A Life in a Box
The Mausoleum of Lovers
translated by Nathanaël
French critic and photographer Hervé Guibert’s journal, The Mausoleum of Lovers, begins in 1976 and ends in 1991, with the writer’s death from AIDS. It is long at 571 pages, although that comes down to a sparse 38 pages a year on average. Recently, the skilled translator Nathanaël has rendered it in English for the first time, and it is as breathtakingly beautiful and complicated and absorbing as Guibert’s better-known works, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life and Ghost Image.
What emerge as the most urgent, the most inevitable details of a life when a writer takes us to the precipice of intimacy? In The Mausoleum of Lovers, on the first and last pages of the long text is a person called “T.,” and the pages between are rich with his veering presence and absence. The journal, we are told, has been preceded by letters to T., placed in a box for that sometimes-ideal lover to read. As Guibert has it, “The letters stopped, the notebook took over, became the place where he could come and read, at any moment, in my absence.” In this way, the journal is a document of Guibert’s interests, his romances and fucking, his thoughts on photography and literature, his strained and hilarious relationships with his parents and elderly aunts, his daily bodily concerns, and eventually his own life with AIDS. It is also, all of it, for T., “the most cherished person in the world.”
Of course, the book does not read as a 571-page account of singular and romantic love. Guibert and T. move in and out of bed with each other, but also in and out of the embraces of other lovers, some taking precedence for many years (T.’s partner, a woman, and the children T. raises with her, for instance). There are long stretches when it seems as though T. is forgotten, stunning moments when T. is undesired and too obtainable—“Came in T.’s mouth saying to him: ‘I detest you,’” and “T. speaks to me of his work, asks me for advice, inspires pity in me.” These periods during which T. is someone other than “the most cherished person in the world” (or maybe, cherished through despising, through ignoring) provide space for the entire fleshy, literary, petty, hilarious, and restive force of Guibert’s weird thinking to take place. They allow room for a nascent novel that stays emergent and room for the recurrence of his dreams, for “(Dream that the eye doesn’t fit into the eyelid anymore).” These are the moments of a great artist thinking through the intimacy of his craft and life, and it is a privilege for us to see this thinking not only because it is Guibert’s, but because Guibert has named it T.’s, an endowment that makes these fleeting thoughts even more intimate for being inseparable from longing and love. Out of nowhere and lest we forget: “This morning, letting the thin trickle of too hot water run along my cock, I retrieved an impression of sensuality lost for quite some time, since T.’s mouth.” Because some things seem always to come again. Because this is a life, with the many things of a life in it.
There are no dates in this journal, no clear and formal announcement of events or attempt at narrative arc. AIDS seems to be present for quite a while before Guibert names it, and it would be near impossible to give a cogent description or timeline of T.’s life, or even of Guibert’s. It’s a journal, written for the self as a journal is, but placed in a box for a lover to read, then published for all the world, posthumously. As such, it tells you different true things than those true things you are used to hearing from biography and memoir. It tells you “The blocks of ice that, upon melting, detach from the roofs, would kill a hero or a heroine divinely.” Though I would struggle to explain a narrative of this magnificent book, to summarize a life biographically comprehensible, a connection between the reader and Guibert emerges as tight as that any other writer might form.
Before his death might be called impending, Guibert writes, “At the moment of disappearing, I will know that I will have kept nothing to myself (is that not ‘my’ experience?).” It is hard to do things entirely for ourselves, especially when we are in love, but also always. Guibert, in giving everything over first to T., and then to us, follows through on the promise he has made to himself, even when he does no more than chronicle the shit of his body or the impressions of a day passed. “Suzanne eats a rotten fig: she delights in sucking the skin covered in white mold” and “Avidity of reading, but dreadful isolation of reading” each get their own passage and each strike me as integral to the book’s emotional power. Guibert seemed somehow prescient of the circumstances of his own death from an early age, or at least aware enough of his body as an odorous and breaking thing to put thought always into its end. He “will have kept nothing to himself,” whatever kind of salve that might be. So here it is, a life in a box for a lover, for us to read.
ContributorT Clutch Fleischmann
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande, 2012).