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Issue 229

Mathieu Lindon’s Archives of Love and Friendship

Alastair Curtis reviews two memoirs by the French writer and looks at the lessons he learned from past relationships

BY Alastair Curtis in Books , Features | 16 SEP 22

In each of his books, Hervé Guibert penned an inscription on the first page for his friend, the French novelist Mathieu Lindon. ‘To Mateovitch, love of my life, my little pink sardine,’ he wrote in The Gangsters (1988), ‘I smother you with kisses.’ Witty, teasing and affectionate, these dedications were tributes to his friendship with Lindon, who would spend many hours reading and correcting Guibert’s manuscripts. ‘This book never would have existed if you hadn’t,’ he wrote in another, ‘and more likely if I hadn’t met you.’ More than a dozen such inscriptions are published as part of Hervelino (2022), a memoir in which the now 67-year-old Lindon collects personal reminiscences, pet-names, inside jokes – all that once belonged to their friendship – to build an extraordinarily tender account of the 17 years they knew each other.

Hans Georg Berger Pied-de-nez à Budapest 1983
Hans Georg Berger, Pied-de-nez à Budapest, 1983, from Phantom Paradise - A Photographic Love, 2019, Serindia Contemporary. Courtesy: www.hansgeorgberger.de

The men first met in 1978, at a dance performance organized by the philosopher Michel Foucault in his 15th arrondissement apartment. Both 23-year-old, gay, aspiring writers, Lindon and Guibert had a lot in common. La morte propaganda (Propaganda Death, 1977), Guibert’s first collection of stories, had been published the previous year, and Lindon managed to persuade Guibert to contribute a text to Minuet, the literary review he edited. Soon, the pair were hanging out at gay bars in Paris, dropping acid and arguing over the films and plays they’d seen. Picking up the phone to one another was enough to make them burst out laughing. Their friendship was instantaneous, exhilarating and, to Lindon, it felt like a ‘kind of love’.

These years are recounted in Learning What Love Means (2011), another of Lindon’s memoirs, in which he describes how Guibert prompted his gay coming-of-age. Although his childhood was not especially dysfunctional, he describes growing up gay in a family of heterosexuals as a ‘hellish’ experience, lonely and shame-inducing. With Guibert, he visits Foucault’s enormous, book-filled apartment on Rue de Vaugirard, where he discovers an alternative family of artists, filmmakers and journalists, the majority of them gay men. He watches how these men talk, laugh and love each other, searching for ideas as to how he – a young, single gay man – could exist in the world. Though he’s no younger than his new friends, Lindon describes feeling like a child around them, eager to be educated by his encounters – as if a second childhood might correct the shortcomings of his first.

Hervé Guibert, Mathieu à la Villa, 1988–89
Hervé Guibert, Mathieu à la Villa, 1988–89. Courtesy: Christine Guibert and les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Foucault, too, offers him wisdom from a generation of men who’ve seen it all before. He wields a kind, avuncular influence over Lindon’s 20s, entrusting his apartment to him whenever he left Paris, advising him on his relationship with the family he left behind and encouraging his early writing. Their friendship isn’t solely or straightforwardly educative; Foucault, Lindon explains, ‘educated me with such absolute discretion that I didn’t know what I was learning.’ Simply being a successful, happily partnered, 51-year-old gay man seems to suffice. Foucault, he writes, ‘cut me off from a fate leading to the precipice’ – in large part because he helped Lindon reimagine what his future as a gay man could be.

Hervelino picks up four years later, in 1988, when Lindon travels to Italy to join Guibert as a pensionnaire at the Villa Medici in Rome. On top of the Pincian Hill, with views of the Borghese gardens, the Villa should have provided a picturesque backdrop to two years of eating, drinking and cruising. By this time, however, Lindon’s friendships were coming to a sudden, traumatic end: Foucault had died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1984; Rue de Vaugirard had been abandoned and forgotten; and Guibert was diagnosed HIV positive soon after Lindon arrived in Rome. Although Guibert responds with stoic cheer to his weight loss and the countless experimental medicines he samples (‘The cans, the cans,’ he repeats, while chugging another noxious, indeterminate liquid), in Hervelino Lindon records the gulf that grows between the men when, for the first time, their futures begin to divide: ‘For me the Villa was part of my childhood,’ Lindon writes, ‘whereas for him it was the end of his life.’

Hervé Guibert, Michel, 1981
Hervé Guibert, Michel, 1981. Courtesy: Christine Guibert and les Douches la Galerie, Paris

When Guibert died in December 1991, from complications following a failed suicide attempt, Lindon was left in the role of what he terms the ‘survivor master’ of their friendship. Writing about their friendship is one way of preventing it from disappearing through neglect: unspoken for more than 30 years, his pet name for Guibert, ‘Hervelino’, for example, ‘no longer exists, meaning part of our bond’. But to write about the past also has its share of difficulties: when he attempts to explain how Guibert saved his life, he is confronted by the insufficiency of language. ‘I’m unable to share him’, he writes in Hervelino, ‘Description is not enough.’

Lindon persists for Rachid, a Moroccan novelist, and Corentin, a trainee teacher: two young, gay men who entered his life after the deaths of Guibert and Foucault. When they come to Lindon with their frustrations and fears, he is reminded of when he was 23 and uncertain about the future. Their needs make the absence of Guibert and Foucault all the more devastating. Both Rachid and Corentin grew up after the beginning of the AIDS crisis; without the guidance of their queer elders, Lindon asks, how will the next generation learn to live?

Through writing, Lindon receives one final lesson: his love is itself an archive, preserving Guibert and Foucault and all they taught him. Though he longs to reconnect with his lost friends, they survive in the man he has become. In the care and affection he offers Rachid and Corentin, he glimpses Guibert and Foucault – and that apartment on the Rue de Vaugirard, where he first learnt how to live – filled with light and laughter once more. ‘Our fates were linked,’ Lindon writes. ‘And when they were unlinked, they still were.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 229 with the headline ‘For Mathieu, With Love’. 

Main image: Hervé Guibert, Mathieu à la Villa Médicis, 1988-1989. Courtesy: Christine Guibert and les Douches la Galerie, Paris

Alastair Curtis is a playwright based in London, UK.