Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 1)

With this post, I return to my manuscript The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible for purposes of bringing to light a chapter that has not yet been published in print.  Entitled “Numbered Days,” it attempts a reading of Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (A l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauve la vie), which dates from the period – the early 1990s – in which Derek Jarman and Felix Gonzalez-Torres were likewise working under the cloud of  HIV/AIDS.  “Numbered Days” begins with an epigraph from Jacques Derrida’s Demeure:  Fiction and Testimony:

Before coming to writing, literature depends on reading and the right conferred on it by an experience of reading.  One can read the same text – which thus never exists “in itself” – as a testimony that is said to be serious and authentic, or as an archive, or as a document, or as a symptom – or as a work of literary fiction, indeed the work of a literary fiction that simulates all of the positions that we have just enumerated.  For literature can say anything, accept anything, receive anything, suffer anything, and simulate everything….  [29]

Herve Guibert

What right might an experience of reading confer on a text that, from its opening sentence (“I had AIDS for three months” [“J’ai eu le sida pendant trois mois”]), renders problematic its own referential and rhetorical modes, and with them the very experience of reading?  Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (A l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauve la vie), published in French in 1990, is a first-person account of a young writer’s confrontation with a range of physical, psychological and social effects of HIV, dating from 1980 to 1989 and thus spanning the decade in which the first clinical reports of what would provisionally be termed Gay-Related Immunodeficiency were made public, GRID yielded to AIDS as the rate of infection rapidly attained epidemic proportions, and the earliest generations of treatments were first heralded and then rapidly encountered the limits of their potency.  Within the narrative’s precisely delineated historical parameters – hence, crucially, in the absence of a vaccine as well as a treatment regime sufficiently effective to counter the virus over time – its introductory claim, uttered in the first person and the past tense, lends itself to understanding as fictive:  practically no “serious and authentic” testimony of the time could truthfully, rightfully include this sentence, for between 1980 and 1989 most anyone who had AIDS for three months, period, would likely be writing it on the far side of death.  And indeed, despite numerous overtly autobiographical elements (chief among them the young writer’s recurrent self-identification as “Herve” and “Guibert,” as well as the transparent figuring of the author’s friend Michel Foucault in the character called Muzil), the French edition declares its status on both cover and title page:  roman.

Curiously, the designation does not survive the text’s translation into English.  What appears in its stead, displaced to the fine print below the copyright, is an explicit caveat to the reader in language that would appear formulaic:  “This is a work of fiction.  Any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons, places or events is entirely coincidental.”  One may wonder why Guibert’s translator rejected the obvious (and economical) option of affixing “novel” to cover and title page.  But the caveat’s appeal to coincidence may help to make legible precisely what in the text guarantees its status not simply as fiction, but also, perhaps, as the fiction of a fiction.  As it turns out, this is not so much a matter of a dissimilarity or difference between the persons, places  or events rendered and some putative actuality, but rather of a necessary failure of coincidence, of contemporaneity, between the times inscribed in the text and the time of lived experience.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Reading and writing

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