Love Stories

Edmund White

  • To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life: A Novel by Hervé Guibert, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Quartet, 246 pp, £12.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 7043 7000 X
  • The Man in the Red Hat by Hervé Guibert, translated by James Kirkup
    Quartet, 111 pp, £12.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 7043 7046 8
  • The Compassion Protocol by Hervé Guibert, translated by James Kirkup
    Quartet, 202 pp, £13.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 7043 7059 X

Hervé Guibert died on 27 December 1991 from complications resulting from an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He had been ill with Aids for several years and in 1990 had made a spectacular appearance on French television during which he’d discussed his illness and the book he’d written about it, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. The thousands of letters he received as a result encouraged him to write another book, The Compassion Protocol, and to participate in another prime-time interview. This time he was wearing a red hat, the very one referred to in the title of a subsequent work, The Man in the Red Hat. During his final year of life he also made a home video, La Pudeur et l’impudeur, which was screened on television a month after his death. Yet another Aids book, Cytomégalovirus, was published at this time and a posthumous novel, Le Paradis, appeared at the beginning of 1993.

As an heir to Sade and Bataille, Hervé Guibert had never felt squeamish about rubbing his reader’s nose in all his bodily excretions. His very first ‘text’ (for once this pretentious term is useful, since Guibert’s writing often confounds genres) is unqualifiedly disgusting. In fact La Mort propagande combines several of the themes he would develop more extensively later on. First, the desire evinced by Proust’s character Mlle Vinteuil to humiliate her father in Guibert’s case becomes a nearly erotic pleasure in spitting on his parents’ image. Guibert has a grotesque flash to his childhood, when his mother would become so excited chatting with the butcher that a fluid would flow down her leg and mix with the sawdust on the floor, a process the little boy beside her would observe with fascination. Other tropes include sessions during which he photographs his bodily wastes, which he’s been saving up for the occasion; cottaging, during which he’s beaten up and repeatedly violated; and a concluding scene during which his dead body is dissected, a moment that mixes science with sexual frenzy. Later Guibert would become a well-known photographer and the photography critic for Le Monde. His taste for sexual masochism would produce a slim volume of out-and-out pornography, Les Chiens, in which a master treats his slaves like dogs, confining them to a kennel where they are allowed to lick and play with slabs of cooked meat but never to swallow them. He later claimed this volume had been inspired by Francis Bacon’s paintings. The brutal way of regarding his own body, prefigured in the suggestively titled La Mort propagande, was fully developed only in his last Aids books.

A collection of Guibert’s photographs, Le Seul Visage, begins with a startling admission. ‘In my writing there’s no brake on what I do, no misgivings since I’m virtually the only one who counts (other people become abstract characters bearing just initials), whereas in photography there’s the body of other people, relatives, friends, and I’m always a bit worried: am I not about to betray them by turning them in this way into visual objects?’ What’s arresting about this admission is that it suggests the very real betrayals in his fiction don’t count for him since Guibert feels he alone fully exists on the page. Although his narcissism may give an antic energy to his prose, fortunately it does not hood his observing eye. His characters are very real indeed and his betrayals as succulent as those Genet promises but seldom delivers.

Among his photographs are portraits of his friends, many of whom also show up in his books: Gina Lollobrigida, Isabelle Adjani, the director Patrice Chéreau (with whom Guibert wrote the filmscript L’Homme blessé), the novelist Mathieu Lindon (book critic for Libération and son of Jérôme Lindon, publisher of Les Editions de Minuit, Guibert’s first publisher), Guibert’s parents and finally his mentor, Michel Foucault, shown in a dressing gown before a mirror and the multiplied, distorted reflections of lacquered doors.

I first met the hyacinthine, ringleted, foggyvoiced young Guibert through Foucault in 1983. He was perhaps Foucault’s best friend. Although Foucault liked working with women (Arlette Farge was a favourite), he didn’t like socialising with them; once I invited Susan Sontag to dinner and he hissed at me when she left the room for a moment: ‘Why did you invite her?’ He preferred all-male evenings, preferably with talented youths such as Jacques Almira (whose first novel he introduced), Gilles Barbedette (to whom he granted his last deathbed interview), Mathieu Lindon and Guibert – all novelists, all gay, all attractive in a slender, ambiguous way, a bit like the willowy ephebes gathered around Plato in the painting by Théodore Chassériau in the Museé d’Orsay. I hasten to add that these boys were the exact opposite of the men Foucault felt attracted to. Since his ephebes were neither intellectuals nor objects of desire but artists, they suited his love of beauty and his cult of friendship.

Guibert, who was only 28 at the time, had an earnest, wide-eyed, almost somnambulistic manner, devoid of the irony and bitchiness characteristic of his extremely rude generation in Paris. He was polite, remote, abstracted, although the moment he drew Foucault aside he became hushed and serious, incandescent. Oh, and I forgot to mention he had the most arresting, angelic face I’ve ever seen, with his heavy down-turned lips, vast blue eyes, perfect skin, blond curls. Later he cut all his hair off, which only threw the beauty of his features into higher relief, freed at last from their conventional Burne-Jones frame.

The first good things he wrote were a story in Les Aventures singulières and a short novel, Voyage avec deux enfants, both published in 1982, the same year he brought out the pornographic Les Chiens. The last story in Les Aventures singulières is called ‘Le Désir d’imitation’ and is a heartless but moving account of his friendship with Gina Lollobrigida. He goes to visit her in Italy; her chauffeur picks him up at the train station and drives him to her house, where he is given her basement sex hideaway as his bedroom, decorated with Indian statues of lascivious goddesses and perfumed with clouds of burning incense. The rest of the house is lugubrious, the grounds guarded by savage dogs that can be called off only by shouting commands in German (Sitz! Platz! Auf!). Every night she lets her guest choose another of her films to watch; she keeps the reels in a frigidaire. In a safe beside her bed she hides her jewels, tapes of her telephone conversations with old lovers and nude photos of herself when young (no one has ever seen these pictures).

The old actress is in love with the narrator, but he despises her and dreams of killing her. When he confesses his evil thought, she laughs a huge laugh, delighted by the idea of dying at his hands. They spend New Year’s Eve together and she makes him a bizarre toast:

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