Vivian, Christina Hesselholdt, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, pp.192, £12.99 (paperback)

“What I produce is so good that if I start showing it to professionals, I’ll never get any peace again.” 

The most striking aspect of Christina Hesselholdt’s Vivian is its inherent refusal to romanticize the artist. Vivian Maier, in this polyphonic novel translated by Paul Russell Garrett, is presented as a brilliant, self-assured photographer – yet also a relentless hoarder, a nanny with a temper, and a woman troubled by her past.  Hesselholdt gives us an insight into Maier’s life, and does in the best way there is to tell a story: from different points of view, a plurality of voices interacting, contradicting and correcting one another. Everyone, in this novel, gets a say, from the narrator, to the protagonist, her employers and their child, her mother, her aunt, her distant relative… 

The textual collage begins with an episode from Vivian’s childhood, and only really comes back to it towards the end. After various anecdotes about her adult life, and her time as nanny with the Rice family, we accompany her to her mother’s native village in the French Alps. There we are privy to Marie Jassaud’s obsessive cleaning habits, and Jeanne Bertrand’s long hours in the dark room. The reader is taken through Vivianmoment by moment, almost as though they were flipping through a stack of photographs. We slowly understand, as we are taken through Vivian’s childhood, why she prefers not to talk about herself, and refuses to speak of her family to anyone. 

The chatty narrator often comes into the text, at times cheeky, at others philosophical. They could speak of a Miley Cyrus concert in Copenhagen, and then go on to Montaigne and musings on the human condition. Hesselholdt gives us a narrator who goes beyond the norms of narration, interacting with the characters like a Greek chorus. This narrator digresses, predicts, assumes, imagines: describing Vivian’s outlook on everyday life, material waste, and her hoarding habits, he/she unexpectedly suggests the late photographer would have liked Uruguayan president José Mujica, “the president of frugality”, who was elected the year after she died. We are keen to trust this narrator, who lets Vivian speak for herself at times and at others speaks for her. In one of the “Narrator” passages, the point of view suddenly switches to Vivian’s: “My lifetime suitcase dangling down by my navel, my leather animal, my Rollei [a camera]. It has been made into mine. It cannot disappear from me.” The narrator intervenes again, between parentheses: “(It is my task to find plausible explanations, motives, reasons, it is my excuse to exist).” 

The narrator tells us that Maier took over 150,000 photographs in her lifetime – when she got too old, she would simply look at a person and let them know they had an interesting face. Vivian demonstrates at length how Maier stopped at nothing to take a shot and captured everything she saw. She was a street photographer who “went for faces but also for situations, human interaction, conduct.” Vivian Maier even took photos of her father’s dead body, while her aunt yelled at her to have some humanity. However, it becomes clear, as we follow Vivian through her constant picture-taking, that it is her own expression of humanity. When the child she cares for, Ellen, asks her why she takes so many photographs, Vivian responds that she prefers to look outwards, rather than inwards – “The world is more interesting than my brain.” It is interesting to see, through Vivian’s outlook on her art, how the world has changed: she would take pictures of people, strangers and their faces, often without permission. In a conversation with Jeanne Bertrand, her friend and mentor, she rejects the idea that photography in itself is an act of violence. “She said the photographs are shreds torn from reality”. Vivian does not agree one bit, and continues to take her Rollei everywhere, taking pictures, most of which no one saw during her lifetime. The protagonist can “hardly imagine something worse than being in the papers”.  

In what strongly resembles a classic Q&A, the narrator and Vivian interact at the end of the novel, bringing direct answers to the most burning questions. Why did she never come out as an artist, and shared her photographs? What does she think of when faced with the word “Publicity”?  Vivian is less than two hundred pages long, but it is filled to the brim with memories and suppositions. Christina Hesselholdt wonderfully illustrates Vivian Maier’s complex persona through a multitude of voices demanding to be heard. 

Words by Laila Obeidat.
To buy Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt, visit Fitzcarraldo Editions.

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