Hervé Guibert’s Last Laugh

Hervé Guibert’s Last Laugh

His last novel, My Manservant and Me, was a bracing satire of illness, aging, and the representation of gay life in literature.

“How to last? P.C. asked a journalist one day during an interview, not out of opportunism. How to last, that is the question, since one damages one-self into one’s own work.”—Hervé Guibert,
The Mausoleum of Lovers (1987–88)

The 1990 publication of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—Hervé Guibert’s candid roman à clef about a fake AIDS vaccine—made the novelist, photographer, and AIDS victim both rich and famous. He gave interviews on national TV, and his toothsome blue-eyed face appeared in magazines and on affiches plastered across Paris. During the subsequent two years, Guibert made his proximity to death the subject of four more novels and a hospital diary. He also produced La Pudeur ou l’impudeur (Modesty or Immodesty), an hour-long home video in which he documents himself craning his arms into pajamas, shooting diarrhea, and play-acting a suicide attempt, as if bent on disarming and satisfying the tumescent sympathies of a liberal French middle class who had become perversely invested in watching him, their resident AIDS patient, perish in real time. In December 1991, a month before his video diary aired on the television network TF1, a botched suicide attempt and complications with the virus led to Guibert’s actual death at the age of 36.

My Manservant and Me, translated into English for the first time by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is the last novel Guibert saw published in his lifetime. In it, Guibert continues to upend the expectations of his readers, and turns his sneering rictus to a future of aging and decrepitude he knew he would not live to see. Dated “Kyoto-Anchorage-Paris. January–February 2036,” the narrative outlines the violent, though occasionally kinky, relationship between a former theater director, aged 80—who lives in a luxury residence on Paris’s rue de Varenne as heir to a “colossal fortune” but has zero friends—and the teenage boy he’s hired to care for his frail, farting body. In 1993, Edmund White praised My Manservant and Me, calling it Guibert’s “most successful invention”—in that without explicitly mentioning AIDS, Guibert told the truth about the body’s decline and the humiliation that accompanies the contractual interdependence between a patient and their caretaker. To be exact, Guibert doesn’t offer a positive account of disability but instead uses an onslaught of slurs to make an unrelenting and derisory hellscape of terminal illness. White highlights Guibert’s desire to provoke, drawing a contrast between Guibert and his American and English contemporaries Larry Kramer and Paul Monette, whose writing about AIDS is buttressed by compassion and a commitment toward activism; and Adam Mars-Jones, whose novels offer the psychological complexity Guibert’s crude fictions refuse. “This very taste for the grotesque,” writes White, “this compulsion to offend, finally affords Guibert the necessary rhetorical panache to convey the full, exhilarating horror of his predicament.”

Part illness satire, part infernal travelog, My Manservant and Me allegorizes the forms of codependency, suspicion, and manipulation that physical debilitation forces onto the social. “Why doesn’t my manservant leave me?” “Did he at least have his eyes on my inheritance?” Against the din of the narrator’s incessant handwringing, Guibert pens the manservant’s character as if with a series of quick, defensive knife flicks: We learn that he’s a “lazy” teen who is not from Paris and ambiguously raced; he’s described as having “yellow eyes” and a “very peculiar way of speaking.” We learn that his escape from Mettray—the remote penal colony Jean Genet spent three years in as a teen—was occasioned by a derelict, neorealist filmmaker who cast the pimpled orphan as his nonprofessional lead in an artsy straight-to-VHS flop. Eventually, we learn too about the private mutiny he enacts on his employer’s body, and about his masterful grift of the old man’s morphine and financial estate. “Brutality is on the rise everywhere,” he explains, before urinating on his patient. Guibert waits till the end to disclose that his name is Jim (which I cannot dissociate from the enslaved Black man of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and his unsparing method of attack: “I won’t stop talking to Sir”—Jim tells his comatose master, whose pen he’s nabbed to finish their cowritten story—“so that your brain keeps on intercepting or interpreting information I bombard it with.”

The novels Guibert completed in his dying years—among them My Manservant and Me, The Compassion Protocol, The Man in the Red Hat, and Paradise—are his best works. The diaristic swerving of his early writing is less traceable, and corporeal suffering becomes a mechanizing force in conducting international espionage and consuming violence. Art theft in the Mediterranean, murder in the Caribbean, libertinage in East Asia—Guibert’s sickbed delirium prompts some literary colony-hopping, which also makes these novels Guibert’s most difficult to stomach. His descriptions of race and gender hit the reader’s brain like a blunt instrument. They’re frank and specific and perform the dual service of representing the establishing characteristics and the limitations of a shriveled white imaginary: “Budapesti tavern servers in white clothes and golden buttons, Moroccan bellhops with fezzes, Japanese taxi drivers wearing cotton gloves, La Coupole waiters tucking tea towels into those pants’ low-slung, tight- cinched waist.” On the level of parody, the colonized subjects appear as world-building devices—reduced to décor. But as elements of realism, they read as ill-wrought projections of the fantasies—both sexual and domestic—that Guibert’s two characters imagine one another enjoying. In one episode, the master gifts Jim with a sex holiday in Thailand so that he may have “a memory of a massage just like everybody else.” Jim is unmoved by the gesture, but the sheer fact of travel revivifies the old man, who cannot see beyond their own composite likenesses: “When we, my manservant and me, go out together on Bangkok’s streets, after the rains have stopped, I’m under the illusion of constantly seeing us in a huge mirror that a slave would be carrying on his back while bounding ahead of us.” In another episode, Jim nurses his master’s striated racial hang-ups by admitting to his own: “I’d hire a Japanese manservant, because they’re more subservient than we are.” Slavishness being reflexive, at the novel’s end, even the most repugnant aspects of the master—his racism, ableism, and misogyny—become part of the couple’s shared, stained surface.

Guibert’s My Manservant and Me, in this sense, serves as a counterpoint to the long-standing tradition of European men using gay, liberatory literature as a pretext to extol the receptive sexual hospitalities of non-European peoples. There’s the case of Roland Barthes’s Incidents, for example, in which the writer gives an epithet to each of the Mohammads he tries to sleep with on a trip to Morocco, lest he is unable to remember them: “Un Mohammed,” “Mohammed Gymnastique,” “Mohammed(évidement),” and so forth. And there is Renaud Camus, who, before becoming the primary architect of the malevolent conspiracy theory known as “The Great Replacement,” which claims that white, Christian Europe is under siege by Black and brown immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, was known for his erotic memoir Tricks (1979), detailing the sex he has with 25 strangers across various global metropoles. In his introduction to the volume, Barthes lauded Camus’s closeted politic as well as his sterile prose style, commending the writer for eliding mention of “homosexuality” and for “neutralizing” his depictions of sex between men: “[Camus’s fictions] do not participate in the game of interpretation. They are surfaces without shadows, without ulterior motives.” Unlike these men, Guibert refuses comforting representations of homosexual desire and of relational bankruptcy alike, engaging instead the problem these truths pose by way of a shrewd performance in genre, his ironized obscenities necessary components in producing the turgid effects of a literary realism.

If Guibert’s literary legacy is that of warping truth—as autofiction in To My Friend, or as satire in My Manservant—to defiantly write AIDS into the public record, Camus’s legacy is that of a debased historical revisionism, of effectively erasing the trace of cultural struggle and complexity of difference to maintain the delusion of an “eternal France.” In this light, contemporary readers might find comfort in the fact that this bitter little récit, which parcels the most devastating parts of being alive—in Guibert’s lifetime, as in our own—may yet outlive even the most horrific of men.

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