This Incessant Movement of Ghosts
There’s a passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which the French theorist, eyeing his own author photo (turned head, silvered temples, faintly illuminated desk) exclaims: “But I never looked like that!” And yet, how can one know? You are, indeed, “the only one who can never see yourself except as an image” whether that be in the form of a reflection or a photograph. Moreover, one can argue that the author photo is a particularly deceptive sort of image, one that is meant to elicit disparate or even contradictory feelings in the viewer.
Such was the case with Hervé Guibert, the famously beautiful French author who died of AIDS in 1991, and who—prior to a falling out—sustained an epistolary friendship with Barthes. One cannot find a single piece of criticism on Guibert that fails to mention his comeliness, which is fitting of a man who also worked as a photographer, making images that were as physically charged as his novels and memoirs. A natural descendant of Sade, Bataille, and Genet, Guibert was obsessed with pleasure but even more so with the way it overlaps with pain, filth, and death: entering a museum, “I become hard . . . among all those dead faces”; at a party, eyeing a young man, “instead of imagining his sex or his torso . . . it’s his excrement I see, inside his intestines.”
For most of his career, Guibert flew under the radar, publishing several books a year in his native France, alternating between more surrealistic novels and diaristic works that we might now call autofiction. Regardless of form, Guibert was always willing to divulge his secrets, and his 1989 novel L’Incognito closed with the confession that its author had contracted AIDS. This realization—which was no mere fiction for Guibert himself—instigated a period of unprecedented productivity that continued until his death in 1991 from complications resulting from a suicide attempt. Guibert’s great paradox was that AIDS—the very disease that would either kill him or lead him to kill himself—would also be his major theme, one that energized him, appealing to his obsession with discomfort and decay while also granting a certain gravity and structure to his previously shapeless life.
To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, which was the first novel that Guibert published about his diagnosis (and which has been newly translated by Linda Coverdale after momentarily falling out of print in English), brought him immediate fame in France, in no small part because it confirmed rumors that Guibert’s friend and mentor, Michel Foucault, had died of AIDS. But this burst of notoriety had also do to with Guibert’s own visage, his extravagant sexiness that endured despite his body’s inevitable and rapidly approaching decline. At dinner with the novel’s titular “friend,” Bill, a Big Pharma exec who may or may not be able to provide access to the allegedly promising vaccine trials, the lightly fictionalized Hervé sits captive as his confidant studies his face. “‘The most amazing part,’ said Bill . . . ‘is that it doesn’t show . . .’ I understood that this gave him a kind of dizzying thrill: he was fascinated and terrified to see hidden behind this youthful and as yet unchanged face, the certainty of early death.”
To the Friend is monomaniacal from the start, opening with the narrator’s pronouncement that he will be, despite his diagnosis, “one of the first people on earth to survive this deadly malady.” But even though this narrator—or Hervé, as we may call him—lusts after a cure, he is simultaneously obsessed with his HIV-positive life: “this certainty [of diagnosis] changed everything, turned everything upside down . . . and this both paralyzed and liberated me, sapped my strength while at the same time increasing it tenfold.”
As Hervé recounts his countless medical misadventures, searching for meaning at each juncture (there are always new tests to be taken, more experimental drugs to try, and ever-diminishing T-cell counts), he demonstrates that even while AIDS is “an inexorable illness, it [isn’t] immediately catastrophic” either; being “an illness in stages,” it affords the patient moments of vigor and optimism in between bursts of bad news. Hard at work on several manuscripts, Hervé finds AIDS to be “a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time and in the end to discover life.”
But deriving “a kind of jubilation” from one’s suffering has its own side effects, and Hervé is well aware that each successive benchmark brings him closer to oblivion. The effect is intoxicating for the reader as well—even though we know what will happen to our hero (it’s in the title after all), we can’t help but believe in all of the death-defying schemes that he thinks up. As his T-cell count plunges toward the 300 mark—the bare minimum for participation in the vaccine trials—we finally begin to realize that he has reached the ultimate line in the sand.
This vacillation between rigid, clinical figures (always delivered in medical terms) and slippery, sweeping flights of imagination (mirrored by Bill’s own slipperiness regarding access to the vaccine) provides a subtle yet crucial framework to the novel, one that feels effortless but firmly grounded in time. Each stage of the illness presents its own jolt of certainty, its own “devastating blow,” but each individual stage is also inevitably followed by a period of vacant anticipation; Guibert’s great literary power was to fill these gaps with his insatiable, looping sentences, letting them wander around at their own leisure.
Kate Zambreno, an American author working in the slippery, diaristic tradition to which Guibert also belongs, has recently published a novel called Drifts, one that—like To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—is both sculpted and free-flowing, obsessed with time while being immersive enough to disorient. But unlike Guibert’s novel, Drifts is anything but monomaniacal, functioning as an atmospheric sketchbook adaptable enough to accommodate an immeasurable variety of moods and forms, including critical musings, scenic textures, heavily researched biographical miniatures, and daily impressions.
The novel begins with the narrator avoiding work on a novel called Drifts, for which she has been under contract for some time. “The title of the book came from a feeling,” she notes, “and I wanted to write through this feeling. What I really wanted to write was my present tense, which seemed impossible.” In between semesters teaching as an adjunct, the narrator floats about south Brooklyn, taking photos of trash and jotting down interactions with stray cats and neighbors, becoming something of an amateur detective. Some days she prefers to stay home, emailing other writers, watching clips from old movies, and reading on her porch alongside her dog, Genet. Each of these episodes is formatted in paragraph- or page-long slabs of text, surrounded by borders of white space. What results is a text “filled with an incandescence toward the possibility of a book,” a text that is somehow out-of-time and disjointed enough to be of-the-internet.
Zambreno’s body of work—made up of seven genre-defying books—is fueled by her insatiable and unpredictable reading habits, as well as by her fascination with film and visual art. Heroines, published in 2012, is equal parts memoir, manifesto, and act of criticism, but this exploration of the modernist “wives and mistresses”—including Vivienne Eliot, Jean Rhys, and Zelda Fitzgerald—also gestures toward fiction, occasionally becoming a thrilling act of time-traveling ventriloquism. More recently, Zambreno published Book of Mutter, a fragmented remembrance of her mother, written off and on over the course of thirteen years; it was soon followed by Appendix Project, a series of public talks written into the absence that this suddenly-finished prior project had left.
Early in Drifts, the narrator emails a friend about the “irritation of being referenced only in the context of other women writers, including each other. . . . I want this next book to be completely new, as if from a completely different writer.” This same urge to typecast has led many critics to refer to Drifts as autofiction, and even while this label may be accurate at least in part, it precludes a more clear-eyed assessment of the complex, self-selected tradition Zambreno is writing into. While Guibert and Barthes might be her most natural antecedents, her work is in conversation with writers as disparate as Kathy Acker and W. G. Sebald, Sei Shonagon and Thomas Bernhardt (the latter of whom Guibert also held in high esteem). In Drifts, Zambreno keeps company with these writers, but also with what she calls “the canon of bachelor hermits” (“how suspicious I am of myself”), a roster that includes Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, and Sebald, among others.
This gender play, though subtle (and purposefully droll), feels crucial to the spirit and even the form of the novel. Can a Feminist Author not read A Sentimental Education if she feels like it? And if gender can be porous, can’t the very notion of writing be so as well? “Work for me is to stop thinking as well as thinking,” the narrator writes to a friend. “It’s uncomfortable to be in the space of a work too long.” Studying photographs in a museum, scanning faces on the subway, re-watching a scene from a movie, gathering notes—what constitutes work and what constitutes idleness? Drifts is a novel about permeable boundaries and understated transformations: examining a reproduction of Albrecht Dürer’s Saint Jerome in His Study (vaporous morning light, brandished pen, hunched back, sleeping dog), the narrator feels that her office, “with my little dog asleep curled up on the rug, is the calm space of Saint Jerome’s study.” (Later, she notes that “I have increasingly become Dürer’s melancholic angel,” from Melencolia I.)
If Dürer is a guide of sorts, a touchstone amidst the narrator’s daily meanderings, then recurring examinations of Rainer Maria Rilke—which almost read as one essay spliced into brief episodes—provide an understated scaffold, a nearly invisible armature upon which Zambreno can hang her ghostly jottings and observations. These sections mostly detail Rilke’s struggle to complete his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a novel that drew upon his lonely years working as a secretary to August Rodin in Paris. “To write the novel, he must cease to exist,” Zambreno writes. “It is here, in a beloved city, that he writes about memories of the same city, which he then despised.”
Rilke’s spirit of self-cessation, part of the “new form” that Zambreno is reaching toward throughout Drifts, is somewhat literally enacted when, late in the novel, the narrator finds herself suddenly pregnant. Though the fixity of pregnancy might seem to run counter to the flighty permutations that make up the book’s core (studying a hospital baby monitor, “I broke down weeping . . . overwhelmed by the new certainty of my life”), it instead provides a sort of stylistic affirmation, heightening the narrator’s sense of smell, her range of sight, and—most importantly—her capacity for doubt. “Despite the slowness and heaviness, I feel a real potency and lucidity. I think I’m glad this has happened. This decreation. This complete overwriting of the self,” Zambreno writes. It’s hard to imagine a “hermit bachelor” embracing this dissolution so wondrously.
If Guibert’s novel can somehow be reduced to a shimmering author photo, and Zambreno’s to a sketchbook, then Andrew Durbin’s Skyland could be encapsulated by a painting—a portrait more specifically. This slim novel—yet another featuring an almost autobiographical “I”—is shaped by its narrator’s quest to find a painting on a remote island in Greece, a painting “only rumored to exist,” a painting whose subject is none other than Hervé Guibert. This perhaps-unreal painting was allegedly executed by Yannis Tsarouchis, a Greek artist for whom Guibert supposedly sat a few months before his death. “I’ve seen his gloomy eyes and shock of curly hair in plenty of self-portraits,” Durbin writes, “but not as someone else had seen him, someone outside of the story he spent his life constructing.” (Durbin also wrote, some readers may notice, the introduction to Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.)
Durbin’s speaker is diligent but easygoing: “I’ve never staked my research on the promise of assured answers,” he confides. “Something always shoots up, seemingly out of nowhere, whenever I go looking for a stray bit of history.” For him, the actual discovery of Tsarouchis’ painting is far less important than his own imaginative re-creation of it. Though Guibert wrote about posing for Tsarouchis in his novel The Man in the Red Hat, he claimed to have lost the pages describing the painting itself and refused to re-write them. “Instead, I invent his face in the Greek painter’s hands,” Durbin writes, “thin, aquiline features arranged under matted hair . . . all of it rendered thickly in oil paint.”
After hearing that a retired winery owner named Alekos has purchased the painting, hanging it in his vacation home on the island of Patmos, Durbin’s narrator decides to travel there with his friend Shiv, a grad student trying to finish his dissertation in Athens, despite being “endlessly distracted by wine and boys.” When Julien, the narrator’s kind-of-boyfriend, asks him why exactly he’s going on this journey, he responds vaguely, imagining a slight, strange book he might write about Guibert: “Not exactly a direct biography: rather, a sort of literary map of his personality, made using the memoirs—and paintings—of his lovers and friends.”
What emerges is a different sort of map, one that stakes the concerns of the present on those of the recent and ancient past. Patmos, which is where St. John is alleged to have received the book of Revelation, is “not popular like it once was,” according to Shiv. “But that might make it interesting.” And even while it might not be as exciting to the narrator and Shiv as the more “major gay destinations, like Mykonos,” it still elicits from Durbin a sensual effervescence. Approaching the island by ferry, the narrator notes, “We seemed to have slipped out of time, along some vector of perpetual night, into—into what, I didn’t know. . . . The whole world dropped away, into the dark, under a cloudy and starless sky.”
Despite the apparent breeziness (“the painting isn’t going anywhere,” Shiv asserts), the bottles of retsina downed, the cruising apps searched, “the muted shades” of yellow and blue described, a mild sense of unease hovers at the margins of the novel, threatening to swim up onto the sun-drenched beach. “Yesterday, a taxi driver who shuttled us across the island . . . said ‘the law’ forbade nudity in view of the citadel,” which “can be seen from almost anywhere on the island,” Durbin remarks. Floating on the Aegean, the “blinding blue” waves lapping at his legs, the narrator thinks of Guibert’s final novel Paradise, which opens with a gruesome death amidst the coral of the South Pacific and imagines that Shiv, bobbing somewhere out in the distance, has drowned.
In this way, Skyland is a nice example of fiction tinged by the terror of our contemporary age without being subsumed by it; in a scene that keeps recurring in the narrator’s mind, he smokes a joint with Julien, whose brother has momentarily gone silent after covering the events in Charlottesville (“The afternoon felt unreal, as if I were living outside of it. . . . Even the name Charlottesville had taken on a dream-like quality”). Back on Patmos, looking out into the distance, toward the island of Lipsi, and to Turkey beyond it, the narrator thinks of refugees “linger[ing] by the seaside, waiting for safe crossing to Samos—an island of camps.” So even if Durbin’s “biography-through-the-periphery” about Guibert remains largely unfinished, he has written something even harder to define, an airy-yet-ominous diary of a wine-fogged week on a biblical island, one that—like “the missing portrait of Guibert”—hovers right there in front of us, nudging us along, floating “just out of reach.”
While Durbin’s novel is catalyzed by the search for a specific work of art, Nathalie Léger’s Exposition confirms that a similarly enigmatic book can sometimes arise from an absence. At work on a “project about ruins,” Léger is given carte blanche to choose a single historical work from “the museum in C***” and write an essay about it—the only problem is, the photograph she wants isn’t available. Instead, she browses through a catalog of items pertaining to the Countess of Castiglione, an Italian aristocrat who briefly had an affair with Napoleon III and who, over the course of her adult life (and at the advent of photography), worked to ensure that she would be the most photographed woman in the world. Léger circles around this initial encounter as if it were one of the more important moments of her life, remembering and re-remembering that instant when, “by coincidence, at the top of a small wooden staircase in the dilapidated bookshop in a provincial town, I came across her,” suddenly feeling “chilled by the evil of her gaze.”
Yet even though Léger feels as if she “had been seized, swallowed up by the subject” of this decidedly cryptic book, she withholds much of the Countess’ actual story from us, preferring to stage side-long re-enactments of her sittings with her long-time collaborator, the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson (her previous biographers, on the other hand “don’t speak of the photography, or only say very little”). “We can’t know what she wanted, but when we look at la Castiglione, we know what she’s doing: she’s dancing,” Léger writes. She continues:
You can’t see it, it’s invisible, but from morning to night, whenever she found herself under someone else’s gaze, she danced. There’s almost nothing left of this dance to be seen. Only photography makes this incessant movement of ghosts within her visible, this advancing toward and drawing away from the other, the reprises, the leaps. . . . Photography can capture—in this woman’s incessant dancing under the gaze of the other—the condition of being stone, which in an instant reveals a secret. That is what she wanted to expose.
Amidst this quickly vanishing but forever-frozen secret the viewer finds—or sees—a multitude of selves, a litany of Countesses. In trying to mimic and interrogate the “mad truth of photography,” Léger has developed an acutely irregular form, one that shirks temporal linearity entirely and even comes to correct itself at times: “Let’s try again. . . . Is it so difficult to tell a story . . . to not get bogged down in details . . . to skim over events, pointing to them rapidly like Nadar in his balloon.” Even the very assignation of “novel” is up for debate, but despite her archival inclination, Léger’s techniques are distinctly fictional, and she seems to be arguing for the idea of the photograph-as-fiction—given that it captures one single iteration of our ever-changing, always-moving forms, how can it be anything else?
Within this investigation of an art form, there rests a more personal inquiry, as Léger begins to use these photographs of the Countess to access different versions of her own self. After her project—this very book, we presume—is rejected by “the museum in C***,” she opens a box of old family photos and quickly “enter[s] into this dark misleading passage,” a passage of the mind that yields plentiful memories, including that of a hidden wardrobe mirror, one that reveals “in a flash the superimposition of countless faces, a jumble of specters who normally, deceivingly, function as one.” Exposition belongs to a triptych of books that includes Léger’s much-lauded Suite for Barbara Loden, another biographical novel that reaches beyond the primary subject of its research. Together, these works remind us of the ways we can use the archive to expose and to obfuscate, to reveal and make strange the “jumble of specters” that we see in the mirror and around us.
Spectral absences act as a through line in Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses, a collection of twelve thematically linked “fictional essays” all inspired by objects that no longer exist. Like Léger, Schalansky—who edited the influential natural history list at Matthes und Seitz—seeks to confront the unintended glut of the archive and the sheer randomness that it can elicit. Though she believes that “it is not the future but the past that represents the true field of opportunity,” Schalansky (again, like Léger) strives to counter linear—and therefore reductive—methods of historical study, ones that uphold our stubborn adherence to Enlightenment ideals of progress.
“This book, like all others, springs from the desire to have something survive,” Schalansky notes, wondering if writing can give “a sense that the difference between presence and absence is perhaps marginal, as long as there is memory.” In order to realize this goal, Schalansky deploys a wide variety of modes, choosing a unique form for each subject that she writes toward (it often feels that she is writing “around” these items rather then “about” them). One such essay encircles the Villa Sacchetti, a mansion on the outskirts of Rome that began deteriorating by the end of the seventeenth century, no more than fifty years after it was completed. Here, Schalansky utilizes historical re-imagination, beginning with the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi—famous for his etchings of Roman ruins (“the ruins speak to him as if in a fever, rob him of his peace and sleep”)—before moving to his assistant, Hubert Robert, a young Frenchman who stumbled upon the crumbling villa and was haunted by it for the rest of his life.
In another essay, this one about an alleged unicorn skeleton pieced together by the seventeenth-century physicist Otto von Guericke, Schalansky fashions an even more radical form, one that blends personal essay, research, and the atmosphere of a fairy tale. Momentarily living in an alpine village while writing a book about monsters, she finds her research to be surprisingly formulaic: “all these stories of monstrous beings testified to little more than the dogged persistence of repeated narrative patterns and motifs.” Things change dramatically once Schalansky abandons any academic impulse and starts painting monsters instead: she begins having vivid dreams about bathtubs full of snakes, except the snakes have the heads of young women. Effacing any border between these dreams and her surrounding reality, Schalansky only gently introduces the unicorn of the essay’s title, preferring to describe its writhing body rather than a mere skeleton.
Given that it is “the past that represents the true field of opportunity,” Schalansky’s peculiar brand of antiquarian-futurism feels like a necessary paradox, a genre worthy of our time. What is remembering, Schalansky seems to ask us readers, and why do we latch onto it so desperately? If we want to remember in the future, we’d be wise to start trying to answer her question now.
 TO THE FRIEND WHO DID NOT SAVE MY LIFE, by Hervé Guibert, trans. by Linda Coverdale. Semiotext(e). $16.95p.