganda Death. Loosely structured, the pieces in Written in Invisible Ink tend toward the episodic rather than neatly sealed fictions. His writing leans on the diary’s formal elements, blending descriptions of everyday life with the discontinuities of memory. Even his narrators, who share some likeness to their author such as his initials or his sunken chest, ramble through the texts with the digressive whims of a diarist. “It is when what I am writing takes the form of a journal that I most strongly feel that I am writing fiction,” Guibert speculates in The Compassion Protocol, his novel following To the Friend, and this blur of the autobiographical and the exaggerated imprints much of his complete works.

Guibert’s writing life is inextricable from his intimate relations. In the short trips and daily happenings within Written in Invisible Ink, his steady lover Thierry Jouno, the actress Gina Lollobrigida, the poet Eugène Savitzkaya, and even his friend and neighbor Michel Foucault are recognizable. They are nameless or simply given their first initial, their privacy preserved to a certain degree. In his diary, Guibert says, “[M]y lovers and my friends are my characters, it’s my fictional coherence.” Some of the central tensions in his writing are those between friends and the secrets they confide. As one of the characters in “The Lemon Tree” tells the other, “And don’t ever tell anybody this story. It’s between you and me.” Yet, that friends disappoint—say too little or too much, break their word, lie—furnishes Guibert with material. The friction between honesty and deceit, tenderness and rancor, eros and thanatos are ever present for his friends-cum-characters. Beneath the mask of amorous devotion donned by his narrators lies the inclination to wound. In “The Trip to Brussels,” the narrator encloses in parentheses this coercive wish for his travelling companion: “(I would have secretly liked for him to suffer so I could soothe him.)” The ante is raised in “The Desire to Imitate,” which recounts the narrator’s visit to a friend’s villa. His host, an aging actress whose home is lavishly vulgar, submits him to a vacation of watching her old films and revealing her nude photos that no one else has seen. Through every expression of his friend’s love, the narrator becomes tempted to murder her. Likewise, in “For P. Dedication in Invisible Ink,” the narrator writes of his story’s addressee that “even as I could have said that I loved him, when I found myself before him, at long last, I wanted to go for his throat.”

Guibert is particularly attuned to the games to which friends subject one another. Back-stabbing is only natural, and harboring ugly feelings is less an indication of malicious intent than an act of homage. Betrayal, a theme that links him to his idol Genet, finds its crowning moment in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. In his 1992 review of the book, the novelist and critic Gary Indiana observes, “The fact that people are terrible, frail, solipsistic, fickle, and even capable of playing God with their best friends’ lives is not exactly news to a writer.” There is every strain of weakness and deficiency in the one hundred vignettes that make up To the Friend. Resembling a Bernhardian malcontent, Guibert endeavors to arrange a timeline of his illness, recalling memories of odd symptoms during past journeys abroad, disagreements and broken commitments between friends, and the final days of Muzil, who is based on Foucault. As Guibert’s condition progressively worsens, Bill, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and an old friend, strings him along with empty promises about the possibility of entering a trial vaccine program. What follows is a doomed pursuit in which Guibert places the crisis of his writing before that of his flesh. “I care more for my book than for my life,” he vows, “I won’t give up my book to save my life.”

Even with a writer such as Hervé Guibert, framing a novel as a matter of life or death might come across as too romantic a conceit. Yet, in view of his subject, the ultimatum merely acknowledges the uncertainty and anticipation of people living with AIDS in the 1980s. The writer’s journey through several medical institutions brings him into contact with healthcare workers, from whom he receives diverging and inaccurate advice. Philanthropists and non-profit professionals strike Guibert as egotistical careerists who see the illness as “their hope for public recognition and a position in society.” Bill drags out any prospect of aid and even hints with amusement at the money to be made by pharmaceutical companies in such an epidemic. Guibert’s animosity appears as a principled response to the civility encouraged in times of panic. In Bill, who comes to represent an international business class that sincerely believes “misfortune is the common lot of mankind, but that pluck and willpower will see one through,” Guibert discovers the perfect antagonist for his novel. Outrage at the inadequate provision of medical care is disguised as an interpersonal drama between friends.

Near the time of his travels between Rome and Paris, which are represented in To the Friend, Guibert writes in his diary: “The book in progress has a responsibility in the face of death?” The question, which reads more like a statement, is somewhat uncharacteristic. Duty seems alien to Guibert. Fantasies of treachery tint most of the relationships depicted in his stories yet the passages in To the Friend that feature Muzil gesture toward an ideal of accountability. In the novel, as Guibert remembers how relentlessly he copied in his diary the affection and revulsion he felt toward his friend’s body in the hospital, he asks himself, “What right did I have to record all that? What right did I have to use friendship in such a mean fashion?” The permission, he suspects, comes from knowing that the experience did not belong to one person, “since it wasn’t so much my friend’s last agony I was describing as it was my own, which was waiting for me and would be just like this.” In AIDS narratives and diaries, self-documentation functions less to record the singularity of the individual, and Guibert’s writing consistently demonstrates his own entanglement with others.

In her 1988 book, AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag writes, “Like other diseases that arouse feelings of shame, AIDS is often a secret, but not from the patient.” Her self-evident comment is reframed in Guibert’s fiction. Early on in his book, he admits, “Like Muzil, I would have liked to have had the strength, the insane pride, as well as the generosity, to tell no one.” Nevertheless, he gradually tells his inner circle, even his gossipy editor, “because it was only natural to betray my secrets, since I’d always done that in all my books.” At the time of its publication, the popularity of To the Friend skyrocketed when French media sources made connections between the character Muzil and Foucault. Before then, the public record held that the philosopher died of cancer. “Above all the name of the plague was not to be spoken, it was disguised in the death records, false reports were given to the media,” Guibert writes in “A Man’s Secrets,” a memorial to his friend included in Written in Invisible Ink. The revelation not only counters the misrepresentation of Foucault’s death but also illuminates the stigma-laden anxieties that underpinned many media and official reports on AIDS.

Across the Atlantic, HIV/AIDS activists carried out similar publicity strategies, such as outing the sexualities of political actors whose legislative agendas were hypocritically phobic. Community-based groups such as ACT UP also performed die-ins inside of churches, outside the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies, and on the lawn of the Capitol. The staging of one’s own death captivated Guibert. Propaganda Death exhibits some of his youthful attempts at narrating his own murder. “H.G. was found dead, lying in a pool of his own blood, in the middle of his messy room,” he writes in “Account of a Crime.” The companion piece “Newspaper Clipping” begins, “At first it looked like the victim had staged this macabre scene.” In “Five Marble Tables,” the narrator pictures the autopsy of his own body. By the time he was writing To the Friend, Guibert no longer had to invent the threat that was already upon him. “Someone about to start taking AZT is already dead, beyond hope of salvation,” he notes after picking up his prescription. Finally, it is as if by imagining himself as the cadaver waiting in the morgue, he attains the lucidity to lay bare the conditions of his dying.

Guibert’s writing has always understood the narrative weight of secrets, but in To the Friend, he uncovers the limits to concealment and disclosure. He poses a scenario in which the writer cannot simply devise one last reveal to forestall the end. “Obviously the writer must die writing?” The question comes from Guibert’s diary, amidst other entries contemporaneous with the composition of To the Friend. There is no redemption for the author. The last chapter is harrowing. His body has become as thin as it was when he was a child, he warns. His style, which has been immodestly ornate throughout the novel, approaches dismal restraint. “My book is closing in on me,” Guibert writes. Perhaps, the friend addressed in the title was the book itself, all along.


Luis Polanco is a writer living in Philadelphia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 13th, 2020.