When One of Us Dies: On Mathieu Lindon’s “Hervelino”

October 26, 2022   •   By Edmée Lepercq


Mathieu Lindon

FROM 1988 TO 1990, the French writers Hervé Guibert and Mathieu Lindon lived together in Rome at the artists residency of the Villa Médicis. They’d been friends for almost a decade by then, having met in the late 1970s in the living room of a famous philosopher. Guibert was standing alone in a corner; Lindon asked him, “Are you in time-out, Hervé Guibert?” — and their friendship began. They were both young, gay, and fixated on writing. Guibert went on to publish 18 books during his lifetime, including the groundbreaking novel about his struggle with AIDS, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990), a bestseller that shifted French attitudes towards the disease. He died in 1991, 15 months after his return to Paris.

“[A]s close as we might be,” Lindon writes in his new memoir about those years in Rome, “why are we so far from one another when one of us dies? And how can that distance change, grow and shrink over the years after?” Published three decades after Guibert’s death — and available today in an English translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman through Semiotext(e) — Hervelino is less a portrait of a friend than of a friendship. The title is an Italian-sounding nickname Lindon gave Guibert, one that made him “think not so much of Hervé as of us both, together in Rome.” In delicate, self-aware, and at times circular prose, Lindon delineates both the contours of their relationship and his struggle to write about it.

Loosely structured around their time in Rome, the book oscillates between details of life at the Villa, musings on the ethics of writing about others, and the present-day narrator, trying to remember Guibert. Most of the text focuses on the mundane interactions that shape a friendship — the lunches and dinners, the inside jokes, the testy comments, the shared friends, the rumors started and deflated, the petty jealousies, the mutual admiration. And beneath all this, an undercurrent of dread. Guibert learned he was seropositive just before he left for Rome, at a time when no effective treatment was available for HIV/AIDS. His diagnosis was unknown to most people at the Villa except Lindon, until Guibert published To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Then everyone knew.

“Hervé was a walking death in the Villa,” Lindon writes in his bluntest acknowledgment of the situation. “He had nothing to do there, death was there, for him and with him and in him, the way government is said to be of the people and by the people and for the people. Death was there, there was no theorizing it or solving it.” By their second year together at the Villa, Guibert had become visibly diminished: he kept losing weight despite the restaurant meals and the cans of medicated nourishment he ingested twice a day (“the cans, the cans” he’d say if he forgot them). And yet, even if death was present in Guibert, Lindon also writes that, in Rome, “it was as if he would never die.” The Villa suspended Guibert’s illness — at least for Lindon.

Hervelino is most nuanced and moving when Lindon attempts to make sense of his attitude towards Guibert’s disease. There are moments of disbelief, because how could these be his friend’s last years? How could Guibert, with his curls and his talent and his appetites, die so soon? The narrator feels guilt about this. He says, “In my typical idiocy, it took me ages to notice his physical degradation,” and “those two Roman years were, without my realizing it then since I was always oblivious, a sort of culmination of our friendship.” When Guibert was obliged to whisper “Help me” because they were sitting among strangers and he couldn’t stand up on his own, Lindon was, as he recalls,

ashamed not to have suggested it myself, to have forced him to make this request and not to have realized that he was no longer able to do this himself, as if I were lacking in something, love, friendship, affection, basic solidarity whereas he had not a single word of reproach for me, only gratitude once he was upright.

Lindon persistently reminds us that, even though Hervelino is a portrait of a friendship, its point of view is decidedly one-sided. Guibert and Lindon could have completely different feelings about the same interaction, and Lindon is careful to include instances when his friend was blind to the impact of his own words, or when others were able to see dynamics in their relationship that they did not. Lindon thought himself inattentive towards Guibert, but when To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life came out, an acquaintance said he now understood the kindness Lindon showed the author. Hervelino is remarkable in its careful depiction of the blind spots inherent in all relationships, even the closest ones.

The book also pays close attention to the fact that we sometimes do not understand why we act the way we do, either because of fear, self-deceit, or something else entirely. Lindon mainly describes his reaction to Guibert’s illness as childlike denial: he continuously refers to his time at the Villa as a childhood, even though he was in his thirties. This might spark a brusque judgment on the importance of duty and care, and yet how relatable this all is, to find the illness and impending death of a loved one so impossible to believe that it returns you to a childlike state, when magic is real and wishes come true. Lindon wanted Guibert to be in his life forever and for them to be friends forever. Part of him believed this would still happen, despite Guibert’s deteriorating health and the book he published tracking his own wavering acceptance of his seropositivity.

In contrast, Guibert was, in his own words, made wise beyond his years because of the virus, and the residency marked the end of his life. We might assume that Guibert did not share the burden of his illness with Lindon in order to protect him, as an adult would a child. But Lindon complicates this idea of childhood as a state only of innocence or weakness before death. Guibert already shared his death with his primary romantic partners. For Lindon, “alluding to it, steeping myself in it, wasn’t courageous, and I had no part to play in his own courage.” His role instead was to protect and cultivate what he calls the “silly or wise joy” at the heart of their friendship. “That was an advantage of my stupor,” Lindon explains. “I didn’t fret over it, and maybe that’s why we had such a good time, why we were always happy.”

Hervelino closes with its catalyst: the dedications Guibert wrote to Lindon in copies of his books. Each one is reproduced, alongside a short text by Lindon explaining its context and content. (These were originally destined for an archive until Lindon realized that a book would reach a larger readership.) After 100 pages on the complexities of friendship and the inevitable question, following a loss, of how one could have behaved differently, the feelings Guibert conveys in his dedications are startlingly clear: he calls Lindon “my friend,” “my wolf,” “the love of my life”; he sends him his “love, as much as usual”; he says, “I want to write you an inscription so sweet that I’m afraid of never living up to it”; he tells him, “the feeling I have for you, and which has only grown in the time I’ve known you, is one of my greatest comforts, I hope you can tell.” The strength and consistency of his sentiments removes any uncertainty: Guibert knew of Lindon’s love and loved him too. Tender but not melancholic, Hervelino is a testament to what we can give and forgive in friendship, especially in the face of illness and death.


Edmée Lepercq is a writer based in London. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn RailHyperallergic, and The British Journal of Photography, among other publications.