Barbarous and Delicate


The cover of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life

A few months ago, the thirtieth-anniversary republication of a book written at the peak of the HIV epidemic and chronicling the impact of the virus on an intimate social circle of French writers, artists, medical professionals, and intellectuals—Michel Foucault among them—might have been a boutique or scholarly curiosity. AIDS, after all, has become one of the few medical and socio-biological “success” stories of recent decades. Testing plus an effective cocktail of antiretroviral drugs, alongside newer prophylactic treatments like Truvada, has reduced the illness to a chronic condition rather than a death sentence. In so-called advanced nations, the disease is mostly contained (with the exception of the state of Indiana, where an outbreak in 2015 was exacerbated by the religious dogmatism of then-governor Mike Pence).

Now, in the midst of a global pandemic unlike any since the influenza outbreak of 1918, Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, available again in Linda Coverdale’s outstandingly colloquial and exact translation, feels once more urgent and monitory. While everyone seems to be reading or instagramming Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, about London in 1665, or Camus’s The Plague, there still seems to be less interest in the last major epidemic to hit the United States. It’s almost as if people still think of HIV as a disease that only affected particularly vulnerable subsections of the population. But if Guibert’s partly diaristic, partly autofictional account “speaks to us,” as the cliché goes, it doesn’t exactly bring good news. Epidemics are hard to manage because they bring out some of the worst elements of human behavior, both from those exposed and suffering and from those looking to treat or, more often, to profit off them.

By the time he was actually diagnosed with HIV, in 1988, Guibert was well-prepared to write about the progression of his own disease with clinical precision and an almost overscrupulous absence of sentimentalism. Just over thirty, he was already the author of a number of novels and nonfiction reportage, a celebrated screenplay, a fair amount of art criticism for Le Monde, and two collections of more avant-garde short stories (many of which were recently translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published in English for the first time as Written in Invisible Ink). These shorter pieces, practically necro-realist narrations of sexual encounters, were intended, as Guibert puts it, to subject “fantasy to horrific treatments, that literally dissects it, tears away its flesh of fancy, skins its bark of haziness and vagueness to leave it bare, raw, skinned by our sight.”

The style of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life is more restrained and controlled than these earlier works, but full of well-noticed contrasting details that combine to create an effect that Guibert—apropos of The Compassion Protocol, his last work before his suicide in 1991—characterized as “barbarous and delicate.” An ambulance pulls up to unload a patient in front of a half-abandoned hospital in the midst of shutting down: “slippers in a crate with ampules of potassium chloride . . . a basin from an intensive care unit with a coating of snow on the bottom.” At another hospital, the nurses who draw his blood for the dreaded regular T-cell count “slip on their latex gloves as though they were velvet gloves for a gala evening at the opera.” One of them comments on his cologne, “It’s Habit Rouge isn’t it? . . . I do like that perfume, and to catch a whiff of it on this gray morning, well, you know it’s really a little treat for me.” Disease, as those who’ve spent time in the presence of the sick know, is never quite dramatically life or death, but always life in death and death in life. No moment of one’s life as a terminally ill person or a carer for a terminally ill person passes without this double acknowledgment.

Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait et pantin (Self-portrait and puppet), ca. 1981, gelatin silver print, 5 7⁄8 × 8 7⁄8". Courtesy the Estate of Hervé Guibert, Paris, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York
Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait et pantin (Self-portrait and puppet), ca. 1981, gelatin silver print, 5 7⁄8 × 8 7⁄8". Courtesy the Estate of Hervé Guibert, Paris, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York

Guibert was simultaneously a patient, a carer, and an observer. He’d watched friends die, including his next-door neighbor, the man he refers to as Muzil, a phonetic allusion to the Austrian author of The Man Without Qualities. Muzil is easily recognizable as Foucault, though Guibert notes the care his friend took to remain unknowable and, indeed, without qualities in his last years: “Muzil” would only write short pieces under a pseudonym. He comes up with more and more elaborate excuses not to finish his latest book while begging Guibert to destroy his unpublished writings, so that “the public would see only the gleaming and self-contained enigma of that skull he took care to shave every morning.”

Muzil is determined to resist a disease that threatens to expose or arrest the sufferer not just as a body ripe for the operating table, the ICU, or the dissecting slab, but also as a kind of social pariah labeled according to his sexual practices or risky social behavior. But he does so only through asserting a will to privacy or interiority. He gripes about “how completely the body loses all identity once it’s delivered into medical hands, becoming just a package of helpless flesh . . . hardly even a number on a slip of paper . . . drained of all individuality and dignity.” When Muzil first hears the news about this mysterious virus, in 1981, Guibert relates that he literally falls off his couch in a fit of hilarity: “A cancer that would hit only homosexuals, no, that’s too good to be true, I could just die laughing!” Even after learning he was infected, he never gave up his taste for anonymous sex (but did stop sleeping with his partner). Reporting from his yearly seminar at UC Berkeley in 1983, Muzil tells Guibert that the San Francisco bathhouses have never been as popular or fantastic. “This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one ever said a word; now we talk to one another. We all know exactly why we’re there.”

Muzil’s behavior isn’t atypical or monstrous. That’s partly Guibert’s point in exposing it. This double game of denial and self-dissociation, in order to preserve something of the self, dominates the activities of Guibert and his circle of lovers and friends and constitutes the book’s first half. Guilt over maybe having given someone the disease is equaled only by guilt in writing about those who had it: “Muzil would have been so hurt if he’d known I was writing reports of everything like a spy, like an adversary, all those degrading little things, in my diary, which was perhaps destined (that was the worst of it) to survive him, and to bear witness to a truth he would have liked to erase around the periphery of his life.” As it turned out, when the book was first published, Guibert was initially pilloried for exactly this. But he doesn’t present himself as a heroic activist, either. He charts his effort both to pin down the exact moment when he caught the virus and to forestall a final reckoning—a harder task when, like most people with active imaginations and a decent amount of medical knowledge, Guibert was also a hypochondriac. He goes to at least four doctors for ailments that range from an abscess in his throat to pains in his side, but doesn’t take an actual HIV test until 1988, several years after both he and his long-term partner were symptomatic. “The physiological accidents are no less decisive than the sexual encounters, the premonitions no less telling than the wishes that try to banish them,” is how he puts it in a chapter devoted to tracing every possible vector of his contagion.

It’s also clear, however, that almost no one was truly fooled. In an interview with one of his great-aunts, part of a video diary made shortly before he started to go blind from cytomegalovirus, in 1990, Guibert asks how she found out he had AIDS and is floored by her reply. “Oh, we assumed it from the precautions that you took. . . . You arranged everything so no one would eat after you, because at the beginning they said that it was transmitted by mouth, by food, by I don’t know what.” A similar moment occurs in the book when one of his younger lovers, known simply as “the Poet,” tells Guibert that his mother plans to sue Guibert if his HIV test comes back positive. Guibert is mystified: “I’d always taken precautions with the Poet, even when he begged me to treat him like a slut.”

As a chronicler of denial and semi-superstitious compromise, Guibert is surpassed only by his accounts of how plague conditions bring out hypocrisy, selfishness, and cowardice. Everyone in his circle is in some sense complicit in creating an atmosphere that swings between desperate isolation and impossible-to-sustain hope. Some friends simply shun him; others, more complicatedly, break off contact because they’re not infected and feel guilty because they can’t share in his suffering. Guibert’s lover Jules also infects his wife and children but can’t admit it to them. Muzil’s surviving partner, Stéphane, founds a support and counseling group, but this actually noble and selfless act emerges, as Guibert notes, from his need to get out of “the shadow and thrall” of his more accomplished lover. “AIDS became the social raison d’être of many people, their hope for public recognition and a position in society,” Guibert writes.

The titular friend who doesn’t save the author’s life combines the worst of all these traits: Bill, a closeted American pharmaceutical executive, teases Hervé with inside knowledge of “an absolute secret” experimental trial to treat AIDS patients that promises 100 percent remission and would also work as a “curative vaccine.” (This was Jonas Salk’s effort to develop an HIV vaccine, patented as “Remune” and of ambiguous effectiveness.) It’s never clear that Bill has the authority to offer anyone a place in the clinical trial, but he wields the power over his dying French friends like a sadistic will-o’-the-wisp. He disappears for months and turns up talking with a breezy indiscretion about the “gorgeous” young men already in the experiment in the States. In this portrait of the pharma exec as a middle-aged narcissist, speeding around Paris in a Jaguar, rerouting the company plane to Barcelona, running away whenever someone he knows is seriously ill only to phone them with complaints about minor medical issues of his own, we have a forerunner of the hydroxychloroquine-hawking hucksters of our own pandemic moment. We all know friends who can’t or don’t save our lives. Sometimes also governments.

Marco Roth is the author of The Scientists (2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and a founding coeditor of n+1.