Star Quality

Last autumn in Paris, I spoke with a gallerist who claimed to have been friendly with the incomparable Hervé Guibert during the brief flare of his thirty-six-year lifespan. Naturally, I wanted details, and wheedled her for gossip over one too many espressos. Did Guibert really drive his long-time infatuation, Vincent – the protagonist of Crazy about Vincent (1986) – to a tragic, alcoholic existence, isolating him from all his friends? Didn’t he owe numerous photographers, benefactors, fellow writers and a clutch of hangers-on significant amounts of money, which he never intended to pay back? ‘Peut-être’, the gallerist sighed, swatting away my evidently all too Anglo-Saxon questions, ‘vraiment un beau gosse … he had – you could only understand this if you met him – such star quality.’

The undentable mythology of Guibert – writer, critic, photographer, and leading literary representative of the AIDS crisis in France until his death from the epidemic in 1991 – thrives off rarity and exclusivity. Each member of his infamously tight inner circle in 1980s Paris, including such halcyon figures as Isabelle Adjani, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Sophie Calle – who retells the tale of trying to seduce Guibert by letting him sleep in her bath water in Exquisite Pain (2004) – was bewitched by ‘dear Hervé’, by his prodigal talent and extravagant beauty, seraphic with his taut blonde curls and azure eyes.

Arthur’s Whims, originally published in France in 1983 as Les lubies d’Arthur, and newly translated by Daniel Lupo, captures Guibert’s embryonic literary sensibilities before his name became synonymous with infamy, one-upmanship and the French literary talk-show circuit. The book, shaped into 59 sections (which could barely be described as chapters), represents a phase in Guibert’s writing before his AIDS diagnosis in 1988, which focussed all his subsequent projects on questions of time and mortal bodily illness. It follows the picaresque capers of ‘two madmen’, Arthur and his boyish lover Bichon – allegedly inspired by a pair of wastrels whom Guibert glimpsed sheltering under a hotel awning during a trip to Naples – as they cajole their way into various adventures on land and sea. Guibert’s narrative does not wear its influences lightly – notably, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Gustave Flaubert’s ‘The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller’ nor its debt to the French conte or legendary tale. The temptation to read it as a rough draft is almost encouraged by its author, who allows sentences to trail off unresolved and prose fragments to fester.

Starting a work was never Guibert’s problem. His productivity, which gave rise to fourteen volumes before his diagnosis and nine thereafter, was unimprovable. Knowing when to finish, how to accept the hard-stop of a deadline or conclusion, was more difficult – this was the challenge that would ultimately define his writing life. Born in 1955 in a sedately bourgeois Parisian suburb, his mother was a schoolteacher and his father a veterinarian, meaning that his childhood (recalled in microscopic, often baldly autobiographical detail in his 1986 novel My Parents) toggled between arid grammar exercises and gristly visits to the local abattoirs, from which Papa Guibert often returned for supper stained with blood. To escape the quicksand of his family, in which he was both the exalted and intensely scrutinized only child, he moved to Paris proper in his late teens, where, aided by his startling good looks, he picked up casual acting and modelling work. In 1978, following a longstanding interest in the eroticism of photography, he successfully applied to become Le Monde’s lead photography critic. Upon appointment, he had already published Propaganda Death (1977), a baroque collection of ephemera and short vignettes. The work is often classified as ‘autofiction’ – of which Guibert was a lodestar long before it became genre du jour – yet the term hardly encapsulates his literary range.

Indeed, Arthur’s Whims is striking in its distance from the self-interrogations of the genre, exchanging the latter’s documentary aesthetic for expansive fables and inventive myths. Its eschewal of Guibert’s usual ‘I’ (aside from a single moment at the end of the book) makes it distinctive within his oeuvre. Prima facie, the novel has little in common with his more renowned works such as To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1991), a scandalous fictionalized account of both Guibert’s and Foucault’s decline from AIDS, or Ghost Image (1981), a tightly constructed meditation on photography à la Sontag, Sebald and Barthes.

The novel begins by plunging the reader into ‘that difficult zone between wakefulness and sleep’. Its hazy, somnambulating prologue – which Guibert titles ‘The Dream’ – sets the tone for the increasingly far-fetched sequence of events that follows. The eponymous ‘whims’ include slicing body parts from birds amid a great ‘avian massacre’; dressing and parading a hippopotamus in a frayed pink tutu; buying a boat; playing tiddlywinks; murdering priests, and more. Preying on the reader’s exhaustion and repulsion, the text displays an unsqueamish interest in blood and flesh and guts and pus and excrement. Yet in contrast to the fluorescent sexual content of works like Propaganda Death and Crazy about Vincent – in which the narrator and Vincent ravish one another’s bodies while taking an eye-watering amount of drugs – the central relation between Arthur and Bichon is conspicuously chaste. (The raciest it gets is them mutually masturbating under the duvet, ‘without a word’.) Though some critics have described their bond as paternal, the text presents a more ambivalent dynamic, ricocheting between cruelty and companionship.  

Despite its somewhat thinly sketched conceit, the book sustains our interest throughout its one-hundred-and-twelve-page spiral into madness. Its vivacious chapter titles – ‘Break-in-At-The Morgue’, ‘The Foolishness Begins’, ‘How to Eat a Raw Potato’ – evoke Guibert’s earlier writing on photography, and could in fact double as rich prompts for illustrations. The characters’ ‘macabre experiments’ eventually culminate in a sea voyage that imposes some direction on the otherwise freewheeling narrative. A Pacific current carries the pair towards America – their relationship reaches its apogee during a dramatic shipwreck. Bichon twice becomes pregnant after drinking Arthur’s tears, although his abdomen shows no signs of swelling. When Bichon subsequently dies after being impaled through the stomach, the next line is almost shruggingly dispatched: ‘The baby must have also been pierced by the stake.’ Guibert is notorious for his froideur in writing his real friends into his novels; but Arthur’s Whims shows that he can be just as savage to his fictional characters.

The novel concludes, after Bichon and embryo have both met gruesome ends, with Arthur vanishing back into a dreamlike ether: ‘His body disappeared; no excavation managed to unearth it. But he left to the world this small, sardonic self-portrait.’ Guibert refuses to conclude the work without this subtle nod to his propensity for self-fabulation. The ending sets the stage for what is perhaps the best feature of Lupo’s new translation: an appendix essay titled ‘The Bear’ which gives the backstory of the book’s composition. The title refers to the ‘monster’ which Guibert believes he has created with this story; a book which, he claims, ‘arose from nothing, from a lack of adventure’, written on ‘scraps of paper that were quickly exhausted – hotel bills, bank statements, museum tickets’, whose content is ‘slippery, gratuitous, of almost irrelevant stakes.’ ‘The Bear’ gives us Guibert in unapologetically self-deprecating and self-theorizing mode. It reminds the reader that he was always strongest in the realm of the ‘roman faux’, hovering between theory and autobiography, or reflecting on his chosen genre en media res.

Guibert’s famously magnetic qualities once inspired Barthes to write him a gushing unrequited ode. Yet Arthur’s Whims, with its gory imagery and deliberately mangled paragraphs, continually courts the ugly. This could be read as a resistance strategy against the manicured style of the French literary establishment. Yet it also evinces a surprising tenderness, perhaps even a compassion, for the abject or beastly. A resolve, even when beauty is exhausted, not to turn away. Guibert is too often typecast as merely a brittle gossip, cannibalizing the stories of others to increase his own cultural capital. Yet he was arguably harshest with himself: working on multiple manuscripts in tandem; never letting his famed productivity slip, continuing to write in the weeks before his death, while losing his sight to his disease. He knew that, in the end, elegance was a guarantee of nothing. Beauty only carries you so far.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Teachers, Writers, Celebrities’, NLR I/126.