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To read about Hervé Guibert and his work feels like preparing for an encounter with a mythical creature. Largely unknown outside of France before his book To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life was released in 1990, and still peripheral amongst English-speaking readers until a recent resurgence of his work, I was intrigued by critics’ descriptions of him and his work.
Often referred to as an enfant terrible within literary circles, Guibert shot to fame with To the Friend. The book captured France’s attention as much for its unblinking account of his diagnosis and subsequent life with HIV/AIDS as for recounting the intimate last days of his friend and public intellectual Michel Foucault, who died of the same disease in 1984. This “betrayal” caused a minor scandal, gaining Guibert notoriety for exploiting the lives and secrets of his friends for literary gain. These days he is more favourably interpreted as a writer who exposes that which is covered over and unsaid, confronting society with scenes we are complicit in choosing not to see, hear, or understand. Yet the whiff of scandal remains.
Then there is Guibert’s reputation as the heir to the “body-smeared” literary tradition of Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, et al. Utilising visceral and direct prose, his work is full of images of sex and violence, apparently designed to shock and provoke, with Julian Lucas describing him as “a young man out to trigger the middle-class.”
Couple this lurid legacy with the fact that Guibert primarily wrote autofiction, a literary style that blurs the lines between memoir and fiction, and his work takes on the mythical status of a chimaera: part death, part sex, part exposé. Simultaneously and deliberately shocking and intimate, true and untrue, I expected Guibert’s To the Friend to deliver a sort of sensual linguistic assault, without my knowing what to believe and what to doubt.
Perhaps it is my own literary naivete, but I found no such mythical beast upon sitting down to read To the Friend. Yes, it is sexually explicit, unswervingly depicting the exploits of Guibert and his predominantly queer, male friendship group. Yes, the book reveals secrets and intimate details that one might argue are divulged insensitively. And, yes, it remains impossible to decipher objective truth from artistic liberty. But underneath Guibert’s impulse to unveil and uncover the explicit, the private, and the morbid shines an uncalculated tenderness and honesty. In To the Friend, Guibert not only shows a deep sensitivity to his own struggle with HIV/AIDS but also to the inner lives of his friends, doctors and all those who found themselves bound up in that desperate moment in history, “relishing the moments of sweet humanity that never failed to spring from the harshest cruelty.”
To the Friend’s narrative begins with the beguiling statement, “I had AIDS for three months.” Upon writing this sentence, Guibert truly did not know whether the eponymous friend would or would not save his life. Casting back through the 1980s, he tells the story of his and his friends’ encounter with the unfolding AIDS epidemic. The narrative spans from first rumours and quips (“a cancer that would hit only homosexuals, no, that’s too good to be true!” laughs Foucault) to Foucault’s death and Guibert’s degrading health, and finally to the promise from Guibert’s close friend “Bill” that he could deliver his band of friends to health through a revolutionary vaccine.
Upon starting To the Friend, it is hard not to be disorientated by Guibert’s writing style. He employs long, winding sentences that disintegrate into a swirl of different thoughts, observations, and asides. The clauses trip over each other as one tries to understand where his point is headed and to remember where it started. One such sentence spans a full three pages.
However, once one has settled into the book, the reader becomes acclimatised to the speed and cadence of Guibert’s thought. That three-page sentence ends up forming one of the book’s most entertaining chapters. Guibert is scrambling to find a disused hospital on the outskirts of Paris where he is supposed to undergo a new battery of tests in order to determine which phase of the illness he is in. This morbid mission unfolds somewhat calamitously, animated by Guibert’s talent for capturing people’s faces, laying bare the emotions that flash across them, and filling every chance encounter with significance. Guibert’s ability to jump from the quotidian to the terrifyingly existential in the same sentence provides To the Friend with a black humour that is immediately endearing.
It is through these long phrases of thought, these links of event and emotion, that Guibert plays out his story. Split into 100 chapters, To the Friend reads as a series of vignettes, jumping between years, rendezvous with friends, and meetings with doctors in a structure that again adds to the reader’s initial disorientation. But it is through Guibert’s relationship with his inner circle that one steadily becomes moored in his world as the creeping realisation that they have all been swept up in a common destiny takes hold.
We are quickly introduced to “Muzil,” Guibert’s thinly veiled alias for Foucault, who by 1983 was already suffering from a cough that was “tearing his lungs out.” Part of the scandal upon To the Friend’s release was the revelation of Muzil’s enjoyment of “violent orgies in bathhouses” and “whips, leather hoods, leashes, bridles, and handcuffs.” But to focus on these salacious details is to miss the care with which Guibert writes about his close friend.
As Muzil’s neighbour, Guibert could see his balcony from his own apartment, and upon realising the gravity of Muzil’s situation, he writes, “I was stretching invisible nets from my window to save him.” Later on, there is a moment in which Jules, Guibert’s alias for his partner Thierry Jouno, cuts off the beautiful blonde curls that had framed Guibert’s cherubic visage, much to the horror of his friends, Jules included. While Muzil was initially shocked at Guibert’s new “long, angular face…with a hint of bitterness around the mouth,” he takes the time to reflect, eventually declaring that he “preferred it to the one that made him love me, accepting this face that was truly mine.” Finally, upon Muzil’s deathbed, Guibert kisses Muzil’s hand, one of his final acts of love toward his dear friend.
To the Friend is filled with these moments of intimacy. Muzil is but one of a cast of friends who feature in Guibert’s journey, and while much of what Guibert explores touches the themes that form his mythology, in To the Friend they become more than the sum of their parts. HIV/AIDS unites these themes in no uncertain terms, yet it is the humanity that bursts out of Guibert’s writing that the reader remembers after finishing To the Friend: “This attempt at fucking struck me as unspeakably sad: 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…Jammed all the way up my ass, deep in the flesh around my pelvic arch, Jules made me come as he gazed into my eyes. It was an unbearable look, too sublime, too wrenching, both eternal and threatened by eternity.”
If friendship lies at the core of To the Friend, this plays out paradoxically through Guibert’s description of the friend who did not save his life. Bill’s appearances are limited through the first half of the book, but he suddenly takes centre stage when he announces at a dinner party that a “curative vaccine” for AIDS has just been discovered in the USA by a close personal friend. Guibert is suddenly swept up in the tides of fate, “a phenomenon of destiny.” Having come to terms with his diagnosis and treatment, his friend, whom he’d met completely by chance in a fast-food joint many years ago, had suddenly given him back his hope of a life.
With Bill unaware of Guibert’s predicament, Guibert’s in-the-know friends implore him to inform Bill of his diagnosis so that Bill might aid him from his position as an executive in the pharmaceutical company helping develop the vaccine. Guibert is at first reluctant, but after an evening out with Bill, he confides in his friend, beginning a long period of uncertainty in which the demands of friendship and boasts of life-changing power eventually prove too much for Bill to live up to.
Guibert’s damning condemnation of Bill, the friend who makes promises that he cannot keep, is as revealing as the sparkling moments of humanity that define To the Friend. In the mirror image of his last days with Muzil, Guibert recounts a scene in which Bill is unable to hold the hand of a friend dying in a coma, the obligations of friendship too much for him to bear. Instead, Bill is a “faker” who doesn’t do a single thing out of kindness or generosity.” It is Bill’s inability to share in the compassion that defined all those who were bound to Guibert’s fate, whether seropositive or not, that excommunicates him. Bill does not respond to the call of solidarity and so “he doesn’t belong to our world.” Talking to Dr. Chandi, the doctor whom Guibert comes to respect and feel deep affection for in To the Friend, he says of Bill, “he’s not a hero, he’ll never be a hero. The hero is the one helping someone who is dying, the hero is you, and maybe me as well, the one who’s dying.”
To the Friend captures, the shame, love, suffering, and connection of Guibert’s community, “bound by friendship,” that would “share the same fate in death.” He writes: “That was probably the hardest thing to bear in this new era of misfortune that awaited us: to feel one’s friend, one’s brother, so broken by what was happening to him.”
And while it was so easy to look away in the face of this devastating movement in history, to avert one’s eyes, as Bill did, Guibert refused. In one scene nearing the conclusion of To the Friend, Guibert has stumbled across five waxen children’s heads whilst on holiday with Jules in Lisbon. The heads were traditionally used as ex votos for children with meningitis, and Guibert decides to reappropriate them as representations of himself, Jules, Jules’ wife “Berthe” and their two children “Titi” and “Loulou.” In another of his darkly comical sequences, he rushes between churches in Lisbon looking for a place to leave his offerings. With his mission unsuccessful thanks to various suspicious clergy members, Guibert says that “nobody wants my offerings” and wonders whether he should leave them in the trash.
Whilst society chose to ignore, misunderstand, misrepresent, and malign the queer and homosexual community during the HIV/AIDS crisis, Guibert did not abandon his fellows, refusing to “leave them in the trash.” Instead, he provides a beautiful collection of offerings in To the Friend,raising them up, elevating to a place of untouchable humanity the fights, the arguments, the secrets, the gossip, the love, the tenderness, and the mutual journey into oblivion that Guibert and his companions faced. And 30 years after his eventual death in 1991, Guibert’s To the Friend should be celebrated as a testament to and immortalisation of this tragic period of recent history.
To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life
Serpent’s Tail, 288 pages