Category: Authors

When a Virus Becomes a Muse


Hervé Guibert

Julian Lucas writes:

A frail young man shadowboxes to Technotronic & MC Eric’s “Tough.” Clothes hang loose on his uncoöperative body, which sways with each tentative punch. There’s nobody else in the room, but a mannequin and a stuffed monkey look on. Cut to a spinning shot from the man’s perspective—a blur of paperbacks and floral carpeting—and then a bathroom’s wreckage of medicine. He dissolves a tablet in a cup and looks at himself in the mirror. One senses that he hasn’t left home in a long time.

I watched Hervé Guibert’s “La Pudeur ou l’Impudeur”—an auto-obituary filmed by the thirty-five-year-old, aids-stricken writer months before his death, in December, 1991—during the covid-19 lockdown in April. It felt like a time capsule from another, lonelier epidemic: Guibert watches a video of a recent medical procedure, struggles to dress and shower, and discusses suicide with his elderly aunts. On vacation in Elba, he sips from a glass that appears to contain a fatal dose of digitoxin.

A year earlier, Guibert had shocked France by disclosing his diagnosis in a penetrating and uncannily lucid autobiographical novel, “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.” A controversial landmark of aids literature, the book included a fictionalized portrait of Michel Foucault, Guibert’s close friend and mentor, and revealed that his death, in 1984, had been the result of aids. Notorious for betraying secrets, Guibert justified the trespass as a prerogative of their shared destiny. Soon, he would die the same way.

If Foucault never said a word about his illness, Guibert would spend his last year in the glare of an unusual celebrity, dying of an illness that he treated as an instrument of self-revelation. As he wrote in “To the Friend,” aids would be neither his secret nor his cause but his muse and teacher:

I was discovering something sleek and dazzling in its hideousness, for though it was certainly an inexorable illness, it wasn’t immediately catastrophic, it was an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life.

In the year between the publication of “To the Friend” and his death, Guibert completed five books: two short novels, a hospital diary, and “The Compassion Protocol,” a moving account of his brief yet transformative “resurrection” under the influence of an experimental treatment. Altogether, they are a singular contribution to the literature of illness, the testament of a writer bracingly committed to everything that, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “the cautious respectability of health conceals.” Forget Susan Sontag’s dictum that diseases shouldn’t have meanings. Guibert inhabited aids as though it were a darkroom or an astronomical observatory, a means for deciphering the patterns in life’s dying light.


Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation of “Proust’s Bedroom”, a poem by Pedro Xavier Solis Cuadra


Suzanne Jill Levine‘s translation of Proust’s Bedroom, a poem by Pedro Xavier Solis Cuadra

(This translation first appeared in Issue 20 of Interlitq)

Proust’s Bedroom

“Around the bed a trillion concentric colored circles making centrifugal or centripetal movements like interlacing kaleidoscopes, shapes like those cast by the magic lantern, creating a strange and, for me, painful vision. The red point in the center keeps sinking into incalculable, spastic distances, then returning, close up, and its coming and going felt to me like an unfathomable hammer.”
–Ruben Dario, “Autobiography”

For Marcel Proust, his bedroom was
the fixed and painful point at the center
of his preoccupations. His mother,
to distract him from his melancholy,
sent for a magic lantern to be placed
in the room, changing its opacity
with a rainbow of colors
as in Gothic stained-glass windows.
But this intrusion destroyed
the anesthetic effect of habit,
and his uncertainty and sadness grew.
When his mother died, he removed the lantern
and relined the walls in cork
so that only the indecipherable mystery
of being one would flow within. Seeing you
In the oil lamp’s beam of light, pale in the submissive
routine in which you know and do not know yourself
I remember Proust. Open your eyes
and though you don’t look at me and down deep
the little girl you were seems imprisoned.
I want to rescue her, but you cut me off.
Only a faint ray of light like the little girl
you enclose in your eyes
barely appears in the crack of the door.

La habitación de Proust

“Alrededor del lecho, mil círculos coloreados y concéntricos, caleidoscópicos, enlazados y con movimientos centrífugos y centrípetos, como los que forma la linterna mágica, creaban una visión extraña y para mí dolorosa. El central punto rojo se hundía, hasta incalculables, hípnicas distancias, y volvía a acercarse, y su ir y venir era para mí como un martillo inexplicable”.
Rubén Darío, Autobiografía.

Para Marcel Proust, su alcoba era
el punto céntrico, fijo y doloroso
de sus preocupaciones. Su madre,
para distraerlo de su melancolía,
mandó colocar una linterna mágica
que cambió la opacidad del cuarto
por irisaciones multicolores
como en los vitrales góticos.
Pero esta intrusión devastaba
el influjo anestésico de la costumbre,
y acrecía la incertidumbre y la tristeza.
Al morir su madre, quitó la linterna
y revistió de corcho las paredes,
para que sólo fluyera el misterio
indescifrable de ser uno. Recuerdo
a Proust, al verte al haz del quinqué,
pálida en la sumisa rutina en que
te reconoces y te desconoces.
Con dificultad abres tus ojos
aunque no me miras, y, en el fondo,
me parece confinada la niña que fuiste.
Quiero rescatarla, pero me atajas
y sólo una rayita de luz muy débil,
como la niña que cierras en tus ojos,
asoma apenas por la ranura de la puerta