Set in Paris in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, this sublime novel recounts the experience of a young Parisian writer dealing with his friends’ AIDS-related deaths and then upon sero-converting, facing his own death.I teach at a small, private university in Los Angeles, and for the past five years I’ve lectured on Hervé Guibert’s autobiographical novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Set in Paris in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, this sublime novel recounts the experience of a young Parisian writer dealing with his friends’ AIDS-related deaths and then upon sero-converting, facing his own death. Published in France in 1990, the first English translation appeared in 1991, shortly before Guibert’s death at the age of 36.
Naturally, as I began to think about writing this essay, I turned to my lecture notes. As I was leafing through them, my eyes began to blur. I began to doubt whether these ideas could do justice to the severe beauty of this book. Instead, I got up and took my own copy off the shelf.
My copy is actually the one I gave to my beloved, Tim, when we first met in London in 1994, just as I was falling in love, and I opened it to the inscription. What I wrote is far too long and more importantly far too sentimental to reprint here, but one sentence leaps out: ‘Perhaps someday we’ll learn to read this book.’
Like all great books, To the Friend does not immediately offer itself up. Although accessible, and eminently readable – it’s the kind of book the reader can devour. It also evades easy comprehension, just as death, or the meaning of death, evades us.
As I held the worn copy in my hands, I was struck by a certain correspondence: I was entering an overwhelming and abiding passion when I first encountered this book, which relays a passion of a vastly different though not irreconcilable kind, one more in keeping with the Latin root and theological connotation of the word, a narrative of suffering.
But enough of this autobiography. Let’s return to the notes.
The primary plot of this book is relatively simple, yet terrible in its simplicity. On the first page, the narrator announces he has AIDS, which of course in the 1980s was still regarded as a death sentence: ‘I had AIDS for three months. More precisely, for three months I believed I was condemned to die of that mortal illness called AIDS.’ But along comes a reprieve: ‘after three months something completely unexpected happened that convinced me I could and almost certainly would escape this disease… I would become, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady.’ His friend Bill, who manages a pharmaceutical company, promises to get the narrator into a trial for a new vaccine that he claims stops the onset of the virus. The narrative is driven by the question of whether or not this friend will come through with his promise to save the narrator’s life: ‘I don’t know if this salvation is a decoy intended to soothe me, dangled before my eyes like a trap about to be sprung, or a genuine science fiction adventure in which I shall play the role of a hero…’
However, in another sense, the plot is historical – the narrative of AIDS that occurred outside the book. For this book is not only an intensely personal account of Guibert’s own dealings with his predicament, but also a public document. The depictions of the various bureaucracies the narrator and his friends find themselves at the mercy of, whether it’s the bureaucracy of the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical companies or the syndrome itself, renders this book as a historical account of that frightening time. The book offers a timeline, a window into the intense vertigo of that moment, where gay men were confronted with a virus that seemingly came out of nowhere.
Actually, as I think of it, my relationship with this book begins before that inscription. It begins with the image of Guibert himself. Long before I read To the Friend, I was aware of Guibert’s physical presence. Aware is the wrong word; I was besotted with his image, and had his photo pinned to my bedroom wall. Perhaps presence is also the wrong word, for I don’t believe I saw the photo until after Guibert’s death.
In this image, which served as his author photo, Guibert looks directly into the camera, his eyes wide open. He wears a black shirt. His hands with their long, elegant fingers are placed one on top of the other and he wears a wristwatch with a black band, marking time. But it’s his gaze we return to; it’s fierce yet serene.In this image, which served as his author photo, Guibert looks directly into the camera, his eyes wide open. He wears a black shirt. His hands with their long, elegant fingers are placed one on top of the other and he wears a wristwatch with a black band, marking time. But it’s his gaze we return to; it’s fierce yet serene. He’s impossibly handsome, yet it’s the same face the narrator describes unflatteringly, the face that appears after his lover Jules cuts off all his curls: ‘a long angular face, a bit thin, with a high forehead and a hint of bitterness around the mouth, a face unfamiliar to me and to others….’ It’s the face he sees as forecasting his own death.
I fell deeply in love with this image.
Essentially, I fell in love with Guibert’s ghost.
The Question and Destruction of Genre
The “characters” in this “novel” respond to the epidemic in various ways. Their reactions range from the incredulous– when first informed of the ‘mysterious illness,’ the philosopher Muzil responds: ‘A cancer that would hit only homosexuals, no, that’s too good to be true, I could just die laughing!’ – to passive acceptance: ‘We’re all going to die of this disease, me, you, Jules, everyone we love,’ announces the narrator to his friend Gustave as they sunbathe.
The words “character” and “novel” must be placed in quotation marks, for the narrator goes by the name of Hervé Guibert, and all the other characters are thinly concealed versions of people from the writer’s life (most famously Muzil “is” Michel Foucault; the first third of this book recounts Muzil/Foucault’s death from AIDS in 1984.)
All of Guibert’s oeuvre blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, but it is in this book that this aesthetic practice comes fully into being. It not only reflects the stark unreality of that moment, but the interstitial space Guibert finds himself in, somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, somewhere between life and death, crossing back and forth between these poles: ‘I felt as though Jules and I had gotten lost between our lives and our deaths, that this no-man’s land, ordinarily and necessarily rather nebulous, had suddenly become atrociously clear…’
Death destroys the question of genre, reveals the instability of all categories.
Guibert died on December 27th, 1991, which happens to be my birthday. In my narcissism, which is so strong perhaps even death won’t be able to eradicate it, I’ve often attributed significance to this fact, entertained the notion that some mystical transaction took place.
And what is all writing if not an exorcism of ghosts, an incantation intended to free us from evil spirits? Though as is so often the case, the ghosts don’t flee us but are pushed deeper into us, where they can’t be touched; where they’re safe.Most likely this is pure fantasy. I’ve never seen Guibert’s ghost, or any ghost for that matter. Though sometimes as I write, particularly as I write this essay, which is something between a lecture and a confession, I do feel inhabited by Guibert’s authorial voice, just as he writes of being possessed, virtually infected by the prose style of the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who haunts To the Friend. And what is all writing if not an exorcism of ghosts, an incantation intended to free us from evil spirits? Though as is so often the case, the ghosts don’t flee us but are pushed deeper into us, where they can’t be touched; where they’re safe.
The book’s narrator often describes his own state as ghost-like, particularly in terms of the negative effect the virus has on his libido. Drained of desire, all he feels is ‘an incorporeal attraction, the helpless longing of a ghost, and never speaking of desire ever again…’ He finds himself caught in the dreadful dialectic of death and desire that was played out in the epidemic: desire leads to death, death inhibits desire and ultimately replaces, abolishes desire. In a world abandoned by desire, the gay self is no longer a self but the ghost of a self.
Consolation / No Consolation
Throughout To the Friend, Guibert refers to the process of writing this book as his only source of consolation. He likens it to ‘a companion, someone with whom I can talk, eat, sleep, at whose side I can dream and have nightmares, the only friend whose company I can bear at present.’ Yet it is also a ‘dreadful book,’ for its story is the story of his illness, his unjust fate.
Although we could identify a number of literary influences upon Guibert and locate points of affinity between this novel and other novels written during the frenzy of literary production that occurred in the first decade of the epidemic, its most striking predecessor is Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Written in AD 524 in Pavia while Boethius was in prison awaiting trial for treason, Consolation contemplates how one should live when faced with misfortune and how one should approach death.
It is generally acknowledged that Boethius was the victim of political manoeuvring; he would eventually be executed. Like the philosopher, Guibert writes not from a prison cell per se, but from the prison cell that his body has become by virtue of the disease. Even the book’s form, divided into 100 numbered sections—each section a paragraph of varying lengths—recalls those notches prisoners inscribe on the walls of their cells, to count the days. Guibert faces this ‘calamity [that] had hit us … [this] period of rampant misfortune from which there would be no escape’ with stoicism worthy of Boethius, but also with virtues wholly his own, with passion, irony, ferocity and a perverse intelligence.
Years ago, I met a young, French North African man, who was at UCLA studying immunology, the science of the disorder of the immune system. He was passionate about his field and wanted to develop an HIV vaccine. What’s more, he’d done a Masters in Literature in Paris, writing his thesis on To the Friend. I should also mention that this boy was beautiful and I was captivated, not only by his beauty, but by the uncanny parallel between his endeavours and the concerns of this book; it was one of those rare moments where art and life meet, correspond exactly. For a few hours we drank and talked about Guibert and Gide and Flaubert. The passion between us was palpable, but I had a boyfriend and he disappeared. ‘I know myself,’ he said, ‘I couldn’t bear it. I’d want you all to myself.’
It’s interesting how everything disappears. I’d forgotten about him. I wonder where he is today. I wonder how his vaccine is developing. Perhaps he’ll read this and remember me.
The Untimely Meditations
Like many other AIDS narratives, To The Friend is a race against disappearance… In this sense, its other philosophical precedent is Nietzsche’s The Untimely Meditations (1876), for surely the first wave of the epidemic’s chief characteristic was untimeliness, a speeding up of time, turning young men into old men overnight.Like many other AIDS narratives, To The Friend is a race against disappearance. It is a book in which Hervé Guibert—the author, the character and the man who lived on earth for all of 36 years—confronts the dreadful predicament of an untimely death. In this sense, its other philosophical precedent is Nietzsche’s The Untimely Meditations (1876), for surely the first wave of the epidemic’s chief characteristic was untimeliness, a speeding up of time, turning young men into old men overnight.
By the novel’s end, writing refuses to console Guibert. Rather, it turns against him: ‘My book is closing in on me. I’m in deep shit.’ Abandoned by his friend Bill, the offer of a vaccine withdrawn, Guibert offers the most pure and devastating final images of any book: ‘My muscles have melted away. At last my arms and legs are once again as slender as they were when I was a child.’
What’s astonishing is that there is not a moment of self-pity in this novel. Guibert faces his own tragedy with honesty and an exuberant, wicked wit, and I must stress the latter, for I fear I have offered a far too sober account of To The Friend. I fear I haven’t done justice to this book which reveals there is no justice in this world, this miraculous book in which no miracles are performed, a world profoundly void of miracles, and if I really wanted to do it justice I would need to put these notes to the side, to abandon them, perhaps even destroy them. (Ah, yes, there is Guibert’s ghost).
Guibert learns from this tragedy, uses it as an education of a kind: ‘And it’s true that I was discovering something sleek and dazzling in its hideousness… it was an illness in stages… whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship.’ Later on he states that: ‘AIDS will have been my paradigm in my project of self-revelation and the expression of the inexpressible…’
I say this cautiously, for to suggest that AIDS was an education for gay men is highly problematic. But what I can say without caution, with Guibert’s own fearlessness, is that we need to recall what happened. Gay culture has repressed this period, the tragedy that we were given one brief decade, one golden epoch, before we were plunged into the epidemic. Regardless of whether we learnt anything, it is essential to who we are. This experience needs to be recuperated.
We need to listen to our ghosts. Our history is a haunted one, full of spectral presences. Perhaps like me you’ve never seen a ghost, but we need to go looking for them. One need look no further than this book. Guibert’s beautiful ghost, the one that I am faithful to, is on every page, his presence simultaneously invisible and indelible.
Quotations are taken from Hervé Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (New York/London: High Risk/Serpent’s Tail, 1993), translated by Linda Coverdale, which is currently in print.
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This piece originally appeared in 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read, edited by Richard Canning, published by Alyson Press, 2009.