The Sawn-in-half Lady

Anna MacDonald reviews Christina Hesselholdt’s Vivian (trans. Paul Russell Garrett)

Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian.
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett.
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Towards the end of Christina Hesselholdt’s delightfully spiky polyphonic novel, Vivian (trans. Paul Russell Garrett), Viv declares: “[p]eople love riddles, the incomplete and the inexplicable are tremendously compelling. I am The Mysterious Lady. The Sawn-in-half Lady, where the past is what is sawn off.” But, the Narrator responds: “That is no longer the case. The past has been glued back on.”

It’s a sticky business, bio-fiction, and in this narrative for many voices the seams are always showing; they’re never quite true. Instead of soothing the mystery of Vivian Maier — who worked as a nanny, from the 1950s to the 1970s, and privately took in excess of 150,000 photographs, the discovery of which, in 2007, led to her sudden cultish recognition as a street photographer — Hesselholdt’s novel is both a compelling portrait of Maier and an evisceration of our obsession with her. Vivian illuminates the compulsion to narrate and the disservice narration can do its subject. It is at once an exploration of the human condition, and an interrogation of art’s flawed ability to capture that condition, in one voice or many, via photography or prose.

The novel is structured in four parts which conjure: first Viv’s family history and her early childhood in 1920s New York; forward to the late 1960s and her years as a nanny in Chicago; back to the early 1930s and the time she spent at her maternal family home in France with her mother and the photographer Jeanne Bertrand; ahead to Chicago in the 1970s and beyond, to the deaths of Viv’s mother (alone in a boarding house), of her brother (alone in a care home), and, just before her own death (after falling, alone, from a park bench), to the 2007 loss of many of her photographs and other possessions, which were auctioned off by the storage facility that had housed them when she could not pay the bill. “And what have you done with my things, where can I collect my things?” Viv asks — but of whom? the narrator? the complicit reader?:

It’s so abhorrent that I can’t have anything at all to do with it, all the grubby fingers digging into my life. Even if I could have my things back, I would not take them. Yes, I would sanitize them. But WHERE are all the photographs now? I try to look at it as though a hurricane had blown them to every corner of the world. I try to look at it as an impersonal wasteland. But I picture bodies, with their limbs chopped off.

 I picture the Sawn-in-half Lady, to the power of around 150,000.

Vivian is related all at once and often in ructious argument by the Narrator, Viv (who also speaks, occasionally, as V Smith, Vivian, or Vivienne); Ellen, a child nannied by Viv, and the girl’s parents, Sarah and Peter Rice, whom the Narrator has invented based on “witness accounts from the families [Maier] worked for”; Sarah’s psychologist; and Viv’s mother Maria, her aunt Alma, and Jeanne Bertrand. It progresses like so:


Ellen shouldn’t come running towards me from behind, she knows that now. I’m not Mary Poppins, like she thought. …


I did not think she was Mary Poppins — she has no umbrella. She walks very fast and swings her arms. I have to be careful not to get an arm in the head.


That’s right, long strides and swinging arms, paddling across the troubled waters of the mind.

The result is an often playful, always sinister narrative in which Hesselholdt has — somehow — captured the competing processes and the contrary time-signatures of street photography alongside the extended composition of literary prose. And she has managed this because (against the grain of plenty of other literary fiction from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station to Esther Kinsky’s River) she has not included reproductions of Maier’s photographs. They are everywhere in evidence in Vivian, the stuff that gives this novel life, but they are visible only via Hesselholdt’s prose, in the thick of which a reader can experience Viv capturing the world around her. Click. “Well-dressed plastered dwarf led away by an officer and a man in evening wear, they have him by the arms, but have to walk bent over (dwarf’s triumph)”. Click. A “photo of a short officer with a tall madman under his arm. … Had I not photographed him his misery would have crushed me.” Click. A “pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets.” Both the Narrator and Viv are looking at the pictures Vivian sees inside her camera. But the positions they look from are vastly different. “I sit (myself to death) in my bed,” writes the Narrator. Meanwhile, says Viv: “I am going to keep walking and looking and walking and looking.”

There is, throughout Vivian, an association between movement and photography, and a suggestion that a photograph might best capture the migrant experience because it takes its subject out of context. Viv is the daughter of immigrants, as is Sarah Rice. Jeanne Bertrand, like Viv’s mother, was born in the south of France and, with her family, migrated to the United States as a child. Viv has a sense of the wideness of the world, in part at least because she has travelled it. By contrast, from bed in Denmark, the Narrator sits and “watch[es] these wild globetrotters (run themselves to death).” With the aid of “a second-hand laminated copy of Streetwise Chicago” and the internet, the Narrator traces Viv’s movement across the city:

It has never been easier to write about places you have never visited, one click and you soar above people’s houses, though there are many pitfalls and you can really put your foot in it, place mountains where it’s flat and things like that, which is why it’s best to refrain from descriptions. And by and large I’ve done that, too. I say ‘Chicago’, and then it must be Chicago.

Viv, in her turn, walks the streets of Chicago and watches the wide world through her camera. Click. Forever in motion, Viv’s Rollei is her home. “The world is open to me. Resting against my stomach is the house which is briefly inhabited by various people. They are mute. The only thing you know about them is what you can see. I’m in the silence business. I’m in that business because it is silent.”

For all her walking — or because of it — Viv feels that she is “out of step with the world”. For all the silence of her images — or because of that — she seeks to bring the truth, however miserable, “out in the light, so it doesn’t remain secretive and grow dangerous in the shadows, in total obscurity”. From light and shadow a photograph is made. Out of words and their shaded silences a narrative is composed. Shadows and silences are eloquent. Neither Viv nor the Narrator are foolish enough to believe they are concealed behind their subject.


Then there is the question of style and choice of subjects: do the pictures point back to a certain person, to me? … 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.


I can only agree with you.

But whose narrative is this? And by what art is it composed?

One of the arguments which animates Vivian is that between modes of representation: the photographic image and the written word. Which narrative approach best captures that idea given voice by Montaigne and cited by the Narrator, via André Gide, that “[e]very human carries within them the human condition”? In an extended meditation upon the motivation behind this bio-fictional exploration of the life and times of Vivian Maier, the Narrator outlines this argument thus:

Maier took more than 150,000 photographs, the majority of them of people, a great number of close-ups of human faces where there is little background around the face, little context… What are the bases for her choices? … Did she go after something that could faintly be called ‘interesting faces’?

But while every face might express a human condition, a photograph cannot grasp the entire human condition, but writing can, and that was Montaigne’s project: by writing about himself to get to say ‘everything’ about humanity. But the more you photograph, the more conditions you might be able to capture. In the end you have a catalogue of conditions. But what really is a condition? … I am inclined to believe that conditions with humans have to do with moods, for example restlessness, joy, expectation, suffering. In any case my inner life… is marked by large and lightning-quick changeability. One second I am insanely happy, the next sunk into the idea of disaster. I’m just saying: obviously a photograph can’t capture that, for that to happen a period of time is required, for that, writing (or film) is required. Only something which narrates can get someone to understand the changeability of life. And that is what, quite simply, once saddened me about photographs: their rigidity.

The persistent, internal conflict within the Narrator, and the narrative of Vivian, is embedded in this excerpt. Against Montaigne’s prosodic representation of humanity through the lens of his personal experience is Maier’s catalogue of humanity documented through the roving lens of her camera. Against the photograph’s inability to capture the inherent changeability of human experience in one given moment is Maier’s body of work, taken over four decades and representing both the changes to and the consistency of life over that period. Everything is in constant motion in Hesselholdt’s novel; nothing remains still long enough to become rigid, not even the idea that photographs fail to capture change and the passage of time. For, the Narrator concedes, maybe, after all, in taking photographs, Viv “went after Time, after the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s. Or she was simply a hoarder: she collected everything she saw.”

Viv was a hoarder. She gathered newspapers (another way of recording time), salvaged secondhand goods, and most famously took photographs, many of which remained undeveloped when her possessions were sold and, two years later, she died. The question of development — which, like the questions of narrative representation and the human condition, is also a question of time — haunts Hesselholdt’s novel. Early on, Viv tells Peter Rice that she often doesn’t have her films developed, because of the cost, but also because she doesn’t need to: ‘“I have seen [the pictures],” she said, tapping the box camera, “down here.”’ Much later, the Narrator explains that “at the time of writing” — almost a decade after Maier’s boxes of film were first discovered — “roughly two thirds [of her photographs]… have been viewed… this is a curious task I’m in the midst of… the material that inspires my story is in constant development. I feel like a dog that has its nose right up to the rear end of Time, and it’s a little cramped up there… so I draw my nose back. And plant both feet in my story. Then I contend that these kinds of things took place”. (It’s worth noting that the Narrator often feels like a dog; a dog who changes — lightning-quick — from sociable to savage: “when I think of myself as a dog whose jaws are locked around its prey — Viv, trapped in my jaws, close to drowning in froth — I remind myself how close she got to other people, how she sneaked up on them.”)

Viv and the Narrator: forever at odds, vying for prime position in the narrative, photographer and writer, preying on the lives of others. To which Viv might respond: “I think [that’s] a load of pathetic drivel — nothing is damaged by being photographed.”  But is something damaged by being written down? When it comes to Vivian, I think most definitely not. In Hesselholdt’s contagiously combative novel, Viv breathes (often huffily). She walks, independent, swinging her arms, and she looks, at the street, which is also the world, and she snaps her catalogue, her inventory of the human condition caught over time. Click. “I allow my shadow to fall upon people and take photographs with my shadow elbows jutting out. I become part of their world without them knowing it. I have lowered myself into their lives.” Click. In her choice of subjects and the shadows she continues to cast, Viv is unveiled as her photographs are developed. Click. From bed, the Narrator glues back on their bodies, their severed limbs. Click. Because Viv always gets the last word: “The Narrator is the real criminal.”