Vivian Maier’s story has resembled a slowly and dubiously illuminated memory. After boxes of her negatives were found in a repossessed storage locker in 2007, Maier – who died in 2009 at the age of 83 – became a posthumous star of mid-century American street photography. Because Maier, who worked as a nanny for 40 years, seemingly never sought to exhibit or publish her images, her reincarnation emits a whiff of violated privacy.
Which might give a person cause to wonder: what good could come of chronicling Maier’s life in fiction? Such is the surface-level conceit of Christina Hesselholdt’s novel Vivian (2016), published in English this year by Fitzcarraldo Editions. For the Danish author – whose reputation for playfully fragmented, layered, multi-phonic books is sustained in this hectic and gutsy effort – the answer is that such a novel is really an opportunity to examine our desire to reawaken lost figures by writing our own stories through theirs.
Like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which Hesselholdt tellingly paraphrases, Vivian is written from the vantages of multiple characters: Maier herself, her loved ones, the families she served and an unnamed narrator. As this anonymous figure enjoys disproportionate air time, their mostly even-keeled voice occasionally becomes self-deprecating, psychoanalytic, teacherly. The book’s first line begins with a metaphor – in which the narrator lifts the lid of a pot to check whether the ‘characters have come to a boil’ – thus informing us that this will not be a story dutifully recalled, so much as one cooked up.
Subtly sharp moments often lace the unobtrusive prose. In 1968, Maier arrives at a Chicago train station en route to her nanny job: ‘The platform emptied […] options disappeared and only she remained, six feet tall and slender as a reed, just off the train from New York City, and Mr. Rice’s sweet dreams […] faded out.’ Mr Rice is Maier’s employer, the father of her young charge, Ellen, and a man with a thing for voluptuous nannies. Throughout the book, the Rice family and the rest of Vivian’s cast talk us through the photographer’s life. It is an often-difficult life, summed up by the narrator, as they use the first person address to blend themselves with their subject: ‘My brother is a drug addict; my father is an extremely violent alcoholic; my mother is bone idle and sponges off anyone she can get her hands on.’
Hesselholdt cycles her reader through Maier’s story and her own writerly project. The narrator recalls being driven ‘into the arms of [Maier’s] silent photographs’ by the self-revealing nature of speaking. Observing Miley Cyrus’s mouth at a Copenhagen concert, they lament: ‘We open our mouth and out comes ourselves.’ Those plural ‘selves’ coming out of a singular ‘our mouth’ disturbs the illusion of individual authorship. Because this book’s only other connection to Denmark is its author, the concert’s location suggests that these are Hesselholdt’s autofictional thoughts.
Fiction is stirred with ‘fact’ as the narrator converses with Maier, giving her an opportunity to gripe about the book’s disinterest in photographic composition. She’s got a point: Vivian’s moments of ekphrasis are charming but flat. One image shows a family that has just disembarked from a train: ‘They are surrounded by suitcases and cardboard boxes. And you ask yourself: how are they ever going to get away from there? There are not enough hands for all the luggage.’
The narrator, to their credit, makes clear that you shouldn’t expect a technical account of Maier’s craft. Vivian is a stage for pluralistic self-making. Notwithstanding some wooden moments – a seemingly bored Maier proclaims that ‘the narrator is the real main character’ – the book’s perspectival morphology is pleasant in its chaos. Hesselholdt’s self-reflectivity is more believable when emotions enter the plot; referencing the unnamed ‘Master’ to whom the poet Emily Dickinson wrote letters (1858–62), the novel’s narrator asks the photographer if she might herself play that authoritative role. ‘You’re shameless,’ Vivian responds, ‘The narrator is the real criminal.’ Later, upset by Maier’s own shameless behaviour, Ellen stops her nanny from photographing a down-on-his-luck man. In an improbably adult tone, she wonders: ‘Why does she want to exhibit his poverty when she is always on the side of the poor?’
These incongruities amplify Vivian’s charm. As does the book’s own identity crisis: the novel trips from an essay on photographic theory into a social history of mid-century America into a psychoanalytic document. For some reason, we see Maier’s employer, Sarah, lying on her analyst’s couch, struggling to identify a ‘round-cheeked companion’ inside of herself. Later, the narrator becomes an analyst, encouraging their subject to dig into incestuous memories. That’s a lot of stories, selves, sofas and psychodramas for one 200-page paperback.
Hesselholdt’s relish in plumbing all of these conduits triggers a relish in kind. The volume of Vivian’s perspectives and digressions echoes that of Maier’s own output, in the perspective-shifting art of photography. It’s the risk of dissolution that holds both projects together.
Main image: Vivian Maier, Untitled, undated, photograph. © Estate of Vivian Maier; courtesy Maloof Collection and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York