Death and Disease: Revisiting Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Didn’t Save My Life

Daniel Maroun, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

It is only logical and timely to revisit Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Didn’t Save My Life as, globally, we confront the realities of how our societies reacted to the COVID-19 epidemic.  HIV/AIDS literature is the cornerstone of modern medical humanities and is of critical importance to understanding how authors shape their own subjectivity in light of their ailment.  Guibert’s novel allows readers to experience his suffering and trauma through his narrative, permitting our readership to reproduce it as a way of memorializing the authors’ testimony. He unearths the uncomfortable anxiety that loomed around the corner for those who tested positive for HIV by reminding us of the fragility of the human body when its defenses are quite literally subverted. 

Hervé Guibert was an accomplished author having published a dozen and a half novels before this magnum opus. But his text brought him immediate attention from the media, thus bringing the discussion of HIV/AIDS to the fore in French society. The novel opens with a promise—that Guibert will survive his diagnosis by receiving an experimental vaccine from the very “friend” echoed in the novel’s title. His testimony is unique because the novel positions him as both witness to the virus and subject to it.  The first half of the novel places Guibert as a witness to the diagnosis and decline of his friend Muzil, a public intellectual and author.  His writing brings justice to the anxiety, frenzy, and psycho-somatic crises that people living with AIDS must have felt during this time—when there was no hope, just a countdown clock to death.  Death is obviously the leitmotif of the novel—when is it coming, how will it come, can I prevent it? This is how the second half of the novel unfolds as the attention turns to Guibert himself, his body, his experience with AIDS, and most interestingly, his relationship with his friends (Marine most notably).  The reader is brought along with Guibert as he navigates his interpersonal relations rendered complex by his diagnosis and his quest for survival.

Revisiting Friend as we “round the corner” on the COVID-19 pandemic becomes especially compelling when we notice that the same tropes are being reprised by cultural discourse: disbelief, panic, racism, misinformation. Quite prominent during 2020 was the xenophobic comment labeling SARS-COV-2 as the “China virus” by a conservative populace that sought linguistically to blame an “other.”  This trope is reconstructed in the early pages of Friend when Muzil disdainfully claims, “That damn thing must have come from Africa” (23).  Just as the origins of COVID-19 are plagued by conspiracy (bats vs. lab leak), HIV/AIDS origin status was relegated to the mystical, rendered inexplicable to civilized, western society when described as coming from the “blood of green monkeys” or “a disease of witch doctors and evil spells” (23). I bring these examples to the forefront not simply to highlight similarity, but to emphasize that the human reaction is predictable and that ultimately there were not many lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that translated to the global reaction to COVID-19.  The politicization of HIV/AIDS as a “gay cancer,” which was promoted by the Reagan administration and compounded by the French failure to respond because of conflicting ideologies of universalism and republicanism, led to innumerable deaths.  This same politicization saw its own renaissance during the SARS-COV-2 outbreak as science was mistrusted, the disease initially treated as unthreatening as politicians used it to please their bases.  Guibert’s Friend shows us that we have been down this path before, but in an intimate fashion that has been missing during these COVID times.  Guibert’s text brings the humanity back into medical humanities discourse as he centers his narrative on the body and mind of the individual.  

Published in 1990, Guibert’s novel should be understood as a scandal of sorts.  The publication of Friend put a face to the disease since Guibert was already a somewhat successful filmmaker and writer.   At first glance, one may assume that the perceived impropriety was due to the novel’s content; queerness was/is relegated to the private sphere in France, so rendering it publicly forced reader and society to confront their notions of French universalism and communitarianism.  Admitting that HIV/AIDS existed and was disproportionately affecting queer populations (as well as sex workers and drug users) would be to admit that these communities existed, undermining French cultural wisdom.  However, I argue that this is what makes Guibert so powerful or “scandalous”—his writing unveils a suffering that we witness.  Stories of families saying “goodbye” to dying relatives via FaceTime flooded the media and public eye throughout the second half of 2020—we could only imagine their final moments as the respirators were turned off, the morphine drip faded, and their breath waned.  But Guibert brings the reader into the hospital room, taking us to his doctor’s appointments and through all his testing and medications; we approach death with him.  Sadly, he too is robbed of a final moment with his dear friend Muzil, barred from visiting once the former is moved to the intensive care unit where only “family” were permitted.  To claim that “blood relatives came first” (105), is daftly to misunderstand the realities of queer kinship during the AIDS crisis but we know that queerness, along with HIV/AIDS, remained a mystery to medicine for years to come.

Death is an evolving reality in Friend. Guibert eschews the gravitas of his diagnosis at the start of the novel, but death is of quintessential importance to queer subjectivity in HIV/AIDS literature.  Guibert admits it himself claiming, “Ever since I was 12 years old…I’ve had a thing for death” (263) and his opening lines highlight a deeper, more concrete thanatology that resides across his entire corpus.  Indeed this “friend” who will save his life is the means by which Guibert hopes to cheat death itself (Thanatos).  At the time of writing, seropositivity equated with death, and Guibert briefly admits to his condemnation (15).  Although the relationship authors share with their diagnosis and disease evolve, which I have argued elsewhere [1], the disease nonetheless always frames their existence—their very being, “Seropo ergo sum” as Erik Rémès so prominently claimed. [2] Guibert and those after him craftily inscribe existence/subjectivity into the sexual, into their sexuality, and ultimately into their Frenchness.  This is an additional reason why Guibert’s writing resonates with readers, he explicitly ties sexual identity to Frenchness sabotaging French cultural ideologies of public vs. private sexuality.

Guibert confidently claims that he will be one of the first to survive this epidemic and many are quick to retort how wrong he was; even he admits it near the end of his novel.  We should not view this text as a story, instead we should view it as a testimony or legacy in which our readership participates.  We are the percipient witness privy to all the intimate details of his life, his diagnosis, and his demise.  The concept of witnessing is quite the philosophical quirk, but we should not confound our role as witness with one of solely seeing.  When we witness, we bring recognition and that is the true role of the reader in Friend.  I’d argue that Guibert’s impetus for writing comes from oppression for “oppression creates the need and demand for recognition” and Guibert brings recognition to that epistemological pathos of his community. [3] Andrew Durbin speaks to this argument when he writes in his introduction that Friend “will speak for him even when he can no longer speak,” (11) for writing provides hope to our author.  Durbin’s introduction is a lovely breakdown for the new Guibert reader, and quite thorough.  I’d go so far as to suggest reading it after enjoying the text for the first time so that a new reader can relish the detailed and clinical reality of living with AIDS.

Edmund White’s afterword helps us realize that Friend is a transitional moment in Guibert’s writing. White notes the grotesque nature of Guibert’s early “love stories” but Friend is a shift in style because of the confrontational reality that this disease posed to our author.  White’s afterword is a lovely introduction to Guibert’s literary history running through the author’s successful and failed literary life up until Friend and after.  In true White fashion, he is brutally frank about Guibert’s works which makes the success Friend all the more important and stunning.  It helps the reader understand to what degree Friend stands out as a moment of passage for Guibert.

Linda Coverdale’s translation is to be commended and appreciated for the anglophone reader.  She brings out the progressive transition from arrogance to intrigue, and from intrigue to anxiety in Guibert’s writing.  The modern reader knows where the story is ultimately headed but Coverdale’s translation authentically underlines Guibert’s innocent belief that he will survive this ordeal and that, in fact, his friend will save his life.  In one particular passage, Coverdale captures the exhaustive process Muzil executes when writing in the later stages of his life.  She translates:

Following peripheral paths from detour to detour, allowing supplementary paragraphs to burgeon into something more like complete books, he becomes lost, discouraged, destroys pages, abandons efforts, reconstructs, rearranges, slowly falling prey to the insidious lassitude of withdrawal, of persistently avoiding publication, and is exposed to the most jealous rumors of all kinds, accusations of impotence, senility, his silence interpreted as an admission of error or vacuity, seduced more and more by the dream of an endless book that would raise every possible question, that nothing could bring to an end save death or exhaustion, the most powerful and fragile book in the world, a treasure-in-progress whose creator holds it out towards—or snatches it back from—the abyss with every twist and turn of his thoughts, toying with the idea of consigning it to the flames with each fit of dejection, a bible destined for hell.  (41).

The lack of any full stop leaves the reader metaphorically breathless, exhausted by the numerous external factors that plague Muzil’s mind as he attempts to write more and more profound and impactful texts, all the while dying.  His neurosis is translated to the page so expertly we are left feeling anxious ourselves.  This excerpt is of particular importance because it is where the reader becomes aware of Muzil’s true fear—the inability to make an impact on the socio-philosophical stage. 

This edition of Friend marks 30 years after its original publication, and it is without a doubt so powerful for us to revisit it, allowing us to reexamine the past year of lockdowns and political unrest.  Most importantly, I would argue, is that we revisit this text so that we can use the critical lens it affords us to reassess and evaluate our own response to the COVID-19 pandemic and find a new appreciation for the clinical gaze we carry on all literatures of disease.


1. For more on the evolution of the relationship between life and death in French HIV/AIDS literature, see Daniel Maroun, “Forty Years of HIV/AIDS Narratives: What’s Next?” Contemporary French Civilization, 46 no.2 (2021): 179-196.

2. Erik Rémès, Je bande donc je suis. (Paris: Balland, 1999), p. 13.

3. Kelly Oliver, “Witnessing and Testimony.” Parallax 10 no.1 (2004): 78–87 (p. 79).