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Hervé Guibert: Living Without a Vaccine

Martine Franck/Magnum Photos
Hervé Guibert at home, Paris, September 1987

In 1988 the French novelist and photographer Hervé Guibert was diagnosed with HIV. Two years later, Éditions Gallimard published To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a stark autobiographical book about his desperate effort to gain access to an experimental “AIDS vaccine.” To the Friend made Guibert both wealthy and famous, especially after an appearance on the French TV show Apostrophes. Posters of his handsome face went up around Paris, transforming him into a symbol of the intense suffering of seropositive men and women at the time. Though he promises in the opening section of his book to become “one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady,” he would die the following year, on December 27, 1991, only a few days after his thirty-sixth birthday, author of an additional five extraordinary books, all of which would be published posthumously.

To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life comprises a series of portraits of friends and lovers whom illness and its specters torment throughout its one hundred chapters. Marine—based on the actor Isabelle Adjani—is dogged by rumors that she is HIV-positive after a mid-career debacle on the Paris stage. The novel’s titular friend, a cocky, Miami-based pharmaceuticals executive named Bill, brags about his connection to Melvil Mockney (a stand-in for the inventor of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk), who hopes to introduce immunotherapy to combat HIV/AIDS; both the connection and Mockney’s therapy come to nothing (as Mathieu Lindon recalls in his 2011 memoir Learning What Love Means, To the Friend’s manuscript was titled Pendes-toi Bill! or, Go Fuck Yourself, Bill!). Jules and his wife, Berthe—a couple based on Guibert’s longtime lover, Thierry Journo, and his wife, Christine Seemuller—fear not only for themselves but for their children when Jules discovers that he, too, is seropositive. Other sickened men flit by in the novel’s short chapters: sons, boyfriends, brothers, strangers. The central and most arresting portrait is of Guibert’s mentor, the philosopher Muzil, based on Michel Foucault, whose death the writer repeatedly returns to in the first half of the novel.

Guibert’s gripping revelation, in the character of Muzil, of Foucault’s final days, which had been kept secret by the privacy-obsessed French press, caused a stir in the country, abetting the author’s rise to fame late in his young life. Muzil is cavalier about the virus when the first reports of a “gay cancer” arrive in Europe, and later he even admires its “revolutionary effects.” After Muzil’s annual trip to San Francisco, where he prowls the city’s famous bathhouses, he remarks that AIDS had created “new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities” in the city’s cruising grounds. When he tests positive, he conceals his diagnosis from almost everyone, even his partner. Death, Muzil argues, should retain an element of profound mystery, for the living and the dying. In a passing conversation with Guibert, the philosopher provocatively imagines a “death resort” built around such obscurity, where unwell or aging people who are ready to die slip behind a painting, into a secret room, after which they are never heard from again—an inversion of Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, with the illusion of beauty swapped for good health.

Muzil’s resort provides a concise image for Guibert’s late fiction, which is full of disappearances, revisions, and redundancies as characters die and are resurrected, sometimes turning to shambles only to be found, a few pages later, back on their feet. In To the Friend, Guibert offers one brutal glimpse behind Muzil’s resort painting after another. At the height of his intellectual powers, the philosopher struggles, in his final year, to complete a series of books on human sexuality but, like Foucault, fails to do so. (His name is likely a nod to the Austrian writer Robert Musil, who left unfinished the epic novel, The Man Without Qualities, that he wrote between 1930 and 1943. The substitution of the last letter of the alphabet for an “s” provides a note of finality that both men were otherwise denied.) Eventually, Muzil loses his memory, his ability to write, his physical capacities, and collapses in a pool of blood in his Parisian apartment.

“I can imagine several endings,” Guibert writes toward the beginning of To the Friend, “all of which fall for the moment under the heading of premonition or heartfelt desire, but the whole truth is still hidden from me, and I tell myself that this book’s raison d’être lies along this borderline of uncertainty, so familiar to sick people everywhere.” Multiple endings meant that Guibert would devote much of his later work to the unfinished stories—and lives—shaped by this recursive sickness that, like the novel itself, is embedded with the history of venereal diseases and their treatment, as well as the “new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities” that attend to terminal illness.

After Guibert—the narrator of To the Friend—tests positive in the second half of the novel, his various multiplying infections are remedied at the Institut Alfred-Fournier, which had served as an important syphilis hospital in the nineteenth century. Here, Guibert points to another quiet substitution, one within the broader medical pattern that has long pathologized gay life: that of HIV/AIDS for syphilis within epidemiological healthcare institutions in 1980s France, from the way they treated gay men to the very hospitals used to care for them. With the rise of HIV/AIDS, the old Institut was quite instantly revitalized, “enriched by the blood of seropositive patients,” Guibert observes. He describes the nurses as if they might be wearing that season’s Yves Saint Laurent: “With semisheer stockings and flats, straight skirts, and tasteful necklaces worn over their white smocks, the nurses look very chic… They slip on their latex gloves as though they were velvet gloves for a gala evening at the opera.” But the hospital’s revival doesn’t change the way doctors approach the treatment of HIV/AIDS: they are anxious about being near their patients, just as the patients are anxious about themselves. Physical, emotional, and intellectual contact between them (not only at the hospital, but in the pharmaceutical labs of the major manufacturers) is kept at a minimum, a major issue that would be confronted in the United States by ACT-UP. Governments in Europe, meanwhile, Guibert reports, were debating whether to brand seropositive people or forcibly test “at-risk groups” on intra-continental borders.   

This follows a long history of blaming gay men for the prevalence of venereal disease, and for dismissing them as hopeless cases for modern medicine, people who could never be “saved.” In his book Homosexual Desire (1978), Guibert’s near-contemporary, the philosopher and activist Guy Hocquenghem—who died from AIDS-related complications in 1988—describes the treatment of syphilis, only a few years before the appearance of the first cases of HIV/AIDS, in terms that would have been instantly recognizable to Guibert as he sat in the Institut Alfred-Fournier:

The shame that accompanies the disease, the repressive system by which the social worker has virtual police rights in cases of syphilis (including access to the files and his ability to force the patient to declare all sexual contacts who could have been infected) are sufficient to explain the spread of the disease. It is difficult for someone to admit that he has syphilis. Syphilis is not just a virus but an ideology too; it forms a fantasy whole, like the plague and its symptoms as Antonin Artaud analyzed them. The basis of syphilis is the fantasy fear of contamination, of a secret parallel advance by both the virus and by the libido’s unconscious forces; the homosexual transmits syphilis as he transmits homosexuality.

So, even as the medical establishment conquered syphilis with the miracle of penicillin, it failed to conquer the faggots, leaving partly dormant a repressive system that sprang to life again with AIDS, as Guibert’s novel testifies.

Once more, fantasies of contamination spread across Europe and the US in the 1980s and early 1990s. Seropositive men and women were denied necessary medication and basic courtesy while being subjected to dubious experimental treatments, double-blind tests by which they might be deluded into thinking they would receive medication but were given only a placebo, public disgust, and outright indifference. Even when Guibert is told that he has tested positive for HIV, the nurse presupposes his foreknowledge, as if it were a given—or an inescapable fate: “How long have you known that you’re seropositive?” It is an appalling irony that, while the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche patented the first antiretroviral drug, Saquinavir, in 1988, the year Guibert received his diagnosis and Hocquenghem died, it wouldn’t be made available to patients until 1995.

To the Friend is riven with desperation and fear, especially as it moves toward its final chapters. As the French and women’s studies scholar David Caron notes in an introduction to Guibert’s diary of his final few weeks, Cytomegalovirus, “Some French activists criticized him for what they saw as apolitical and romantic self-involvement.” Countering this idea, Caron wonders whether “the very affirmation of personhood in the face of the dehumanizing discourses so prevalent at the time represents in fact a legitimate combative stance?” I tend to agree. But Guibert expresses his own doubts about his autobiographical project, which would be carried out after To the Friend in several more works, including The Compassion Protocol, My Servant and Me, The Man in the Red Hat, Paradise, Cytomegalovirus, and his collected diaries, The Mausoleum of Lovers. After relaying Muzil’s final days to the reader of To the Friend, he wonders:

What right did I have to record all that? What right did I have to use friendship in such a mean fashion? And with someone I adored with all my heart? And then I sensed—it’s extraordinary—a kind of vision, or vertigo, that gave me complete authority, putting me in charge of these ignoble transcripts and legitimizing them by revealing to me (so it’s what’s called a premonition, a powerful presentiment) that I was completely entitled to do this 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 his, for it was now clear that besides being bound by friendship, we would share the same fate in death.

Agony upon agony. What is especially powerful about Guibert’s writing is that he reclaims from Hocquenghem’s “social worker with police rights” (that is, the state working to “contain” him) the right to tell the manifold story of a virus—and the community it has so deeply affected. It is a story of leaky emotional and physical borders; a story not of just one person and one body in 1988, but also of friends, a city, and a time. Guibert’s “vision, or vertigo” after Muzil’s death leads him to some of his most moving—if heartbreaking—writing on the toll of disease, as in one scene, late in the novel, when Guibert and Jules travel to Lisbon to share a birthday celebration. With both men sick, they are dragged “to the very bottom of the abyss,” where Guibert unspools, in breathlessly staggered prose, on the burden of suffering:

[Jules had] been strong enough—or weak enough—to keep moral suffering at a distance, he’d never known what it was, except when those close to him were in its grip, because you would’ve thought he picked for his friends only people given to the excesses of misery, and just last summer I spent a night trying to console Jules’s lover who was sobbing in the next room, and here I was pushing Jules to discover for himself the devastating effect of this suffering, a weapon I seemed to wield like an executioner, when the sight of him in pain made me just as wretched as he was, and added to my burden by leaving me prostrate for days on end like an invalid, I’d practically lain down on my deathbed… Neither Jules nor I was capable of the slightest physical warmth anymore. I asked him, “Are you suffering from lack of love?” He answered, “No, I’m suffering, period.”

This writing, personal as it is, with its portraits of friends and lovers in pain, expresses a political orientation cognizant of its limitations, too—its lack of a coherent program, its lack of ideas for how to save the community (and the life) from which it came. Instead, it espouses an essentially humanizing politics, as Caron notes, one in which the emotional and social deformities produced by illness and a medical establishment that failed to rescue or protect many of those who would die from it, are made vivid. In this fashion, Guibert reinvigorates the French tradition of writing about the psychosexual realities of venereal disease (think of Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert, whose literary lives were shaped by incurable syphilis) for a contemporary audience facing a contemporary virus. His innovations in the genre, with their terse Thomas Bernhardian style, would continue in the work of several younger French writers, like Guillaume Dustan.

Near the end of To the Friend, Guibert acknowledges that no one can save his life, that he will not gain access to the “AIDS vaccine” from America, and so he turns toward the solace provided by writing. To the Friend will become a record—and redress—of struggle, one that will speak for him even when he can no longer speak. “I won’t give up my book to save my life,” he declares. Guibert arrives at the same conclusion as Muzil did years before him: that one of AIDS’s few mercies is the emphasis it places on the brief time it gives you. What to do with the unsaved life? Use it, Guibert implores his readers, and rage—or write. Many of the lessons of this account of an unsaved life, now back in print, remain to be learned, even now, as we once again face a ferocious virus almost thirty years after To the Friend first appeared.

What might Guibert have made of such a public response? Probably the hypocrisy would have struck him. When the United States surpassed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, The New York Times marked the grim milestone with a front-page spread commemorating the dead. It was an arresting visual document, one that excoriated the US government for its gross incompetence and mismanagement. But this gesture, in which each life is awarded brief description, suggests an equality between the victims that the disease itself does not obey, any more than AIDS did—or does. In To the Friend, AIDS’s initial specificity of victims—“drug addicts, homosexuals, prisoners,” Bill tells Guibert—leads the pharmaceuticals executive to conspiracy-theory thinking over dinner: he suspects it was possibly designed to root around on the margins, while the faceless “family men” of the medical establishment busied themselves with abstractions, never sensing the urgency.

Disease is conspiratorial, never egalitarian, always crawling along social fissures. We know that many wealthy Americans have largely escaped Covid-19, while poorer people have not. They have still had to risk their lives for “essential” work—in Amazon fulfillment centers and factory farms and at call centers and in retail. But then American memorial culture tends to flatten the differences between populations in order to make the deaths of a few more “relatable” to the many, and to obscure the social critique that the disease often follows systemic inequality. When the comfortable can’t identify with the victims, the crisis is usually neglected. As Peter Staley, one of the founders of ACT-UP, noted when The New York Times published its Covid-19 front page, this was not the first time the paper of record had marked such a milestone, though in a very different manner.

On January 3, 1992, after the US reported that 100,000 people had died of AIDS, the paper devoted a few paragraphs to the news—on page 18, below the fold. By then, Guibert had been dead for a week. 


Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, published by Semiotext(e) / Native Agents and MIT Press.