Encountering Hervé Guibert’s Anti-Utopian Men

Jeffrey Zuckerman on Translating the Author's Visceral Autofictions

The myth of Hervé Guibert is that of the cruelly beautiful man who betrayed his friends, the writer of sex and death who would die of a sexually-transmitted disease. This myth owes its origins to a single book, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. The volume was an autofiction: drawing from life while not being bound purely to the facts. But the truth it told was undeniable. It laid bare the symptoms of and treatments for the disease that had just befallen the narrator and author; readers quickly understood that the only reason it turned its gaze upon the philosopher Michel Foucault was to lay bare the reality of how he, too, had in fact died of that same disease.

It was a book that did away with secrets, starting with the name of the disease: AIDS. The philosopher had already been dead for six years, reportedly of cancer, at the time the book was published, but his reputation was so firmly cemented that few French readers were deluded by the descriptions of a man named Muzil.

As the man was described on his deathbed, there was an outcry among the French public: what right did this writer have to uncover these secrets? But this betrayal of Foucault’s confidences were merely the scandal of a moment; Hervé Guibert’s most enduring influence has been in ending the silence imposed by the shame and stigma of AIDS.

In the wake of its publication and scandal, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life would sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and a groundswell of support would rise up for Guibert. Hewent on to write two more volumes to create a trilogy around his experience with AIDS before his death, subsequent to a suicide attempt, at the end of 1991. The myth around the man was a simple yet seductive one.

It was easy for Guibert’s new readers to remain unaware that, before the bombshell that was To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, he had written more than a dozen other books published by France’s most prestigious publishers, as well as having been a photographer with numerous exhibitions and a journalist for Le Monde and other outlets. The man behind the myth, unsurprisingly, was far more complex than the myth itself.

It would take more than a decade, and the publication of Guibert’s journals under the title The Mausoleum of Lovers, for a fuller picture to be anchored in the public consciousness, for readers to look at the words rather than the images. This is how I myself discovered Hervé Guibert: the English translation of his journals came out at the same time that I met the brilliant author Marie Darrieussecq, who had written her doctoral dissertation on his work.

As I read the diaries, I picked up several volumes of his short stories. From the outset, Guibert’s sentences struck me in their complexity: they were long, sinuous, sometimes self-referential, always designed to implicate the reader somehow. Again and again I tried to imagine how they could possibly unspool in English with the same elegance I saw in the original French, and even though I could sense the scope of the challenge, I couldn’t shake the thought of translating his words myself.

All the strangeness and violence and viscerality of Guibert’s depictions were wonderfully harnessed by his carefully deployed words.

This first story of his I attempted was “The Knife Thrower”; it turns out to have been one of his earliest-written stories. As I untangled its long, convoluted sentences, I found myself inexorably pulled by Guibert’s particular trains of thought, the way his sentences looped around and interrupted themselves before arriving at their endpoint. It was a style that made me want to stretch the English language to accommodate the strangeness of the original French.

I paged through other stories, translated them to see if I could somehow replicate Guibert’s baroque phrases and decentered clichés. All the strangeness and violence and viscerality of Guibert’s depictions were wonderfully harnessed by his carefully deployed words. There was a man beneath the myth, but the myth wasn’t entirely wrong: his beauty was there, and so was his cruelty; his raw honesty was there, and so was his intense devotion to the subjects of his scrutiny. They felt, if anything, like the photographs he had taken: carefully composed, strikingly blunt, but undeniably bewitching.

*

In Guibert’s photographs, the human body recurs again and again. Clothed or naked, whole or squared-off, in flesh or in wax . . . Even when what is photographed is a simulacrum of the real thing, there is no denying that the body, with all its expressive potential, is the true source of inspiration for him.

Such imagery is indicative of the intense physicality of Guibert’s stories. He makes no secret of how his own life steered him in such a direction: while his mother was a former schoolteacher, his father was a veterinary inspector who examined the abattoirs of Paris. As such, his childhood in and around Paris was marked by the sight of his father’s blood-stained clothes, of beef tongue wrapped in newsprint for them to cook, and by Hervé’s own medical condition of a concave chest.

If most writers’ debuts deal with autobiographical concerns, then it should come as little surprise that Guibert’s very first book, Propaganda Death, was filled with the images of slaughterhouses and hospitals. The kinship he had already declared with Sade, Bataille, and Genet is made gruesomely visible as he articulates the human body in extremis, culminating in a scene where he describes his own body, dead and on a laboratory table.

It was published in 1977: he was only 21 years old at the time. He could not have known that he would die 15 years later, but here he was already considering his own corpse at length. An early draft of Propaganda Death is written as a screenplay; there are headings, directions, bits of dialogue. Not much space is given to interiority.

Even when his attention turns to the erotic, he remains visceral: the hookups and street fights he describes with other men are harsh and violent, not so much a series of bodies coming together as bodies crashing against one another. Foucault described the book in an interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy: “Guibert opens with the worst extreme—‘You want us to speak of it, well, let’s go, and you will hear more than ever before’—and with this infamous material he builds bodies, mirages, castles, fusions, acts of tenderness, races, intoxications . . .”

Interiority would come more and more to the fore in Guibert’s later stories, but the entire time I translated these stories, I was unable to forget the words of Nathanaël, the translator of his journals. The greatest difficulty of working on those notebooks, she said, was “in duration . . . to be called upon, in a sense, to exhume, repeatedly, Guibert’s body, was exhausting.”

Looking back at the corpus of Hervé Guibert’s shorter works, I sense this same heft that is more than the weight of the stories themselves. But somehow this heft is reassuring, as if making my way through his literary career through his stories, his various perspectives on himself and the people around him, had been a way to take the measure of his self.

It felt all too appropriate, then that the last story I translated by Guibert should be “The Lemon Tree.” It opens almost photographically, with the narrator staring at his friend’s hand in admiration, and closes with one of that friend’s fingers down his throat and with “an immense calm” that I myself felt upon typing the final sentence.

Many of Guibert’s stories end with unanswered letters or indeterminate images or even just ellipses: a trailing-off, not a sense of closure. It was with the shock of recognition, then, that I read the words of his widow, Christine, who he married so that the revenue from his books would go to her children and so that his estate would be handled suitably: “At the beginning of our friendship (from 1976), every time I read his books, his short stories especially, I had the feeling of something incomplete, as if he didn’t know how to finish. Now, I see his work as a closed space, fully constructed and whole.”

*

Men are everywhere to be found in Guibert’s texts. In a conversation with Edmund White, who had known Hervé early in his career, I was surprised to realize that Guibert’s particular stance toward other men—that is, open, unashamed, yet not brazen homosexuality—was not meant as a provocation. It was, however, a quietly revolutionary stance in line with his particular brand of rebelliousness, in which, to quote a line from the end of Ghost Image, “secrets have to circulate.” If homosexuality was one such secret, Guibert refused to keep it, whether in his life or in his art.

Still, Guibert’s stories are in no way utopian. Curses and snubs and physical attacks crop up frequently, almost always borne out of homophobia. But there is a solace to be found in how the narrators and protagonists of these stories refuse to see themselves in the wrong; they love each other, tease each other, suck each other off, and betray each other just as easily as any other couple might.

The best-known man emblematized in Guibert’s oeuvre is . . . Michel Foucault, who was not a lover but, first and foremost, a neighbor and a colleague.

And just as these stories pose a particular way of living life, so does a particular life inscribe itself in these texts, populated by men Guibert knew intimately. The Vincent Marmousez of Crazy for Vincent, for example, is also present in “The Earthquake.” The playwright and screenwriter Patrice Chéreau eventually shared a screenwriting credit with Guibert; their relationship is allegorized in another one of Guibert’s stories.

Early in his literary career, Guibert welcomed Roland Barthes’s attention, and they maintained an epistolary friendship. While Barthes does not seem to be directly described in any of the stories included in this collection, he did ask Guibert to write the text that would become “Propaganda Death no. 0”; their relationship ran aground as a result of the conditions that Barthes imposed on its publication.

The best-known man emblematized in Guibert’s oeuvre is, of course, Michel Foucault, who was not a lover but, first and foremost, a neighbor and a colleague. While their friendship is most clearly illustrated in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, the man is also revealed, more obliquely, in what is perhaps the most powerful and unforgettable of all Guibert’s stories, “A Man’s Secrets.”

It was written quickly and out of intense grief, as he said in an interview published in 1992: “the day after his death, I wrote a text about his burial. It took me two or three years before publishing it, before even having it read. Then I disguised this character, my thoughts of him were of absence, of lack. Were unbearable. His very image became wholly evanescent. I so needed this friendship to live that, when he was dead, I had to forget it.”

There are anonymous men as well, most noticeably in the stories of Singular Adventures, and the passions they inspired seem to have been no less memorable. Guibert ends his story “The Trip to Brussels” with a retrospective gaze that transcends nostalgia: “The words we spoke made an apocryphal story that was perfect: faded, singed, written in invisible ink, buried and unexhumable. Nothing could reconstruct these words, they were like a treasure lost in the depths: intimidating, undetectable.” The image of a story written in invisible ink is a powerful one, doubly so when one realizes that the original French is encre sympathique—the adjective connoting not secrecy and subterfuge but kindness and closeness.

*

When I began this project, all of Guibert’s translated novels were out of print—even To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. At the time, it felt symbolic yet saddening: if gay rights were moving so steadily forward toward equality with the broader population, why preserve this particular, liminal past? Indeed, such an unprecedented nationwide—and even global—sea change in attitudes toward gay marriage and adoption risked effacing the long struggle that came before it, from Oscar Wilde’s trials and Alan Turing’s cyanide-laced apple to the Stonewall riots and the ACT-UP movement.

Guibert’s autofictional writings, by weaving the autobiographical facts of his life with the fictions of his imagination, exist simultaneously as works of art and as records of a particular moment in history that otherwise would—indeed, has—become forgotten. But as my work in selecting, translating, and polishing these stories wore on, it became clear that this shift was not inevitable, nor even permanent.

As the pendulum threatens to swing backwards, reviving the past and its images, and laying it out for a new generation of readers, seems all the more essential; it is a great credit to Hedi El Kholti and Semiotext(e) that this work of publishing and republishing such an essential queer writer is happening now.

Translating Guibert’s stories meant digging back into the history of gay slang, and resuscitating particular eras. “Invert” has not been used to refer to gay people for several decades now, but in Guibert’s time, it was still an acceptable term. The word minet is still in common currency in France today, but its current American equivalent, “twink,” was not widely used in the 1970s, so I have had to dredge up the older, blander term “pretty boy.”

There are plays on words as well, most memorably in Propaganda Death. As Guibert furthered his writing career, however, his prose shifted toward a more classical mode. One particular exception stands out: in “Mauve the Virgin,” Mauve himself is watching a boy crack his bones almost seductively, and thinks to himself in French: “quelle os-tentation!” Ostentation, in French and in English, implies showing off; os, however, means bone, and tentation means temptation.

The solution I eventually arrived at was a small miracle: “it’s almost as if he wants me to jump his bones!” Any translator of Guibert also has to be wary of the stray word that, with its lexical or semantic shift, seems to knock a whole sentence off-kilter; the challenge, in English, has been to find words that do the same work without seeming like translationese.

Guibert’s choices are generally deliberate: he worked for many years as a journalist, so it is reasonable to assume that his resistance to telegraphic prose should be reflected in English—even when it forces a reader to do the hard work of following his train of thought.

Translating Guibert’s stories meant digging back into the history of gay slang, and resuscitating particular eras.

As such, I’ve often aimed to preserve the continuity of Guibert’s sentences, and refrained from rearranging clauses unless comprehension was hindered in English.

In looking at Guibert’s manuscripts at the IMEC, I was struck by how clean Guibert’s handwritten pages were. He rarely crossed out or revised his sentences; they flowed almost fully formed from his mind. To see his pen speed up is to see when the words were coming almost automatically; to see his pen-strokes formed slowly and carefully is to see when he was deliberating about what thought should come next.

The day I spent looking at these manuscripts, after completing drafts of all the stories contained in the volume, feels like the closest connection I have had with this long-gone writer; it was well worth the trip across the Atlantic, and the crack-of-dawn train out of Paris to the abbey in Caen where Guibert’s papers are stored.

In “Posthumous Novel,” my favorite of all Guibert’s stories, the narrator describes a meadow that has become irradiated and allows passersby to uncover letters and words and sentences thought by the people who had passed by.

I ask the reader to imagine me, for a few seconds, during my various wanderings, like a visionary, or like a preposterous butterfly hunter, busy following these grim railroad tracks, and, every few meters, setting off these sodic explosions so as to detect, in the nighttime landscape in fusion, the strongest concentrations of thoughts, disentangling them, photographing them, then magnifying them, and recognizing his turns of phrase (the thoughts preceding his death already had a literary shape, they were all oriented toward this dream of a novel) and then setting them in the silence of the library where I worked and where I returned every night, because it was the only place large enough to welcome all the loot I poured out, and which came back together into long strips of sentences repeatedly interrupted, stuck together, and then undone.

To collect and translate Guibert’s short stories is to perform this same sort of gathering, to search in the night of a foreign language the words that can be brought back and disentangled and rendered into English as sentences that are “repeatedly interrupted, stuck together, and then undone.” To be this wanderer or visionary or preposterous butterfly hunter is the strange and beautiful task of any translator. And this act of exhuming Guibert’s words exhumes not only Guibert himself, but a historical moment, an oeuvre, a life we otherwise would not have in English.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Written in Invisible Ink: Selected Stories by Herve Guibert. Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. Reprinted with permission from semiotext(e), distributed by The MIT Press. Copyright 2020.

Jeffrey Zuckerman
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature Magazine. His translations from French include Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017) as well as numerous texts by Marie Darrieussecq, Hervé Guibert, Régis Jauffret, and Kaija Saariaho, among others. A graduate of Yale University, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and Vice. He is a recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation fund grant for his translation from the French of The Complete Stories of Hervé Guibert.





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