Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary

Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary. Hervé Guibert. Translated by Clara Orban, with introduction by David Caron and afterword by Todd Meyers. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016, 85 pp.

Hervé Guibert was one of France’s most prolific and important writers. An author of 30 books, novels, and screenplays, he was also an actor and a filmmaker and still found time to work as a photographer and critic for Le Monde. Guibert’s literary and artistic output is all the more remarkable because he died shortly after his 36th birthday in 1991. Although little known of him in the English-speaking world beyond specialist circles, Guibert gained national prominence in France following the publication of his “autofiction” novel À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie (“To the friend who did not save my life”) in 1990. The novel not only revealed to the mainstream French public that he was living with AIDS, but can also be read as an ethnography of the death of his close friend (perhaps closest friend) and one-time lover, Michel Foucault, from the same disease in 1984. Foucault died in the very same hospital, Hôpital de la Salpêtrière, that he researched for Madness and Civilisation, and in which Jean-Martin Charcot, the founder of neurology, worked. It was in Salpêtrière that Freud, Charcot’s most famous pupil, began developing ideas that would later form the foundations of pyschoanalysis. Tellingly, Foucault himself died from neurological complications brought about by AIDS at a time when very little was known about the disease.

Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary is Guibert’s account of his stay in a different, unnamed hospital somewhere in the suburbs, shortly before his own death. It is a brief 44-page diary that covers the dates September 16–October 8, 1991 and in which Foucault makes occasional appearances, as “M.” Guibert’s diary opens with the following entry:

 

September 17: Vision in my right eye is shot: difficulty reading. Listen to music: not yet deaf.

 

September 18: A young woman with a very beautiful, made-up face, who looked a little Asian, lying unconscious on an abandoned stretcher in a radiology corridor, very red lips, and something on her uncovered neck which I at first thought was a wound, as if someone had tried to cut her throat, but which apparently turned out to be a long smear of lipstick. Waiting behind a window before the abdominal ultrasound: you can see the hospital visitors descend the escalator and move toward one ward or another. Many men of all ages talking to themselves, agitated. The old ones in pajamas and robes. The young ones often bare-chested under an open shirt or jacket. Cytomegalovirus! Hospitalization. Lenses right on the retina. I’m afraid they’ll make me sleep in paper sheets, under a synthetic blanket. The will to live—marvelous or sickening?

 

Through these first two entries, the reader who may not be familiar with Guibert is immediately introduced to him not just as a person, stylist, and acute social observer but as a patient. These opening entries are full of resonance and meaning not just in terms of what they reveal about Guibert’s perceptions and concerns (an interest in vision, in appearances, in the senses and sensation, in people’s bodies, in medical technology, in the ambiguity of life and death) but also because of what is not quite spelled out.

Cytomegalovirus, the title of the book, is a common DNA virus that most adults have and one in three children catch before they are five. Once infected, we carry it through our lives, although most persons are not even aware they have it. Its effects are held in check by the immune system and may never be noticeable to the person; however, in persons with compromised immune systems, such as persons with AIDS, the virus can wreak havoc and cause cell death throughout the body.

Although only occasionally articulated, Guibert’s stay in the hospital is haunted by one possible effect of cytomegalovirus in persons with AIDS, namely blindness. Cytomegalovirus retinitis occurs if the virus enters the eye and begins eating away the light receptor cells in the retina. Left unchecked, it can destroy sight within weeks. Even with medical intervention (especially at the time of Guibert’s writing, which predates the arrival of effective antiretroviral medications in 1996/97), there is often little that can be done. The same condition affected other well-known HIV-positive persons such as the photographer John Dugdale, the journalist Oscar Moore, and the filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose final film Blue (1993) consists of a simple blue screen juxtaposed with a complex narrative that describes the effects of going blind.

Guibert’s identity and livelihood as a writer, newspaper critic, and photographer is tied up with his eyes, be that reading, writing, or taking pictures. It is telling, therefore, that Guibert’s first diary entry starts with the phrase “Vision in my right eye is shot,” and his last diary entry, as he leaves the hospital three weeks later for home care, is “Writing in the dark? Writing until the end? Putting an end to it so as not to end up fearing death?” In other words, will he still be able to write when he is blind? When he is on death’s doorstep? Should he commit suicide?

Conversations with medical staff do not offer much hope, and Guibert’s concern for his eyes make his visual observations about the world full of meaning: whether that is someone’s red lipstick or looking out of his hospital window at the sky and trying to find Turner or Constable’s watercolours among the clouds. As with a craftsman trying to make the most of the available light at the end of the day, Guibert still tries to continue reading as words become less distinguishable on the page. He worries both about whether he has already read enough books during his life to keep him going and, just as poignantly, whether he was written enough books. Underlying his actions is the idea that memory is not only a property of the past but also of the future, given how our actions in the present create the memories and images to which we have access in later life.

In Guibert’s case, this involves an active creation of what might be remembered in a blind future. The effects of cytomegalovirus retinitis are such that he is not only forced to learn about and look at the world in different way, but also to sense it: to hear it, to smell it, to taste it, to feel it, to balance in it. References to his heightened senses are strewn throughout the text: hospital lighting, disinfectant, food, footsteps, howls, noise. As such, Guibert’s illness and stay in the hospital, while framed toward death, are equally an apprenticeship to life. He has not only to learn a new medical language and a new way of acting and being in the world but also to negotiate his declining body and his role as a patient.

Nine weeks after writing these entries, his body wasting away and depressed about his health, Guibert attempted suicide. A fortnight later, he succumbed to the injuries that he had sustained. There is much more that might be said about Guibert and this book. The book comes with an excellent introduction and afterword by David Caron, Todd Meyers, and Clara Orban that provide an overview of Guibert’s work and its relevance to literature, the history of HIV/AIDS, and medical anthropology.