Hervé Guibert wrote about the ravaging of AIDS in controversial, self-exposing, always defiant fiction. A revival of his work places it within the canonical literature of illness.
Acfrail young man shadowboxes to Technotronic & MC Eric’s “Tough.” Clothes hang loose on his uncoöperative body, which sways with each tentative punch. There’s nobody else in the room, but a mannequin and a stuffed monkey look on. Cut to a spinning shot from the man’s perspective—a blur of paperbacks and floral carpeting—and then a bathroom’s wreckage of medicine. He dissolves a tablet in a cup and looks at himself in the mirror. One senses that he hasn’t left home in a long time.
I watched Hervé Guibert’s “La Pudeur ou l’Impudeur”—an auto-obituary filmed by the thirty-five-year-old, aids-stricken writer months before his death, in December, 1991—during the covid-19 lockdown in April. It felt like a time capsule from another, lonelier epidemic: Guibert watches a video of a recent medical procedure, struggles to dress and shower, and discusses suicide with his elderly aunts. On vacation in Elba, he sips from a glass that appears to contain a fatal dose of digitoxin.
A year earlier, Guibert had shocked France by disclosing his diagnosis in a penetrating and uncannily lucid autobiographical novel, “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.” A controversial landmark of aids literature, the book included a fictionalized portrait of Michel Foucault, Guibert’s close friend and mentor, and revealed that his death, in 1984, had been the result of aids. Notorious for betraying secrets, Guibert justified the trespass as a prerogative of their shared destiny. Soon, he would die the same way.
If Foucault never said a word about his illness, Guibert would spend his last year in the glare of an unusual celebrity, dying of an illness that he treated as an instrument of self-revelation. As he wrote in “To the Friend,” aids would be neither his secret nor his cause but his muse and teacher:
I was discovering something sleek and dazzling in its hideousness, for though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life.
In the year between the publication of “To the Friend” and his death, Guibert completed five books: two short novels, a hospital diary, and “The Compassion Protocol,” a moving account of his brief yet transformative “resurrection” under the influence of an experimental treatment. Altogether, they are a singular contribution to the literature of illness, the testament of a writer bracingly committed to everything that, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “the cautious respectability of health conceals.” Forget Susan Sontag’s dictum that diseases shouldn’t have meanings. Guibert inhabited aids as though it were a darkroom or an astronomical observatory, a means for deciphering the patterns in life’s dying light.
Until recently, Hervé Guibert was not widely read in English. “To the Friend” was translated in 1991 but received mixed reviews in America: too sexually and medically explicit for mainstream audiences, yet too politically detached for a gay community then engaged in a life-or-death struggle for recognition. One reviewer for the Lambda Book Report wrote, “act up, Hervé. act up. Or get new friends.”
A younger generation has proved more receptive to his raw, genre-bending body of work. In a spate of new translations, Guibert has emerged as a forerunner of today’s most prominent gay writers of autofiction, such as Édouard Louis, Garth Greenwell, and Ocean Vuong. Guibert has even inspired (fictional) pilgrims, as he once predicted; in Andrew Durbin’s novella “Skyland” (Nightboat), two young men search for a lost portrait of the writer on the island of Patmos.
Born in 1955, Hervé Guibert grew up in Paris and La Rochelle. His mother was a former teacher, and his father was a veterinary inspector who worked at a slaughterhouse. They were conservative, middle class, and disconcertingly obsessed with their son’s hygiene, for which he later repaid them with a shockingly granular tell-all novel, “Mes Parents” (1986). Meanwhile, the young Guibert thrilled to Edgar Allan Poe stories and masturbated to stills from Fellini’s “Satyricon.” “At fifteen, before I wrote anything,” he once wrote, “I understood wealth, celebrity, and death.”
He moved back to Paris at the age of seventeen, hoping to become an actor or a scriptwriter. Rejected from film school, he quickly rebounded into the world of magazines. By twenty, he was contributing dating advice to 20 Ans, a glossy marketed to young women; in his spare time, he wrote stories about voyeurism, dissection, cruising, and incestuous childhood memories. “I have a lyrical ass,” he boasted in his first collection, which appeared, in 1977, as “La Mort Propagande.”
A striking blond with unruly curls and the haughtily vacant expression of an anime villain, Guibert turned many heads. Friends compared him to an angel, a bad boy from a Pasolini film, and even “a little brother to Lucifer.” Edmund White, who met Guibert in Michel Foucault’s circle, described him as “hyacinthine, ringleted, foggyvoiced.” Roland Barthes once tried to sleep with the younger writer, later analyzing his rejection in a long, wounded letter. (“By leaving so hurriedly,” Barthes told Guibert, you “constructed me as a seducer.”) Guibert published it.
He was as enraptured by images as others were by him. Joining Le Monde as a photography critic in 1978, he simultaneously established himself as a photographer, publishing a photo-roman with strikingly intimate portraits of his great-aunts. Soon afterward, he wrote “Ghost Image” (1981), reissued in Robert Bononno’s translation in 2014, a beautiful and insightful collection of essays on the portraiture of family albums, photo-booth film strips, pornographic Polaroids, and other ephemeral genres. Guibert arrives at a vision of photography as tactile, fetishistic, and inseparable from the frustrations of desire.
A vanishingly thin boundary separated his art from his private life. Often befriending the celebrities he wrote about—such as the actresses Gina Lollobrigida and Isabelle Adjani—he portrayed loved ones as though they were celebrities, idolizing and exposing them by turns. “With each book, I place exorbitant demands on my friends, abusive demands for love,” he told an interviewer in 1990. “But I’ve been very lucky. My friends have never censored or put me down.”
In “Crazy for Vincent” (1989), a highly entertaining erotic novella, translated by Christine Pichini in 2017, Guibert dramatized his relationship with an impulsive teen-age lover. Vincent’s wild life style and unpredictable appetites—for coke, heroin, girls, and, intermittently, Hervé—leave his suitor desperate enough to call the boy’s family home: “ ‘What’s it about?’ asks Vincent’s mother; urge to respond, ‘It’s about his cock, Madame, I need to suck it as soon as possible.’ ”
The Guibert revival’s capstone has been Semiotext(e)’s reissue, this year, of “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,” published in tandem with a career-spanning collection of short stories, entitled “Written in Invisible Ink.” They reveal a writer of courage, beguiling flair, and sometimes maddening nastiness, who made the body his subject long before his own turned against him.
The several dozen stories of “Written in Invisible Ink,” artfully translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, read like schoolyard confessions carved into a desk. Surveying Guibert’s work from 1975 to 1989, the book reveals a young writer confident in his themes yet restlessly experimental in expression. Realist vignettes alternate with fairy tales, ghost stories, and descriptions of imaginary erotic machines. In one story, a knife-thrower tricks the narrator into agreeing to perform as his partner (in drag); in another, a man steals a wax head of Jeanne d’Arc. The over-all impression is that of a writer in search of shapes for his unruly energy, as though picking through limbs in an anatomist’s workshop.
Many of Guibert’s stories originated as clippings from his diary, and the best ones have a sketch-like immediacy. They often begin with someone failing to call or to show up and end just as arbitrarily, unbeholden to the rules of gradual exposition or epiphany. The narrator of “A Kiss for Samuel” (1982) arrives in Florence to photograph dioramas at a famous wax museum, only to learn that it’s closed for the next six days. He ends up wandering the city’s train station with a nineteen-year-old Sicilian boy, searching for a place to kiss.
Other, more sinister stories revolve around codependent relationships. In “For P. Dedication in Invisible Ink,” a ghostwriter’s collaboration with a distinguished intellectual develops into a wordless struggle for dominance. The narrator wants friendship and acknowledgment, but his employer snubs him, routinely forcing him to wait outside his apartment like a dog. A similar but reversed dynamic plays out in “The Desire to Imitate,” a darkly comic tale about the narrator’s vexed friendship with an aging movie star. During his visit to her campy, creepy château—where eels swim in the translucent guest-suite bathtub—the actress shows him an envelope of nudes that she’s kept in a safe for decades. He reacts with indifference; she pinches him, hard.
A cocktail of eighties glitz and gothic claustrophobia, the story reads like a sendup of Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers,” except that the narrator isn’t conniving to extract the lady’s secrets but attempting, half-heartedly, to escape. The anxious, melancholy mood is punctuated with flashes of deadpan caricature: “The Mercedes braking in the château’s courtyard set the chickens fluttering in fright.” The playful wit leaves an aftertaste of cruelty, especially after one learns that Guibert modelled the actress after his friend Gina Lollobrigida.
Guibert’s often tasteless mean streak makes “Written in Invisible Ink” a decidedly mixed achievement. Old women, freaks, fat girls, and “an Asiatic dwarf” crop up in his fiction like extras in a circus; though he admired Diane Arbus, he is much crasser in his fascination with the supposedly monstrous. There’s also his overwrought exhibitionism, especially in the early work. Lines of “Propaganda Death” read like smutty Symbolist poetry, inadvertently comic in their desire to provoke. “Secret laboratory with frozen, white walls that I tainted,” one narrator rhapsodizes on the toilet.
What’s obscene isn’t so much the obscenity as its arbitrariness. Jean Genet wrote as a missionary-messenger of a criminal underground; Georges Bataille insightfully linked sexual taboos and religious tradition. But Guibert wrote as a young man out to trigger the middle-class world he came from, espousing extreme self-exposure for its own sake. Wading through the scenes of rape, murder, pedophilia, necrophilia, and coprophilia in “Written in Invisible Ink,” I was reminded less of these writers, whose lineage Guibert claimed, than I was of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”—glamorous blasphemy from a canny provocateur.
It’s difficult to say what kind of writer Guibert would have become had he lived longer. Confronting aids demanded that he draw on his higher talents—a minute fascination with the body; a sensitivity to how secrecy and projection shape friendships—and made many former vices useful. Among the allures of “Written in Invisible Ink” is seeing Guibert’s defiance of death emerge from his macabre affectations, and his bold witness arise from a penchant for indiscretion.
“To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life” is the rare book that truly deserves the epithet “unflinching.” Its author may be afraid to die, but on the page his voice doesn’t crack, his hand doesn’t tremble. He suffers throughout—passed between quacks and celebrity homeopaths because of mysterious symptoms; reliving sexual encounters as nightmarish premonitions—but along with this comes an exhilarating lucidity. Guibert feels transparent, as though walking around with “denuded blood,” but the world, too, has been stripped naked, revealing charlatans and saints, startling moments of ugliness and grace.
The novel begins on the day after Christmas, 1988. Guibert has left Paris for Rome to avoid friends as he waits for the results of a blood test that will determine his eligibility for a new medicine. The reader knows how the story ends, but Guibert doesn’t, and the layering of narratives creates a maze of dread and disorientation.
The first third of the novel revolves around the death of Muzil, an alias for Michel Foucault, who died four years before Guibert received his diagnosis. Kindly and stoic, Muzil laughs on his deathbed and discreetly makes provisions for friends. But he also espouses an obsessive concern for privacy, which Guibert betrays:
I was writing reports of everything like a spy, like an adversary, all those degrading little things . . . he would have liked to erase around the periphery of his life, to leave only the well-polished bare bones enclosing the black diamond—gleaming and impenetrable, closely guarding its secrets—that seemed destined to form his biography, a real conundrum chock-full of errors from end to end.
If Muzil dies a sphinx, disguising all weakness and leaving behind only the black diamond of his intellect, Guibert chooses another form of self-effacement, transforming his condition into a social and existential mirror. Like Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic,” the novel is both surgical theatre and social tableau.
In Linda Coverdale’s masterly translation, originally published in 1991, “To the Friend” powerfully evokes the aids epidemic’s uncertain early days. Guibert writes with hindsight but preserves a sense of each moment’s confusion and foreboding. He gets lost on the way to a half-shuttered hospital on the outskirts of Paris; stopping at a gas station for directions, he notices the attendant’s suspicion, likely at seeing so many nervous young men headed in that direction. Nurses dismiss the disease’s seriousness—“nothing but a kind of cancer”—and “slip on their latex gloves as though they were velvet gloves for a gala evening at the opera.”
Muzil speaks of aids creating “new tenderness, new solidarities” among gay men, but Guibert finds himself reluctant to even make eye contact with a junkie he recognizes from a clinic in Rome. He describes aids as a “disease of witch doctors and evil spells” from Africa and hides his medicine from men he suspects of wanting to steal it for “their African pals.” The best that can be said of such moments is that, with racism as with aids, Guibert does his readers the favor of being shamelessly transparent about his sickness.
The novel’s final portrait is of a rich pharmaceutical-laboratory manager named Bill. An unforgettably predatory figure, he’s known Guibert since the writer was a teenager in Paris, having once attempted to seduce him. He reappears in the novel as a name-dropping, Jaguar-driving purveyor of false hope, insinuating himself as the puppet master of Guibert’s small group of seropositive friends. Bill promises to enroll Guibert in the trials for a new medicine but then deflects, deceives, and delays him, even mentioning that he’s already given another twinkish young writer the (ultimately ineffective) inoculation. Survival becomes a petty social intrigue, a reality show with life-or-death stakes.
Bill is the “friend” to whom the novel is addressed. Guibert frames him as an enemy not only of his survival but of his book’s very possibility—the mirage of a cure undermines the nerve required for his literary confrontation with death.
Intimacy with death is often mistaken for morbid complicity with it. “The myth of Hervé Guibert,” Jeffrey Zuckerman writes, “is that of the cruelly beautiful man who betrayed his friends, the writer of sex and death who would die of a sexually transmitted disease.” The reality was of a writer who knew not only that silence equals death but also that nothing could be more fatal to art than disguising death under false hope, decorum, and sentiment.
Curiously, Guibert insistently associates Bill with the United States. He is the only character in “To the Friend” with an English name, and spends much of his time jetting off to New York and Miami. Most damningly, he cries during Hollywood films, susceptible to the same vapid optimism that he dangles before his friend in lieu of treatment.
Inextricable from the malfeasance that has made the United States uniquely vulnerable to covid-19 is a widespread failure to imagine one’s own mortality—and a tendency to project it onto others, whose deaths are deemed unfortunate inevitabilities. At the core of this callousness is the misconception that acknowledging death is antithetical to “really living.” But it isn’t the dying who are truly deathly. Guibert, who faced down aids with such irreverence, achieved an almost indestructible vitality in the duel.
Death never made him heavy. Among the lighter moments in “To the Friend” is a dinner party for a closeted elderly priest, who is retiring as his aids worsens. Guibert arranges for one of the guests, a beautiful young man, to attend naked. Everyone pretends that nothing is out of the ordinary, and what at first seems like a prank becomes a moment of transcendence, as the old priest experiences what is “doubtless the first real vision he’d ever had in his entire ecclesiastical career.”
Perhaps it’s this mischievous affirmation of life’s mess and sensuality, even in the face of death, that will define Guibert’s contribution to the literature of illness. Rejecting its taboos, he scaled aids’ very long flight of steps and fearlessly recorded what he saw on the climb. ♦
An article published by Julian Lucas in The New Yorker.
Note: If you never read his books and wonder where to start, À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (translated in English as To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life) is a good place to start.