Hervé Guibert: Writing the Ghost

Hervé Guibert was born in 1955 and died of AIDS at the age of 36, having previously attempted to take his own life. He was the author of some thirty books while also working as a photographer and critic for French newspaper Le Monde. His best-known work, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990), recounts his illness and the final days of philosopher Michel Foucault, who also died of AIDS. This and other writings have just been translated into English in the United States, showcasing the prolific author and autofiction pioneer whose work was haunted by death.
Self-portrait at the top of the Empire State Building, in New York, 1981. © Christine Guibert/Courtesy of Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

On March 16, 1990, Hervé Guibert was a guest on Apostrophes, a famous French literary talk show, as part of the publication of his book To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. The illness had hollowed his cheeks, bringing out his light blue eyes. Carefully choosing his words and displaying no visible emotion, he discussed the scandal caused by the book that had suddenly made him a star. The reason for the public outcry was not the lucid, unsentimental description of his suffering body, but rather what he had revealed about the final days of Michel Foucault, his close friend whom he visited at the hospital. The philosopher’s family had always refused to admit that Foucault, whom Guibert referred to as “Muzil” (in reference to Robert Musil, the author of The Man Without Qualities), had died of AIDS. “I was flying across the [Pont d’Austerlitz],” writes Guibert. “I knew a secret still unknown to the people  all around me, but one that would change the face of the world.”

Hervé Guibert, Michel, 1981. © Christine Guibert/Courtesy of Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

In this book, deeply influenced by Thomas Bernhard’s Gargoyles, which he discovered while living in Rome at the Villa Medici (1987-1989), Guibert wanted to project his own death – an inevitability at a time when AIDS treatments were in their early stages. “A virus like a godsend,” he writes in his journal, The Mausoleum of Lovers, published ten years after his death. While the illness, a “permanent injunction,” became a subject in itself and transformed his writing, death (along with homosexuality) had been omnipresent since his very first book. “I was very obsessed at the time by anatomical art […], corpses,” he said in an interview about Propaganda Death for Globe magazine. “It was my world. An aesthetic passion, a voyeur’s, a collector’s passion. It seemed very alive to me.”

Autofiction and Caricature

Propaganda Death was published by the scandalous Régine Deforges in 1977, the same year that Serge Doubrovsky invented the term “autofiction,” a combination of autobiography and fiction. While some of Guibert’s books are true novels (Blindsight, Arthur’s Whims), his overall work is largely inspired by his own life and journals. These influences can be observed in entire passages in My Parents, a caricatural portrayal of a brutal, miserly father who works as a slaughterhouse vet, and a depressive, submissive mother left mutilated by breast cancer: “Now that my parents are at last dead (but I tell a lie), I can freely write all the bad things I think about them or have thought about them, only praying heaven never to give me such an ungrateful and spiteful son.”

For Guibert, writing means developing lived experiences, materializing and enhancing them – to the extent that he would sometimes experience situations in order to write them “as if out of honesty” (Singular Adventures). Reading Guibert means getting to know his intimate geography, from Paris to Elba, his constellation of characters who appear from one book to the next, some-times hidden behind an initial or a fictional name. A network of figures including T. and C., Thierry and Christine, the former his lover and muse, the latter his partner whom Guibert married in 1989 to make her the beneficiary in his will; Vincent, the bisexual teenager in Crazy for Vincent, an occasionally pornographic account of an obsessive passion; and the great-aunts and protagonists of the photo-story Suzanne et Louise, who live together in a mansion in the 15th arrondissement of Paris.

Hervé Guibert, Isabelle Adjani, 1980. © Christine Guibert/Courtesy of Les Douches la Galerie, Paris
Hervé Guibert, Le fiancé, 1982. © Christine Guibert/Courtesy of Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

“The Despair of the Image”

In Ghost Image, Guibert reveals how, at the age of 18, he convinced his mother to pose for him so he could try out his father’s little Rollei 35 camera. He did her hair and makeup, made her change out of her old clothes that made her look shapeless and stiff, and sat her in an armchair. But when his father developed the film, the image had failed to print onto the reel. “This text is the despair of the image, and worse than a blurred or fogged image – a ghost image,” he writes. All that remained was the written word, far more important than photography, which he viewed as a minor pursuit. Whether he personally posed lying on the floor, took pictures of his old aunt’s white hair, or captured the pale face of French actress Isabelle Adjani, his black-and-white images enthrall and disturb the viewer. According to academics Jean-Pierre Boulé and Arnaud Genon, authors of a book about the writer, “beauty and horror, the living and the dead, all combine in Guibert’s photographs to create a tainted aesthetic.”

herve-guibert-La-mere-1980 (1)
Hervé Guibert, La mère, 1980. © Christine Guibert/Courtesy of Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

“Hervé, the artist, resolutely and actively opens a personal landscape to the inspiration and expectation of all others,” writes Yvonne Baby, who had hired him as a photography critic for the culture section of the French newspaper Le Monde. “Wherever he goes, he sows and reaps beauty while blending the profane and the sacred.” Guibert was a writer of both beauty and cruelty, fascinated by sordid news items and sadomasochism but terrified by ugliness. He “blurred the line between candor and provocation,” according to a New York Times headline, while combining pleasure and suffering. “One of the roles of literature is the apprenticeship of death,” he wrote in his journal. Until he died in 1991, he never stopped writing.

To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life
by Hervé Guibert, translated from French by Linda Coverdale, Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2020.
Written in Invisible Ink by Hervé Guibert, translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2020.

Article published in the November 2020 issue of 
France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.