Saturday 30 September 2017

Companions by Christina Hesselholdt    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Identity is valent only in the eye of the beholder. Unseen we are lost. Any idea we have of ourselves is less stable than the idea others have of us, and we cannot even, in compensation for this instability, be confident that it has any greater accuracy. What we think of as personality is continually contested between the bearer and the perceiver of that identity, which makes the identity game both useful and fraught, ambivalent and ultimately irresolvable. To think of yourself is to be at once both inside and outside yourself, to experience the disjunction between description and the indescribable to which it has been attached, a project that leads, ultimately, past many useful discoveries, to self-destruction. To think of others, however, is to remain securely on the surface, the only place where footing may be firm (for what that’s worth). To describe another is to inscribe, prescribe or circumscribe a hypothetical space in which a postulated self, with postulated ‘depth’, postulated ‘personality’ and so forth, persists (there is no reason to think this actually to be so but reassurance (the best reason)). We can only ever be certain of a surface, if we can be certain of anything (and if we can’t, we must give certainty another meaning, one that resembles what we take it to mean). Fiction provides the possibility (or the illusion of possibility (which is quite sufficient (and, in any case, will do for possibility if there is otherwise no such thing as possibility))) of transgressing the surfaces that act as borders between the postulated persons that they describe (or prescribe or circumscribe), and to experience viewpoints from beyond, if there is a beyond, those surfaces, or, in any case, to catch in those surfaces the play of reflection that we take for evidence of something beyond those surfaces. Christina Hesselholdt, in her novel Companions, provides narratives and monologues from six viewpoints, those of six old friends now entering middle age, who are finding that the ideas the others have of them are becoming insufficient to contain the momentum of their frustrations and desires, but, at the same time, drawing comfort from their intimacy with those others of whom they have ideas. Although they each speak convincingly in the first person (though some, like Alwilda, exist primarily in the third person in her friends’ accounts of her), it becomes apparent that one voice, Alma, is the (fictional (if this is a work of fiction)) authorial voice, conjuring and postulating the voices of her friends (if our identity belongs to others, can they also use our voice?). Although there are some memorable passages in Alma’s voice, especially those in which she splices her experiences of place with those of (actual) writers, the main focus of the book is her friend Camilla, or, rather, a Camilla-as-postulated-by-Alma-as-postulated-by-the-author, whose habitual relationship with her husband Charles withstands his illness but is shown ultimately to be impermanent (is this, though, a projection by Alma, whose own relationship with Kristian disintegrates in the course of the book, and who seeks to understand the evanescence of feeling in others?). No detail or thought is too mundane or too personal or too uncomfortable to be acknowledged in these monologues (projected on these characters by their friend and creating an ambivalent tension through the intimacy of this transgression of identity). At the end of the book, Alma’s ‘Camilla’ asks:
“If I were to ask Alma if a person can take the liberty to write anything at all about another person, what would she say?
“‘I would say yes,’ Alma said, ‘it is only a matter of tactfulness. You have to be tactful - and put yourself on the line too, place yourself in exposed positions, pass judgement on yourself (Ibsen believed a person did that automatically when writing).’”

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