“Was It a Betrayal?”: On Kate Zambreno’s “To Write As If Already Dead”

By Jenny WuJuly 2, 2021

“Was It a Betrayal?”: On Kate Zambreno’s “To Write As If Already Dead”

To Write As If Already Dead by Kate Zambreno

KATE ZAMBRENO’S LATEST book, To Write As If Already Dead, takes the form of a diptych. The first half of the book is a study of the French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert that centers on his novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, which chronicles the death of the author’s friend “Muzil” (Michel Foucault). Zambreno’s literary study dovetails into a personal project, that of memorializing her online friendship with a writer whose heteronym was and still remains “Alex Suzuki.” The second half of To Write As If Already Dead is a diaristic account of the days leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, written in the modular “index card” style of the artist Moyra Davey (whom Zambreno credits in her acknowledgments). Throughout the text Zambreno weaves in her personal obsessions, pointing out striking and sometimes tenuous parallels between consciousnesses — hers, Guibert’s, and Alex Suzuki’s — all grasping for connection within an ether of intertextual references, mazy interior monologues, and quotations that speak of one thing but point behind their backs at another.

Zambreno’s speaker grapples with bodily and psychical diseases which range from insomnia to pregnancy hormones to a visceral desire to spend time alone. This book is, however, as much about disease as it is about decadence and petty indulgences — “It is the pettiness of Guibert that thrills me,” Zambreno writes, “the intimacy of the malice in the voice, which intersects with how much of the work could be read as gossip or rant” — and about the small but significant wounds one inflicts on one’s friends by enacting a friendship through writing. “The question,” Zambreno writes, “at the center of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life: Was it a betrayal to write about his friend in his most private moments—the moment of his disintegration and death?”

Rightly or wrongly, Zambreno’s books have always evoked — and entrapped me in — an interior, a place like Eileen Gray’s E-1027, the modernist villa that the architect built on the shore of Cape Martin and whose walls Le Corbusier defaced with his own murals while staying there as a guest. A house with a history, but one that is so well wrought that you cannot, from the outside, locate its seams or its disjunctions. Perhaps what I’m referring to is the feeling of occupying a space, one that has been marked by countless others, either with love or with petty and sinister intent.

To read Zambreno is never just to read Zambreno — it is to read Zambreno’s interlocutors, Zambreno’s friends, and the gossip columns of literary and internet culture. I recall a line from Heroines, in which Zambreno conducts a sweeping study of the pantheon of wives and mistresses of modernist literature in order to inhabit their miseries and ecstasies: “To become so possessed by a character you begin to play the part,” Zambreno writes, “A sort of Method Acting that is also a conjuring up.” A similar conjuring occurs in Zambreno’s study of Hervé Guibert, whose AIDS diagnosis and language of illness creeps into Zambreno’s discussion of her own body, as the book progresses: “Always a health crisis precipitates my looping return to the Guibert study, my own experiences of the alienating clinical gaze, which can’t seem to look back at me as though I’m fully human.” The palimpsestic mode in which Zambreno writes allows for a kind of temporal and spatial slippage; bodily empathy that reaches across time and space and difference.

The book traffics in art historical references as well, my favorite of which is to On Kawara’s Date Paintings, which are decadent in their own way. I have wondered if On Kawara ever excused himself from a party in order to finish that day’s Date Painting, in the same way, I imagine Zambreno’s speaker stealing a quiet hour for herself, away from parental responsibilities, away from her teaching job — “There comes a moment when you are finally given some space and quiet, maybe an hour,” the book begins, “[to] return to the problem you’ve been attempting to unravel” — in order to produce a paragraph about how it is impossible to have a quiet, clearheaded hour to oneself. “Everyone tells me to go to Italy to write this book,” Zambreno writes, in a later passage, “Why is everyone telling a mother of a toddler to go to Rome? I haven’t gone to a movie by myself in years. […] I cannot really be alone. Except when I am sick. Except here. In this book.”

Reading To Write As If Already Dead is at once like biting into a bitter seed and like commiserating with an old friend. The speaker’s critical discernment — turned on herself and her own situation — reminds me of the speaker in Heroines, who writes from within a house, first in Akron, Ohio, then in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, trapped in the role of the wife who follows her husband from job to job. However, reading To Write As If Already Dead does not, for some reason, enrage me to the point where I unconsciously (consciously) pick fights with my partner and plot escape routes out the window to avoid ending up like the speaker of Zambreno’s books: angry, wilted, and charred from attempting to live the life of the mind in the body of a woman.

As its title suggests, To Write As If Already Dead presents a consciousness that is more resigned. The speaker is no longer embattled against her husband and the modernist canon; instead, she is inquiring after something much more loosely defined — an online friend, a fellow writer, with whom she had maintained an intimate and exclusive correspondence, but one that faded as easily as it came. This friendship with Alex Suzuki is perhaps the driving force behind the first half of the book: “I am a writer who blogs and comments on a handful of other blogs under another name in order to attempt to have sincere, authentic conversations about literature.” This is how Alex Suzuki introduces herself to Zambreno’s speaker. Despite the pretense of sincere, authentic communication, something pristine and separate from the professional literary world, the speaker’s relationship with Alex Suzuki remains contentious and wary, even when they seem to overshare and over-indulge in the meeting of minds: “I was in love with her writing voice and the fact that she was writing these letters only to me,” the speaker confesses, “an intimacy that mirrored how I felt when I read Hervé Guibert.”

It’s hard to say whether Alex Suzuki is the antagonist of this book (although I have the lingering impression that she is) based on the way that Zambreno’s speaker recounts the details of their friendship’s dissolution with the exactitude and poetry of a jilted lover: “We did eventually meet in person. […] She immediately clocked me, that I was dressed stylishly, and said something to the effect that she didn’t realize that I was a fashion person.” In this friendship, I again recall hints of E-1027’s fraught history: the implicit competition between Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier, two modernist architects, one of whom had to deface the other’s design through an artistic act.

When Zambreno’s speaker and Alex Suzuki finally have a chance to talk face to face — “We sat at a vegan restaurant in the Village […] and picked at our salads. In person, neither of us had much to say to the other” — what I expect to be a moment of extreme melancholic longing instead leaves me in a numb daze. I read the second half of To Write As If Already Dead slumped against the foot of my bed, sensing no anger in the speaker — not toward her friend, the professional literary world, her child, or her historical interlocutors. In place of anger I sense an inevitable entropy, a disillusionment with publishing — “perhaps no one will read, what does it matter, I am already dead” — though not with the act of writing itself.


Jenny Wu is a writer, editor, and art historian. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMBThe Literary ReviewDenver QuarterlyRefract Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Jenny Wu is a writer and educator based in New York City. Her work can be found in Art in America, Artforum, e-flux, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She holds a master’s degree in art history, as well as an MFA in fiction, from Washington University in St. Louis.


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