Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – review

I came across Vivian when I was browsing the Fitzcarraldo website looking for a new read, and the subject caught my imagination immediately. I confess I’d never heard of Vivian Maier, whose life story the book explores, but right from the off she sounded like a compelling character. Her family emigrated to America from Europe when she was a child and she spent the majority of her subsequent years there, living out a life that on the surface would seem pretty ordinary. She worked for many years as a nanny in Chicago and New York, but remarkably also found the time to take thousands upon thousands of photographs capturing the people and sights she encountered while walking the city streets. Vivian is an unusual take on the familiar trope of real lives made fiction, and one that raises questions as much as it provides answers.

I called it unusual because it’s not a straightforward third or first person narrative. Instead, the story is set out almost like a playscript, with a character’s name followed by their thoughts or description of events. These can be pages long, or a single line – sometimes two characters even converse with each other about abstract ideas surrounding the story, as if they’re considering things retrospectively. The narrator is a “character” too, appearing as simply “narrator” when it’s their turn to pass comment on events. She (I call it “she” because I automatically imagined it as the voice of Christina Hesselholdt herself, although of course this is only my interpretation) is the voice that grounds the reader in reality; she talks about her research and the gaps that inevitably appear when trying to compile a complete and fair account of someone else’s life, and as such we’re never able to forget that this is merely an attempt to put together a reasonable representation of Vivian Maier, and can only ever be flawed, both as a “biography” or indeed a fully satisfying novel.

What comes across without any doubt, however, is that Vivian is in many ways quite a sad figure. She comes from a dysfunctional and largely unhappy family (there are hints of some sexual abuse during her younger years) and doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships of any kind with other people during adulthood. She is, we learn, obsessive to an extreme extent, hoarding newspapers in her bedroom to the point when the only way through the room is via pathways between the teetering stacks of print. Strangely though, she seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to her own photographs. Although she takes her camera with her wherever she goes, and has been captivated (we learn) by the hobby since she was young, many of her pictures are never developed, and never catalogued or displayed in any way. Perhaps it’s the act of observing and choosing the precise moment for the perfect shot that’s most important to her, rather than having an end result in which she can take pleasure – but we never know for sure. One thing is clear: Vivian Maier never made any attempt to make a career out of her indubitable talent.

Such an enigmatic main character will always lead to a reader wanting to know more after the final page, but even so, I did feel the novel petered out somewhat towards the end, when the story became incredibly sketchy. Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to draw on as regards Vivian’s later years, but her old age is skimmed over pretty quickly, with new characters introduced but never really developed, even though we’re given to understand they played a part in looking after her towards the end of her life.

As I said earlier, however, the author (speaking through her “narrator”) is open about the challenges of writing such a book, and by the end it becomes almost as much about the act of creation than is is about Vivian herself. The narrator even resorts to conversing with her protagonist towards the end of the book, as if she realises her readers will have questions she hasn’t been able to answer. Why, she asks Vivian, did you not do x, y and z? Fictional Vivian gives an elusive, inexact reply – an acknowledgement that of course we can never claim to know what went through someone’s head at any given time when perhaps they weren’t even sure themselves. In some ways, the novel is a rebuttal to those fictionalised accounts of real lives that give the illusion of being a reliable insight into a person’s psyche. I know that as a reader I’ve been so swept up by certain novels featuring real figures from history that they almost become the historical reality in my own head – I have to remind myself that Philippa Gregory shouldn’t be my first point of reference when citing fascinating facts about the Tudors! I did appreciate the way the author shone a light on the act of writing a novel of this kind, rather than it just being a straightforward retelling; it ensured that as a reader you were never able to drop your guard and stop thinking, or start assuming, and I enjoyed that approach very much.

Vivian was certainly a very interesting read, and for the vast majority of the book a very compulsive one – I put everything else I was reading aside and finished it in a day, unusual for me. I resisted the urge to look up Vivian Maier’s photographs online until I’d finished, as I didn’t want the images I already had in my head messed with in any way. When I’d finished, though, I did look into her work – and I’d really recommend you do the same, as suddenly the sadness and isolation that seeped out from the pages of the novel was there in front of you, literally in black and white.

Have you read Vivian and if so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts

Japanese journeys

A few days ago I came across a blog post by Amy from Curiouser and Curiouser talking about the books she’d been reading as part of the 2020 Japanese literature challenge, hosted by Meredith at Dolce Bellezza.  The idea was to read and review fiction originally written in Japanese between January and March this year – sadly, I’m a bit late to the party as regards taking part in the challenge, but I hope both bloggers will forgive me for using it as inspiration to share some of the Japanese novels I’ve been reading over the past few months.  When I started thinking about it I realised there were quite a few!  Here are some of the ones that have intrigued me the most….

The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita

forest wool

This novel tells the story of a young piano tuner and his lifelong quest to master his craft.  Not a virtuoso player himself, he nonetheless has an astonishingly acute ear for the different tones and styles in which his clients play, and sees it as his calling to tune each piano according to the unique needs of its pianist.  He develops a particular fascination with a pair of twins, Kazune and Yuni, both young prodigies but both completely different in the way they communicate through their music, and it’s this relationship dynamic that provides the novel’s backbone.  I really loved it; it was such an unusual subject matter, and even during the more emotionally intense moments the writing maintained an air of poise and gentleness in  keeping with the finesse of the music that it described with so much colour.

A Midsummer’s Equation – Keigo Higashino

equation

I’m not a huge crime person, but I do love Keigo Higashino’s crime thrillers.  His characters are always utterly believable and very well rounded compared to some thrillers I’ve read where the supporting cast is pretty two-dimensional.  This is one of the books that features his recurring character, the physicist Yukawa – a slightly unlikely-sounding protagonist but one who nevertheless has a natural instinct for investigation and crime-solving.  The Devotion of Suspect X is still my favourite of Higashino’s novels so far I think (although it’s a close call) but this is still extremely enjoyable, and the story has an interesting – and relevant – environmental theme running through it, as naturalists and environmental campaigners go head to head with a development company hoping to gain a foothold in a fading coastal resort town, with inevitably fatal results!  Even if you don’t think you’re a crime fan, I would definitely urge you to pick up one of Higashino’s books and give it a try.

Dandelions – Yasunari Kawabata

dandelions

Honestly, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this book, but I’ve decided to include it here because, if nothing else, it’s memorable for its strange plot and surreal atmosphere.  A fun read it may not be, but it sticks in your head afterwards nevertheless.  The story centres around a young woman who has developed selective blindness; in the beginning, she found a ping-pong ball disappeared inexplicably from view, and now she is unable to see her fiancé.  The book begins as her fiancé and mother leave the asylum in which the girl has been placed, and follows them over the subsequent day and night as they discuss her mysterious affliction.  That’s pretty much it in terms of plot: the whole book is essentially a conversation between two people with sometimes coinciding and sometimes conflicting ideas of what this bizarre occurrence means.  I’m sure there’s some thought-provoking philosophical stuff buried amid the peculiarity, but I found it hard to engage with and finished the book feeling I’d probably missed the point.  If you want to try something unusual though (and short – it’s only 132 pages, although even that felt long at times!) then there’s weirdness here in spades.

Tokyo Ueno Station – Yu Miri

tokyo

It was the stylish cover art that first drew me to this book, but the inside was just as fabulous.  It’s narrated by a ghost – although if that sounds too much like a gimmick, don’t let it put you off; the effect is so subtle that it becomes simply the tale of a man looking back on his life and watching a familiar world warp, change and disappear.  It’s a delicate and skillful combination of the tragically sad and exquisitely beautiful, as the narrator takes us through his experiences of love, death, homelessness, friendship and loneliness, all against backdrop of a changing Japan that feels like a living, breathing character in its own right.  I think if I had to pick one out of all the books I’ve talked about in this post, this would be the one I’d recommend you read.

Thanks for reading – I’d love to here about any Japanese fiction you’ve read recently, or if you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

 

“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.