Speak, Vivian

Zack Hatfield on Christina Hesselholdt’s Vivian (2019)

Vivian Maier, Chicago, 1986, chromogenic print (printed later), 10 x 15". © Estate of Vivian Maier, Courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

VIVIAN, BY CHRISTINA HESSELHOLDT, translated by Paul Russell Garrett. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019. 186 pages.

SHE SHOT FROM THE HIP—or the heart, or the gut. From a child’s vantage, most often: the better to go unspotted. For Vivian Maier, whose status as one of the twentieth century’s foremost photographers was only recognized a decade ago, the desire for privacy was bound up with the yearning for information: visual, journalistic, human. Or was it? Our knowledge of Maier is patchy. We know that she split her adolescence between France and her native Manhattan, then spent most of her life working as an au pair in Chicago. We know that her output totaled over one hundred and fifty thousand negatives, most of them unprocessed, crammed into boxes alongside newspapers and eventually put in storage, then auctioned off in 2007 when payment ceased. She died two years later at eighty-two, penurious and, apparently, alone. Celebrity followed. Authors and documentarians swooped in to myth-make, repackaging her lifework as one of avocational obsession, and her as a creature of unknowable eccentricity. Pamela Bannos’s superb biography, Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife (2017), throws a lifesaver into what one critic called the “Vivian Mire,” waging nuance on behalf of her legacy. Now add to the heap Christina Hesselholdt’s Vivian, a slight novel first published in 2016 and newly translated from the Danish by Paul Russell Garrett for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Negligent admiration determines its approach: Braiding soliloquies from Maier together with those in her orbit, Vivian stuffs words into the mind and mouth of an artist whose identity seemingly hinged on the need to leave interiority to the lens.

Like its protagonist, this ambling story relishes the connective, startling minutiae of the commonplace encounter. It is a family drama, ungraced by images. Although we accompany Vivian through interwar New York—encountering along the way a miserable matriarch, an inattentive pére, an aloof brother, and, briefly, a faded portraitist named Jeanne Bertrand—most of the book occurs against the backdrop of late ’60s/early ’70s Chicago, where Maier nannies for the Rice family, a fictionalized household consisting of a bohemian couple and their daughter, Ellen. A Narrator, Hesselholdt’s surrogate, chimes in to offer poetic musings or contextual asides. It remains unclear whether the sameness of these voices—they reside somewhere between talking head and chatty analysand—signals unfocused translation or a deliberate articulation of, say, the monotony of shared, remembered existence. Dissonance, then, arises not from Hesselholdt’s ensemble, but from the unique deprivations that novelization affords her subject; Vivian’s “I,” however eager, cannot meet Vivian’s eye.

Eponym aside, the most absorbing character is Ellen, for whom “Viv,” despite her capacity for cruelty, supplies a caliber of affection evidently unreceived during her own girlhood. As a matter of convenience, if not survival, care work and craft become entwined for Maier. She escorts Ellen to political demonstrations downtown, on trains, to an abattoir, all with her Rolleiflex—that “hungry animal”—around her neck. “It’s simply a matter of doing, like walking,” Maier quips, via Hesselholdt, re photography. No matter Vivian’s solicitude for Ellen, her hungry animal must come first. Mrs. Rice relays with unease how Maier showed her a picture of Ellen alone on the playground, perilously ascending a steep staircase to a winding slide. “How high it is!” Vivian enthuses.

Like Catherine Cusset’s Life of David Hockney (2019), another recently translated biofiction, Vivian’s disappointments spring from its formal constraints. Deferring to life, its script shrinks from possible invention, loitering between biographical disclosure and empathic guesswork that trips into presumption. “I have never in my life seen a hand I would like to have close to me,” Hesselholdt imagines Vivian saying. Near the end, our Narrator prods Maier on her supposed asexuality, her quietness. “I am the Mysterious Lady,” Viv offers. “The Sawn-in-half Lady, where the past is what is sawn off.” To which our Narrator retorts: “That is no longer the case. The past has been glued back on.” That Hesselholdt’s ventriloquism flaunts an indifference toward her subject’s obvious passion for secrecy is perhaps justifiable; Maier—seasoned seer of the streets—understood more than anybody the artistic virtues of transgressed privacy. Still, one wishes Hesselholdt had used poetic license to imagine through, and not around, the already familiar or fabled.

And yet, inhabiting Maier’s psyche—however loosely realized—yields certain pleasures. Out of Vivian’s torrent of travel, homelife, and familial resentment, Hesselholdt provides flashes of odd loveliness. Delight in how Ellen recalls one of many days spent at Gillson Park’s beach with her childminder: “When I get out of the water, and she towels me dry, we pretend I’m a meal she is cooking. . .I’m also the pot, and every time she rubs me with the towel, we take turns shouting out the new ingredients she pours in: flour, salt, forcemeat, horse droppings, grass, tongues and pepper, and then she stirs my hair one last time. The meal is finished, I’m dry.” And how Maier deems a pigeon not merely worthy of her camera but heroic, “because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” And how, moved by the sight of a feline carcass, she lays out her velvet coat and red hat to photograph what she calls “empty, flat Viv”—an image of mute, abrupt extimacy that seems to ask: Can a self-portrait exist without a self? Vivian and her novelizer do not seem to agree on an answer.