Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Well, at last I get to my first book for Woman in Translation month, and in fact the third book by a woman I’ve read in a row – yay! “Vivian” is a recent release from the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the author Christina Hesselholdt is a new name to me although she’s an illustrious and prolific Danish author who’s produced many books and won a number of prizes. This is only her second novel to be translated into English, and I really hope more follow, because on the strength of this she’s definitely an author I want to read!

Bearing in mind that my last read was a novel about a neglected female architect, it’s interesting that I should have chosen to follow it with what’s described as a piece of documentary fiction, the subject of whom was also neglected during her lifetime – the photographer Vivian Maier. Vivian spent most of her life in obscurity, living a seemingly ordinary life as a nanny; however, over a period of around forty years, she constantly photographed street scenes, mostly around Chicago. The bulk of her photographs lay undeveloped for decades; she was an inveterate hoarder, of her negatives, tape recordings, and mounds of newspapers; and it wasn’t until two years before her death, when she was no longer able to pay for storage, that these were sold off and she began to be discovered.

Facts about Maier’s life are sketchy; her parents were French and Austrian immigrants and Maier was born in New York, though she seems to have spent portions of her younger years being shuttled backwards and forwards across the Atlantic. After working for a while in a sweatshop, she took up nannying – presumably this gave her a certain amount of freedom and the ability to pursue her hobby. Maier died in 2009 after a fall; in recent years her work has become known worldwide and her reputation soared. But we still actually know little about what motivated Vivian to live the way she did and take her photographs.

This absence, this lack of detail, allows Hesselholdt space to play with her subject’s story; and while she sticks closely to the facts that are known (as far as I can see from Maier’s Wikipedia page), she expands Vivian’s life to speculate on the reasons for her secrecy, what kind of existence she might have had, and why she chose a single path through life. What’s particularly exciting is the way that Hesselholdt chooses to do this; instead of a simple, chronological narrative, we instead are greeted with a polyphonic structure where the characters relate their story directly to the reader, corralled into order (or not…) by an unnamed narrator who has plenty of views of their own!

Viv
How much of the person behind the camera can be seen in the works? Is one hidden behind them or on the contrary do they unveil you? I think they do. The narrator is the real main character.

Narrator
I can only agree with you.

I knew I was going to love this book from the very first page, with its post-modern structure and not-at-all objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself; her mother, Maria; the parents and children in the various families Maier nannies for (though the narrator does reveal to us at one point that the families and children are a kind of composite construction); phtographer Jeanne Bertrand who lived with the Maier family for some time; other members of the Maier family; and so on. Unlike, say, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, each speaker is clearly labelled so there is never any doubt who’s telling their tale, and the story Hesselholdt weaves for Vivian is a fascinating and often dramatic one. The Maier family is a mightily dysfunctional one, with alcoholism, indifelity, child abuse and madness lurking in the shadows. With autofiction (again!) of course, the reader can never be quite sure how much is real or not – and I have no way of knowing if the Maier family were really that awful – but Hesselholdt creates a compelling narrative and a credible background which would explain why someone like Vivian would choose such a singular path through life and remain in effect so isolated.

The story Hesselholdt tells is absolutely fascinating, and although in some ways seeks to explore and explain Maier, it in fact allows her to remain as mysterious and enigmatic as she was; let’s face it, we humans love a puzzle. It also looks quite deeply at photography as an art and what it captures and tells us about ourselves. The narrator quotes from Montaigne via Gide, reminding us that “every human carries within them the human condition”. The point being made is that we can recognise humans as humans even in images from the past. However, the narrator is not entirely convinced by this, as the static nature of a picture cannot reflect the whole human condition in the way the elasticity of writing can; the narrator is biased towards their own art form.

As you might guess, one of the book’s major strengths is its writing and construction; Hessleholdt allows plenty of humour to creep in, playfully at one point having the narrator and Vivian enter into a snarky dialogue which is breathtaking and funny. There are some newspaper clippings reproduced, which of course reflect Maier’s own obsessive newspaper collecting and filleting; and occasional quotations scattered through the narrative. Hesselholdt also creates a mystery of her own in the form of that narrator; initially taking something of a back seat in the book, as the story continues, the narrator reveals more about themself and I was left wondering whether this was meant to be a representation of Hessenholdt herself, or another layer between reader and author and story, or indeed the author’s comment on the act of writing and narrating. Certainly, her narrator has plenty of their own opinions, even commenting at one point on the autofiction element of the book:

I’m really not fond of documentaries with dramatised scenes, i.e. a fact is related and some actors subsequently perform a scene that illustrates what the narrator has just related. In dark moments I think that I may have strayed into this horrible genre.

It’s all very clever and entertaining, as well as being exceptionally readable and surprisingly gripping. Do you know Maier by the end of it? Probably not, because nobody really knew her (and you could argue that nobody really knows *anybody*); but I was certainly fascinated by the woman and her life, and I may end up down another wormhole.

Vivian Maier self-portrait 1953 – via Wikimedia Commons: Latasa Undagoitia [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Many of Maier’s images are self-portraits, often taken in shop windows or any reflective surface she could find; they show an ordinary-looking woman with a camera slung around her neck, usually staring unsmilingly at her image. She mostly seemed to get away with snapping her pictures because she was in some way invisible (as women often can be if they aren’t the obvious young glamorous attention seekers – particularly as they get older). Her selfies are somehow very moving, capturing and pinning her in time and in the act of plying her trade, completely in control of herself and her image and what she does. There are resonances here with the Sylvia Weil book “Selfies” I reviewed recently, and I understand why Weil chose to discuss an image of Maier’s and feature it on the book cover. Maybe these photographs were her way of stamping her identity on the world, of saying “Remember – I was here”, of not wanting to pass through life without leaving a mark.

I’ve expressed slight reservations about autofiction in the past, but I’ve really had my prejudices challenged with recent reads. “Vivian” in particular, with its clever structure, wonderful writing, playful yet thought-provoking narrative, and all-round fascinating story, is a real winner. It’s such a deep, complex and provocative book that I could say a lot more about it, but this post is already long enough! I’m relatively new to Fitzcarraldo Editions (late to the party again!); but I’ve found every book of theirs I’ve read to be a real winner and “Vivian” is no exception. It’s a wonderful read, highly recommended, and most definitely a book which will feature in my end-of-year best-of!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!