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.
LIKE A DEAD MAN
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.” Read More