Chronology of a Body


Arts & Culture

Hervé Guibert, Les lettres de Mathieu, 1984, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Estate of Hervé Guibert, Paris, and Callicoon Fine Arts, New York.


It was the fall three years ago, massively pregnant, bouncing on an exercise ball to try to stimulate contractions, trying to not stroke out while watching the presidential debates, the one where he loomed menacingly over her like a horrible phantom, when I received an email. Would I be interested in writing a short book, a study, about a novel of my choice, for Columbia University Press? I thought I could write it fast in those early months. It took me almost two years before I could even begin thinking through it. Now, I set myself a deadline, amid the deadline of my body. One month before I find out my news, whether or not I will choose to terminate this pregnancy, whether this pregnancy will decide to end itself, whether it will continue, I will finally write this study of Hervé Guibert.


It is always in the midst of a medical emergency or crisis of the body when I resume work on it. Perhaps it is when I feel the most isolated that I feel relief returning to the pages of Guibert—the complaint of illness, which is always an experience of isolation. No one can ever really know the experience of your body, an experience worsened by the alienation of medical bureaucracy. The summer before last, I contract shingles, exhausted after having finished a book in a month in order to finally satisfy my contract to my previous publisher and make enough money to pay health insurance and cover rent that summer. Of course, I think immediately to this mirroring with Guibert, like a bodily possession. Guibert, always the unreliable narrator, initially tells us he left his previous doctor, Dr. Nacier, for his gossipy indiscretion as to the celebrities he treated, but really, he tells us, it is because, when diagnosing him with shingles in 1987, he also mentioned that they were seeing a resurgence of this particular variety of chicken pox in seropositive patients, which Dr. Chandi later confirmed, seeing the shingles as diagnostic, even when the narrator was still refusing to be tested, putting in drawers over the years the lab requisitions, either in his name or an assumed one. What is the purpose of knowing, he tells us, the knowledge of which could drive someone like him to suicide? This is repeated, circled around, negated, throughout—Guibert’s desire to know or not to know whether or not he was seropositive, and then, once he knew, what that knowledge felt like to experience within the body. Which was, at that time, the knowledge that he was going to die.

I didn’t know how to decode the strange symptomry over the past months—headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, the excruciating shoulder blade and rib pain on the left side, along with a painful left breast, scaly, blistered, itchy, a feeling of glass shards within it when Leo sucks. I am up at night weeping, always weeping at night so as not to disturb the child, panicked that I have inflammatory breast cancer, the fastest-growing and most malignant form. I consult with one of those call-a-docs on my shitty marketplace insurance and upload for him a photo of my sad, rashy breast, like the saddest sext ever to have existed. After speaking to me for all of a minute on the phone, the male doctor confidently diagnoses a staph infection and prescribes antibiotics, which do nothing. Finally, I beg my ob-gyn to see me, despite her now not taking my shitty, yet still inordinately expensive, insurance. Shingles, my doctor says immediately, when I take off my bra. She is arrogant in a way that I always trust from women of authority. She bikes to Manhattan from Brooklyn every day, her sleek bicycle is next to her desk, I imagine her strong thighs wrapped in bike shorts underneath her medical coat. I don’t have the correct anatomy for shingles, she says to me, since I’m breastfeeding, ideally the rash would be on the torso, but she is certain she is right. I don’t have the peau d’orange—she pronounces it with a French accent, the skin like an orange peel. She’s only ever seen one case of it in her twenty-five years of practice.

That summer, it is as if I am afflicted with leprosy and on an island. As I’m trying to write these notes Leo comes in naked, having peed on her practice potty, and climbs into bed, pulls down my white nightgown and nurses. I bicker with John that he should take her, I’m supposed to rest. I mean, I am supposed to rest, but instead I have just begun a secret book. I kick everyone out of bed so that I can heal. Sickness is one of the only times I can attempt to demand my solitude. Perhaps a book is also a solitude, so I can try to be alone. A quote from Kafka in my notes: “I need solitude for my writing, not ‘like a hermit’—that wouldn’t be enough—but like a dead man.”


At my appointment my doctor asks for one week to see if the antiviral works before scheduling a biopsy. By September, I will have better, partially subsidized, though even more outrageously expensive, health insurance for at least one year from the college, more if they keep renewing my contract. If I can wait, I could see any doctor within their much wider HMO. How precarious my health has felt, partially because of this instability. I am haunted by the fact that both Susan Sontag and Kathy Acker didn’t have health insurance when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. Marie texts to ask how I’m feeling. The check-in feels dutiful, what Guibert in the novel derisively refers to as “friendship’s daily bulletins.” It’s better than late pregnancy, I write to her. It’s true, although like then I feel like Job, covered head to toe with boils. It’s also better than the postpartum period, the tear ripped through my perineum and anus, a tear between the third and fourth degree, as it’s measured, so that I have to sit on a foam donut for weeks, the unbearable hemorrhoids and constipation, like a block of shit trapped inside of me, the crack and burn of sore nipples, the sleeplessness, of course, but everyone knows that part. I guess I’ve become accustomed to being rundown. Finally unable to bear the burning pinpricks on my breast, I try the pink calamine lotion John picked up for me. The label on the bottle states that the lotion “dries the oozing and weeping of poison.” It strikes me that this is also the potential of writing through the body under capitalism. I take the Guibert into my oatmeal bath, attempt to read a few pages. I feel I understand in a different register Guibert’s need to write of doctor’s visits and his sick body. A way to not just be a malady to be treated. To be more fully human. Sofia writes me that she longs for “a book that would also be a tonic. Not a course of study but a course of treatment.”

In the advanced stage of his illness, his nurses and doctors his only companions, as documented in his sequel Compassion Protocol, Guibert writes of finally fulfilling his father’s dream of him studying medicine. Already in the first book of his illness, there is a fascination with the virus as a narrative acting upon him. I look up shingles online, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes childhood chickenpox, living in the body dormant, reactivated in nerves, which feels like a narrative of trauma housed inside of me. There has been no official link made between the postpartum period and shingles, it usually afflicts the elderly, because why would they run studies on the health and mortality of mothers? Yet there are forums online self-diagnosing “postpartum shingles,” “shingles and breastfeeding,” a pandemic of this, it seems, like so many other postpartum maladies that are ignored, all of these mothers at home, without adequate help, wrung-out, exhausted, unable to get childcare to go to a doctor. I was up at 4:30 A.M. with Leo, as I didn’t feed her before she fell asleep last night, we just moved her from car to crib after stealthily putting on her pajamas. Now as I write this she is draining my swollen breast—my armpits still swollen, my ribs tender. With one hand on my phone I look up “swelling” and “shingles.” I’m still certain I’m dying, dizzy with this certainty that the shingles are symptomatic of something more severe, will the rash spread, weep, open. The only way I can exist within this borderless state of worry, the velocity of my panic, is by writing in my notebook. Guibert’s panicked hypochondria throughout his journals—the almost vertiginous desire for his death, a “fear and longing.” Even at the age of thirty-one, in the translated published diaries, which I read that summer of shingles, smudges all over the massive white paperback, he is obsessed with death, he has various premonitions about contracting what is known then as a gay cancer. “When I am told I am in great shape, and I feel myself dying.” I go into the kitchen to take the large stone-blue antiviral, along with two raw vitamin C tablets and two B-complex capsules recommended to bolster my immune system. I guzzle my horse pills down with yet another cup of coffee, what a paragon of good health I am. Adrenal fatigue, the internet tells me. Wired and tired. Yes, wired and tired wired and tired wired and tired.


A chronology of a body is not linear. One must piece together dates, doctors, like a detective novel. In October 1983 the narrator’s partner Jules is hospitalized at the Cité Universitaire with the fever and swollen lymph nodes beginning to be associated with that “famous plague,” whose origins were not narrowed down to being caused by a virus and which was still cloaked in fantastic rumor—that it was a biological weapon launched by Reagan, that you could get it by sniffing amyl nitrate—although throughout Guibert makes clear that there was at least a strong suspicion it was caused by sharing bodily fluids. At the same time the narrator was returning from Mexico with a parallel attack of high fever, and soon after an abscess appeared at the back of his throat, which made him convinced that they both had AIDS, although they wouldn’t get the test for seropositivity until later in the decade. When he becomes certain that he has it, a calm goes over him—the calm of the hypochondriac who has been preparing for a calamity his entire life. “In an instant, this certainty changed everything, turned everything upside down, even the landscape, and this both paralyzed and liberated me, sapped my strength while at the same time increasing it tenfold; I was afraid and light-headed, calm as well as terrified: I had perhaps finally achieved my end.”

In the novel Guibert travels in time to the beginning of the decade, a series of portraits, like a Rolodex, of incompetent doctors recommended by friends who inflict both absurd examinations as well as ludicrous diagnoses and cures in response to his feeling that something is wrong with him. It is unclear, to both the narrator and the reader, whether these are the confessions of a hypochondriac, as he is often dismissed by these paternalistic doctors, his wandering pain the result of “undoubtedly imaginary ailments that tormented me,” including his conviction that he has liver cancer following a case of hepatitis. First he is diagnosed with “benign renal malformation” and told by a urologist to drink large quantities of sparkling water with lemon, then he finally gets an appointment with a homeopath, who his rich and famous friends see several times a week (including Marine, who is based on the actress Isabelle Adjani), and who prescribes a daily intake of dozens of pellets and pills that nearly kill another friend’s son suffering from appendicitis. Guibert’s gleeful vivisection of this celebrity quack doctor and his sadistic herbal remedies foisted on mostly female patients:

[The office] where he conducted his most titillating experiments on his most famous female patients, shutting them up nude inside metal chests after affixing all over their bodies needles filled with concentrates made from herbs, tomatoes, bauxite, pineapples, cinnamon, patchouli, turnips, clay, and carrots, from which lockers they would stagger out as if drunk, and a handsome shade of scarlet.

The doctor prescribes him with spasmophilia, not exactly psychosomatic, as Guibert explains to us, but still involving the unconscious decisions on the part of the patient where to localize his pain. Finally Muzil, the character based on Michel Foucault, recommends another doctor, a “pale, translucent manikin” who diagnoses him with dysmorphophobia, another word for body dysmorphic disorder, an obsessive focus on the flaws of the body that the doctor patronizingly describes as an illness of youth, prescribing him antidepressants. But of course Muzil, who is coughing up a lung, medicating with large doses of antibiotics, doesn’t take any of his friend’s ailments seriously, even though following the dating of the novel the philosopher will only have eight months to live. Eventually, Muzil’s cough will become severe enough that he will consult an elderly internist in his neighborhood, who proclaims him in perfect health, just before he collapses unconscious in a pool of blood in his kitchen and must be hospitalized, one month before he dies.

Guibert tries to outline the specific dating of his body’s history, a decade of (collective and personal) repression as to how AIDS was transmitted underlined by a constant fear and deferred diagnosis. 1980 was the year of hepatitis. 1987 was his shingles. By the next year the “revelation” of his illness, which he tells us in a later hallucinatory, Genet-like passage he suspects he contracted on a dance floor in Mexico after being kissed by an “old whore,” the raw white wound later appearing in his throat (some less-than-latent misogyny there, to assume that he contracted the virus from the kiss of a woman portrayed as a Felliniesque succubus, despite chronicling his unprotected sex throughout the decade). “That’s the chronology that becomes my outline, except whenever I discover that progression springs from disorder.”


The title of Guibert’s novel provides some of the suspense. Who is his addressee? Is it the friends who are either dead or dead to him because of past treacheries? He connects the constellation of his famous circle all somehow linked to the early onset of what in France was called le sida, which was mired in paranoia and conspiracies. He is telling the narrative of a body and a disease through gossip and the experience of himself and his intimates, an act of revenge, to all who didn’t save him.


There are a hundred sections in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert referred to them as rooms. Entering them, we can access the solitude and intimacy of this work, witness the performance and endurance of the body while writing the novel within the work. Are these days? Writing sessions?

Hot and fuzzy, a metallic taste in my mouth from the antivirals. I am not resting as I should be. I am working on revisions of the manuscript—always another revision, just as Guibert writes of revising a manuscript in To the Friend. I want to be rid of it, like being cured of it. Leo runs around naked, climbing on me, nursing. Twice today she squatted and laid a turd, once on the rug, luckily solid, then a softer one on the wooden floor. And now, later in the afternoon, I only have fifteen minutes to think before the babysitter leaves. I beg for fifteen clear minutes to read a couple pages of the Guibert, to write these lines in my notebook. The door open so she doesn’t cry for mommy. During the hour the babysitter has been here I have corralled Leo to pee on her practice potty, then cleaned it up. The babysitter leaves her food everywhere—her half-eaten apple, the half-finished ravioli she brought with her. I walk around like a mom or maid cleaning after both of them. Finally I entice them to go on the porch to blow bubbles.


On her blog Bhanu posts about a line from César Aira in The Paris Review: “The novel requires an accumulation of time, a succession of different days: without that, it isn’t a novel.” What does this say, Bhanu asks, about the labor of caretaking? If a writer takes care of others, or must take care of themselves, time is of course disrupted. She writes: “Without these days, in succession, can a person be a novelist?” I read the original essay. “You cannot write a novel the night before dying,” writes Aira. But isn’t that what Guibert was doing? Writing novels the night before dying? Early on in his diaries, years before his diagnosis: “It’s death that drives me (that would be the end of the book).” In many ways Guibert is more of a diarist than a novelist. The diary feeling is a shape of fragmented consciousness. Then what does he mean when he writes in Compassion Protocol, in a classic aphoristic flourish closing a section, “It is when what I am writing takes the form of a journal that I most strongly feel that I am writing fiction”?


Kate Zambreno is the author of eight books, most recently Drifts, out now in paperback from Riverhead, and To Write As If Already Dead, a study on Hervé Guibert, now out from Columbia University. She is the Strachan Donnelley Chair in Environmental Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches in the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University. She is at work on an essay collection, The Missing Person, to be published by Riverhead, and a novel, Foam. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction. Four of her short stories appeared in the Spring 2019 issue.

Edited excerpt from To Write As If Already Dead, by Kate Zambreno. Copyright © 2021 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.