Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” saw a challenge, two years later, with Michel Foucault’s lecture “What Is an Author?” Kate Zambreno abbreviates the distinction between these two works: “Barthes wants to kill the author, Foucault wants the author to take on the appearance of a dead man.” Zambreno’s two-part book, To Write as If Already Dead (158 pages; Columbia University Press), meditates on its title throughout, circumscribing death in its consideration of the author as a living and breathing body, flesh behind words. Zambreno is the author of the novel Drifts and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction. The book, a mix of fiction and criticism, also encompasses Zambreno’s attempts to write a study of Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life—a novel that reports the late French photographer and author’s AIDS diagnosis while elegizing his friend Foucault through a character named Muzil—and in doing so revealed Foucault’s affliction with the disease.
To Write as If Already Dead tracks three chronologies of bodies. Zambreno traces the body of Guibert, who traces the body of Foucault. But Zambreno also turns inward, narrating her early motherhood to her daughter Leo and her pregnancy with a second child, Rainer, which was complicated by a case of shingles. Her attempts to study Guibert in the second part of the book are both distracted and informed by the difficulties of motherhood and pregnancy, such that Guibert’s 1990 novel is metabolized by way of Zambreno’s experience with her body.
In Part One of the book—a novella titled “Disappearance”—a first-person narrator (presumably Zambreno) corresponds with a writer she’s met online, who goes by the pseudonym of Alex Suzuki. A description of digital anonymity, “Disappearance” speaks to the slippery ethics of writing about one’s real-life relationships—a theme of the entire book. The stronger Part Two, which shares the book’s title, looks at our current pandemic, its ambient paranoia and its parallels to the AIDS crisis. But its series of vignettes also explore what it means to be a writer and a mother—and to be both simultaneously—and report on the difficulties of supporting oneself off words and grants and fellowships, always referencing the contemporary literary world in italics.
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Zambreno narrates aliveness in the documentation of her pregnant body. Both illness (shingles, AIDS, COVID, a complicated pregnancy) and the medical gaze impose on her life, and on the double life of a pregnant body. Guibert wrote in his novel of the abject objectification involved with becoming a patient, “reenacting Foucault’s theories of the medical gaze,” Zambreno writes. She quotes from his novel:
…what happens to the subject’s identity once he becomes a patient, how heroic it is to attempt to reclaim the subject in an increasingly bureaucratized and medicalized body: Muzil spent a morning in the hospital having tests done, and told me he’d forgotten how so completely the body loses all identity once it’s delivered into medical hands, becoming just a package of helpless flesh, trundles around here and there, hardly even a number on a slip of paper.
The irony is that both Zambreno and Guibert take something akin to a medical approach to their studies. The book never loses focus of the oneness of word and body, or more accurately, word and object (“package of helpless flesh”).
To Write as If Already Dead is not without its weaknesses: rhetorical questions in place of assertions, descriptions of a successful pregnancy and two AIDS-related deaths, and a disregard for the special freedoms embedded in her complaints. Zambreno acknowledges these critiques point-blank. She cites and justifies her insecurities throughout. (“I worry that I’m not cosmopolitan enough or queer enough to write about Guibert.”) There are ethical questions at play in Guibert’s book, too, concerns pertaining to Foucault’s wish for a private death that were immediately raised by the novel’s French readership. Zambreno justifies Guibert’s choice to fictionalize the dying Foucault, explaining that “he can write this because he knows he is dying. That’s why there is no betrayal. He is already a ghost.” She references a line once written by Kafka: “I need solitude for my writing, not like a hermit—that wouldn’t be enough—but like a dead man.” For Zambreno, the pursuit of writing leads to only one conclusion: “I am already dead.” The desire and drive toward life is equal and opposite to death. That she characterizes writing as a deathly act is a convenient choice, one that subsumes the slipperiness of ethical reasoning.
But even with these limitations, the distinct quality of the book remains its form. Zambreno enacts that which she describes; many descriptions of Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life apply to To Write as If Already Did, too. She observes that Guibert’s prolific books “dramatize writing in front of us,” and do so “with a quality of speed.” The page prior, she tells her reader that “I have at most fifteen minutes to write this passage. This passage will not be good literature.” Zambreno is obsessed with Guibert, and she subverts what might have been the “boringness of someone else’s obsession” by performing, rather than explaining, the obsession. The Guibert novel adopts a “bodily, adamant, even cruel or hysterical first-person writing of illness fiercely opposed to the medical gaze, [opposed to] the absolute anonymity of death.” In that same way, the author as narrator here occupies first-person subjectivity with the urgency of the body.
Zambreno bookends her new work with two descriptions of travel. To Write as If Already Dead opens with a delicate account of Zambreno’s failed two-day trip to Paris. There, she found herself preoccupied with her husband and daughter when she had intended to be occupied by the beginning studies of Hervé Guibert. Concluding the book, a whimsical Zambreno imaginarily travels to Elba—an island in Italy—to visit the gravesite of Guibert. She is without her husband, without pregnancy, without her daughter Leo, and without illness. Her sole possessions are time and space, thus, the freedom to write. The description is heavenly, because here, she is dead.