Vivian

Christina Hesselholdt

Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Published 19 June 2019
French paperback with flaps, 192 pages

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‘Have you the Heart in your Breast – Sir
– is it set like mine – a little to the left –’ 

— Emily Dickinson

 

Narrator (that’s me clattering about... when I lift the lid to see if the characters have come to the boil).

 

One fine day, the fourth Thursday of November 1929, before the family had been separated, the turkey had just come out of the oven and was resting on the kitchen counter. Maria, who was from the country and could make herself sound like a turkey when she wanted to, made a gobbling sound over the turkey to amuse her husband Charles and her daughter Vivian and her son Charles (also known as Carl) and perhaps also her inlaws who had arrived with Carl because he lived with them, and the ludicrousness of the turkey increased with each impression. They were immigrants and the observance of all that this festive occasion dictated, from cranberry sauce to pumpkin pie, was a way of clinging to America, for them that big turkey was America… That day there was a knock at the front door of the Maier household: it was Julius Hauser, the short and normally so meticulous brother of Vivian’s paternal grandmother, a man who was in the habit of bringing his slippers with him in a paper bag to guard against the cold floors, but for whom things had obviously gone awry. ‘Fill the tub,’ Charles Maier shouted to his wife Maria Jaussaud Maier (Jaussaud, her French maiden name, had from the time she got married functioned as a middle name and now stood shuddering after advancing to the front ranks). ‘You’re not setting foot in the living room till you’re clean, Hauser,’ Charles said to Julius. Vivian could see that her father did not want to touch him, and searched for a clean spot on his jacket where he could take hold, but there was no clean spot, and with a look of disgust (upper lip drawn back towards the nose as his mouth stretched) he grabbed Hauser’s soiled collar with two fingers (soiled with vomit and dirt from the sidwewalk, onto which he had keeled over in his drunken state, and likely spent the night – it was a miracle he was not hurt) and dragged him towards the kitchen where Vivian’s mother was boiling some water. They shut the kitchen door but after a little while, Vivian eased the door handle down and pushed the door open a crack. She saw: Julius sitting in the zinc bathtub, her father scrubbing his back, her mother washing his clothes in a pot on the stove as a stray sleeve attempted a wave but was forced back down. The kitchen was steamy and smelled of boiled intestines, and Julius’ face and upper body had a reddish tint. Vivian knew that he was or had been a butcher (at a hotel, maybe that just meant he was the one responsible for the meat, but she didn’t think about that, she was only three years old) and that’s why she didn’t like him. She could have sworn that only her one eye was visible through the crack, the one eye that she forced to keep watching and watching as Julius was scrubbed in the large tub, but Julius Hauser suddenly saw that eye through the crack and shouted: ‘Do come in, my little girl!’, at which point her mother turned away from the stove with the dripping spoon and her father whacked Hauser over the head with the bath brush, shouting at him in German, calling him a scoundrel.

 

When Charles Maier struck him with the brush a second time, Hauser stood up in the tub and nearly slipped, grasping at thin air in the cramped kitchen, and precisely how it happened nobody managed to see, but the turkey fell into the tub with him. ‘Do you need scrubbing too?’ he shouted, and forced the large golden crown down between his legs (and here you are invited to picture the scene in that Fellini film, I can’t remember what it’s called, where a group of boys catch a group of chickens and then screw them or pretend to screw them, each boy with a flapping chicken pressed against the groin, and the flapping wings look like propellers that drive the boys’ bodies forward), but then Charles hit him again, and he drew the turkey from the depths and handed it to Maria. She stood at the ready with a towel and accepted it like a child emerging from the waves that had to be towelled down, as all disdain gave way to solicitude, the thought of the Great Depression ever-present – it was a colossally expensive turkey.

 

All the same, Julius Hauser was not allowed to join them in the dining room even though he was now perfectly clean, and Vivian did not want any turkey because it had been between the butcher’s legs, where she had seen some shrivelled skin dangling when he stood up in the tub, but her mother, born 11 May 1897 in the French Alps, told Vivian Dorothea Therese Maier, born 1926 in New York City, that it had been washed and that Vivian had to eat it, but Karl (in America, Charles) Wilhelm von Maier, born in Austria in 1892, seized the opportunity to pick a quarrel and said that she didn’t have to – ‘It just leaves more for us.’ A little later he told Maria for the umpteenth time in their marriage that she had no clue as to what a man was, alluding here to the fact that she had never had a father, since her father, Nicolas Baille as he was called, had run off to America, where he became a herder somewhere out west, after getting Maria’s sixteen-year-old mother pregnant when he was only seventeen himself. To which Maria replied: ‘And in allowing my birthday to become my wedding day, I allowed one accident to grow into the other.’

The quarrel that day gave Charles Maier an excuse to drink, and as Julius Hauser was scrubbed up and sitting on a chair in the kitchen anyway, Charles enlisted him as a drinking companion. Shortly thereafter, Julius Hauser was drunk again and together they struck up old Austro-Hungarian drinking songs while the rest of the family (which besides Maria and Vivian and her older brother by six years, included Charles’ parents and their daughter Alma and her husband, Josef Korsunsky from Kiev, a Manhattan silk trader and proprietor of the Colony Silk Shop, now going by the name Joseph Corsan, and Vivian’s maternal grandmother, a celebrated French chef who worked at all the grand households, was also there; the guests, all immigrants, were all hard-working, even those of an advanced age) arrived during the quarrel to join them for turkey dinner – it was just as crowded in the living room as it is in this paragraph, but now the entire cast has been, if not introduced, then at least mentioned, hopefully none forgotten. And there they all sat, around the dining table, listening to their father, son, husband, brother, son-inlaw, Charles Maier, getting drunker and drunker in the kitchen. His parents and Maria’s mother gave one Austro-Hungarian and French sigh after the other and gesticulated mechanically, agreeing that this bold-asa-butcher’s dog Austrian and French cat should never have married. By meticulously criticizing and pillorying only their own child and never the other’s, the two grandmothers managed to develop a lifelong friendship, in spite of the family’s madness.

‘I have no desire to ever see that drunkard again in my life,’ Maria Hauser von Maier said of her son.

‘He is a worthless individual.’ ‘My daughter is indolent and malicious,’ Eugénie Jaussaud replied.

‘But Carl and Vivian…’ Maria Hauser said.

‘Yes, for them I would fight like a lion,’ Eugénie said.

 

The following day Maria left Charles for the umpteenth time, leaving the name Maier behind. She left her son with the in-laws, with whom he had already lived for several years, having first done a spell at a children’s home, taken out of harm’s way of his parents’ violent quarrels.

‘They didn’t want me,’ he later said of his parents. ‘The only thing they gave me plenty of was names.’

From an early age he was led down the path of name-bewilderment, for he was baptized not once but twice, thanks to the inability of his Catholic mother and Lutheran father to reach an agreement about anything whatsoever. First baptized Charles Maurice Maier (and into the bargain his mother entered filius naturalis – that is, born out of wedlock, even though he was born nine and a half months into their marriage – in the baptismal record), he was then baptized Karl William Maier. From then on the French side of the family referred to him as Charles and the Austrian side of the family as Carl, which was, to put it rather crudely, enough to make you schizophrenic, a diagnosis he did in fact receive at some point late in the 1950s, by which point he had long been calling himself ‘John William Henry Jaussaud (Karl Maier),’ the American, French and German captured in solidarity.

(...)

With Vivian, her second novel to be published in English, Christina Hesselholdt delves into the world of the enigmatic American photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009), whose unique body of work only reached the public by chance. On the surface, Vivian Maier lived a quiet life, working as a nanny for bourgeois families in Chicago and New York. And yet, over the course of four decades, she took more than 150,000 photos, most of them with Rolleiflex cameras. The pictures were discovered in an auction shortly before she died, impoverished and feasibly very lonely. Who was this outsider artist, and why did she remain in the shadows her whole life? In this playful, polyphonic novel, we watch Vivian grow up in a severely dysfunctional family in New York and Champsaur in France, and we follow her later life as a nanny and street photographer in Chicago. A meditation on art, madness and identity, Vivian is a brilliant novel by Denmark’s most inventive and radical novelist.

Vivian is a fascinating, ingeniously constructed piece of documentary fiction. The novel’s short sections illuminate Vivian Maier in brilliant flashes without ever dispelling her singular mystery.’
— Adam Foulds, author of Dream Sequence

‘Christina Hesselholdt transposes one of the greatest enigmas of twentieth century photography, Vivian Maier, with a synaesthetic delicacy. Part eerie acapella of confessions, part hoarder’s clippings come to life, Hesselholdt’s exceptional work on the life of Vivian Maier is as rare and roguish as the artist herself.’
 Yelena Moskovich, author of Virtuoso

‘Only the second of Hesselholdt’s works to be translated into English — adroitly so by Paul Russell Garrett — this fragmented, polyphonic novel plays with the enigma of its subject: “Vivian”, “Viv”, “Vivienne”, “Miss Maier”, “Kiki”, “V. Smith”, depending on the scene or her mood. ... Never sacrificing the opacity that makes Maier so fascinating, [Vivian] is as strange and mercurial as the inscrutable figure at its centre, and as prickly too. But then, as Hesselholdt has Vivian explain to one of her small charges, “Art is not somewhere you feel comfortable.”’ 
— Lucy Scholes, Financial Times

‘Hesselholdt brings Maier to life, luminously: looking down into the viewfinder on the top of her Rolleiflex camera, seeing the image for the first and last time.’ 
Tom Overton, frieze

Praise for Companions

‘Hesselholdt’s most penetrating insights into the texture of lived experience come in moments of vivid imagery and unexpected humor, which bridge the weight of biography and the lightness of an instant. … those who find connections among these disparate moments will be rewarded with a rare and fragile experience: a rediscovery of the strength of narrative bonds, impossible to dissolve and difficult to forget.’
 Alexandra Kleeman, New York Times

‘An affecting homage to, and a high-spirited literary dissection of, Woolf ’s book The Waves ... Companions, translated with care and élan by Paul Russell Garrett, is not at all a gloomy work. Hesselholdt’s touch is light, even mocking, as much as her subject matter is grave. There is a dancing intelligence roaming free here, darting back and forth among ideas and sensations. Her novel is a deceptively nonchalant defence of modernism and a work of pure animation.’ 
— Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

Christina Hesselholdt, born in 1962, studied at the Danish Academy of Creative Writing in Copenhagen. Her first novel, Køkkenet, Gravkammeret & Landskabet [The Kitchen, the Tomb & the Landscape], was published in 1991. She has written fifteen books of prose, and received critical acclaim and awards for her books, including the Beatrice Prize in 2007 and the Critics’ Prize in 2010. She was included in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2013. Companions is her first book to appear in English. Her latest work, Vivian, a novel about the photographer Vivian Maier, was published by Rosinante in 2016. It won the Danish Radio Best Novel Award 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2017.

Paul Russell Garrett translates from Danish and Norwegian. He serves on the management committee of the Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT) and is Programme Manager for a theatre translation mentoring programme, [Foreign Affairs] Translates!