To celebrate the recent publication of My Manservant and Me by Hervé Guibert, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, poet & past Nightboat Intern Ryan Cook speaks with Jeffrey about translation, big universal brands like Nike and McDonalds, and Guibert’s body of work. Take a look below!
Ryan Cook: I wanted to start by asking what your relationship to Hervé Guibert’s work is? When did you first learn about him, and how has his writing affected your life on a personal level?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: So, I first discovered Guibert when I was just out of college—I was working as an editorial assistant at a small publishing house in the middle of Illinois. One of my roommates was dating a French grad student, and I came home from a pretty dispiriting day of work to find the French grad student sitting on one of the couches reading a book with A L’AMI QUI NE M’A PAS SAUVÉ LA VIE on the cover in blood-red letters. I’d dabbled in a bit of French translation in college, so I immediately knew the title meant “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life”—but I was shocked that anyone would just go and put a title like that on the cover of a book. I eventually laid hands on a used copy, because it was long out of print, and I was absolutely riveted. But I didn’t think anything more of it, because sometimes that’s what you do with masterpieces: you read them, you appreciate them, and then you move on.
I left that job, I moved to New York City, and then I saw Guibert’s name again: Nightboat was bringing out his complete diaries. So I bought a copy and found myself drawn in again, this time through the specter of his real life which of course haunted the autofictions he wrote. And then one of my friends asked me if I might consider translating one of his short stories. I was wary at first—Guibert seemed that untouchable—but then I gave it a try and realized there was something about his language that I just couldn’t get enough of as I tried to wrestle it into English. Over the years, I came to translate many more of his stories, and then, after that volume came out, Andrew Durbin encouraged Nightboat to consider bringing out this little late volume of his, and I was happy to return to Guibert’s work. It felt like a wonderful way both to pay homage again to a writer I’ve come to care deeply about even in death, and to pay my respects to the publisher who helped to bring him to life again for an English-language readership.
RC: One thing I noticed about this novel is how kinky/ troubling the power dynamics are. Without ever explicitly mentioning erotic acts, the novel seems to drip with sexual tension between the characters— how did you learn to properly translate eros, especially one that is tinged with irredeemable characters? Is there a particular moment during the novel that is especially charged for you?
JZ: There are so many layers to this strange relationship between the narrator and his manservant, aren’t there? (I had to resist the very strong impulse to translate the title as “My Valet and Me” because that would have been a flinch so contrary to the unflinching writer’s intentions.) As I was working on this book, I kept being reminded of various pairings—the most notorious being Jekyll and Hyde as two sides of the same figure, and the actress and the nurse of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona who co-opt one another—but ultimately the relationship is exactly what the title describes: a master and a servant. (Who exactly is the master is a premise that Guibert very clearly subverts by revealing that the whole book may or may not be in Jim’s hand.)
In some ways, Guibert made translating these strongly charged images easy: he’s an extremely precise writer, and so I didn’t have to immerse myself in his kinks in order to reproduce his eros. I’m most unable to shake the scene where Jim, having replaced his master’s morphine with water, injects that stolen morphine in his own body; the master catches him injecting it under his tongue, whereupon Jim runs that tongue along his master’s neck. In so many ways, it’s a taunt—and yet neither of them can be free of the other, so there’s a need undergirding it all. And it sublimates in this deeply queer commingling outside all the norms of bourgeois, heterosexual society; it’s this transgression that makes the book so powerfully charged.
RC: You mention that the translation note that in refashioning the text into your own language, you “incarnated the books’ best joke of all: the original title, Mon valet et moi, is an unmistakable pun on my manservant is me”; I absolutely felt this pun’s presence throughout the piece, as the two characters mesh and mold into each-other, and the sense of mutual wretchedness and longing to live through someone else. Given Guibert’s use of the auto fictive style, do you think that he saw himself as both of these people, or do you think this role reversal/enmeshment of personalities is an extended metaphor for the many emotions of withering away?
JZ: It’s so easy to give into the impulse to read autofiction as autobiography, isn’t it? Even in his final volume of short stories—which are most obviously fictional—Guibert wrote on the back cover: “Might the curious characters of these stories not each be Hervé Guibert, having changed their identities the better to disguise him as a virgin, a feverish lover, an earthquake victim…”
It wouldn’t surprise me if Guibert had written the narrator, an octagenarian in the decade when he himself would have been an octagenarian had AIDS not cut his life short, as both a dream of a future self and as a record of how he had already become an aged man as a trentagenarian. It feels more like a stretch for Guibert to see himself as a manservant bound to and obsessed with an aging figure; he notoriously refused to sleep with Roland Barthes as a condition for getting an early text published, simply on basis of their large age difference. But maybe his feelings had changed in the intervening time. Or maybe he imagined Jim the manservant differently—as an embodiment, perhaps of the AIDS virus overpowering his body, or as the eponymous friend in his most famous book who, despite being fond of Hervé, refused to save his life.
RC: Nike, McDonalds, and other universal brands show up in this book, but what were cultural elements that required translating from French culture to American/English culture? Things the American reader might otherwise fail to understand.
JZ: The late eighties and early nineties were a ripe time for such brands to expand their reach across the whole globe, so it doesn’t surprise me that those names, which probably felt astonishingly contemporary at the time, now feel like weathered icons of globalization. The details lost to time have more to do with money: I had to use an online currency converter to see how much of a steal an “895-franc Nouvelles Frontières charter flight” was in 1991—apparently dividing by something between five and six worked. So, it was $149 to $179 to fly from Paris to Rome that year. You can get similar flight prices these days, actually. (Inflation, though, meant it cost about $300 to $350 in 2021 dollars. So a little bit more of a luxury back then compared to today!)
RC: One other thing I noticed during my 2nd read through were the long (Tolstoy-esque) sentences that usually end in dramatic turns of phrase, something you later mentioned in your translation note. What do you think makes those types of turns so effective? I found myself gasping at the end of almost every paragraph.
JZ: Guibert really is the master of that long sentence. Even in early short stories of his, like “The Knife Thrower,” he really did his best to keep readers’ attention all the way to the last word. It feels like a wonderful analogue to the work he did as a photographer and as a journalist: revealing how what might seem ordinary or flat at first glance turns out to have a huge amount of tension—whether sexual or otherwise—immediately below the surface. And yet, it can be found if you simply look; he didn’t believe in keeping secrets secret. So those sentences were a perfect representation of his perspective: “secrets have to circulate,” he wrote in Ghost Image, and the way for them to circulate is to present them in such a way that readers can happen upon them and feel the delight and shock of discovery.
RC: I know this is the last novel Guibert wrote before he died— this fact immediately made me feel that there is some sort of greater importance bestowed upon the final work. I know there are always more translations to be done, but what was it like to grapple with this sense of “finality” in translating an author you spent so much time with?
JZ: Guibert was working at a frenetic pace in his final two years—after To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life came out at the start of 1990, it was such a massive success that he was left unsure whether he could do anything to live up to it. Then, like a dam had broken, he wrote a full five more books in his final months—books he would have wanted to write had his life been two or three times longer. Three came out that year, of which My Manservant is the final one (he didn’t expect to still be alive when it was released) and two came in 1992 once he was dead. But that sense of finality hangs over all of them. Mortality is omnipresent, and yet I didn’t feel any despair or regret undergirding his words: just an imperative that had sharpened his pen into a knife.
The short stories I translated for Written in Invisible Ink run from his very first published volume to the slim volume that came out before he started to grapple directly with the prospect of his own death; they all represent “a prose not yet marked by illness.” It was riveting to see how his style tightened, how he gained more control over his words and the effects he could calibrate. And so to translate My Manservant and Me, which is just slightly longer than the longest of his short stories, felt like a return to form, this time around, it wasn’t just experience exerting pressure on the graphite of his prose; it was the prospect of soon being dead that turned his words into diamonds. The result was a glittering array, cut with facets upon facets and reflecting not only the artist but the onlooker. I was in awe, and still am, and always will be.
Hervé Guibert (1955–1991) was a French writer and photographer. A critic for Le Monde, he was the author of some thirty books, most notably To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, which presents an intimate portrait of Michel Foucault and played a significant role in changing public attitudes in France towards AIDS.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is a translator of French, including books by the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Dardenne brothers, the queer writers Jean Genet and Hervé Guibert, and the Mauritian novelists Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel, and Carl de Souza. A graduate of Yale University, he has been a finalist for the TA First Translation Prize and the French-American Foundation Translation Prize, and has been awarded a PEN/Heim translation grant and the French Voices Grand Prize. In 2020 he was named a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.