Andrew Durbin Hervé Guibert: Living Without a Vaccine, New York Review of Books, June 12, 2020,
Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, published by Semiotext(e) / Native Agents and MIT Press.
In 1988 the French novelist and photographer Hervé Guibert was diagnosed with HIV. Two years later, Éditions Gallimard published To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a stark autobiographical book about his desperate effort to gain access to an experimental “AIDS vaccine.” To the Friend made Guibert both wealthy and famous, especially after an appearance on the French TV show Apostrophes.
The central and most arresting portrait is of Guibert’s mentor, the philosopher Muzil, based on Michel Foucault, whose death the writer repeatedly returns to in the first half of the novel.
Guibert’s gripping revelation, in the character of Muzil, of Foucault’s final days, which had been kept secret by the privacy-obsessed French press, caused a stir in the country, abetting the author’s rise to fame late in his young life. Muzil is cavalier about the virus when the first reports of a “gay cancer” arrive in Europe, and later he even admires its “revolutionary effects.”
Disease is conspiratorial, never egalitarian, always crawling along social fissures. We know that many wealthy Americans have largely escaped Covid-19, while poorer people have not. They have still had to risk their lives for “essential” work—in Amazon fulfillment centers and factory farms and at call centers and in retail. But then American memorial culture tends to flatten the differences between populations in order to make the deaths of a few more “relatable” to the many, and to obscure the social critique that the disease often follows systemic inequality.