Faye Finsbury’s Photo
Quest for authenticity
Faye Finsbury’s Photo is a modern Bildungsroman. The central character Maria van Enschede turns from a well meaning middle-class schoolgirl into a passive, introverted drifter with a natural tendency to melt into the background. The reader is carried along effortlessly, which makes this first person novel all the more oppressive and disturbing. We see how easily a person can come close to freezing to death on the streets of London.
It is the winter of 1978-79, known in Britain ever since as the Winter of Discontent. The economy is in trouble, with two million unemployed and a relentless series of strikes. Against this background, nineteen-year-old Maria from the Dutch town of Dordrecht is training to be an actress at the Fiona Bramling College of Speech and Drama. She is young, naive, lonely and looking for a better, more authentic style of life and a better, more authentic style of art. In her quest for authenticity, Maria turns to characters like Rosie, who displays the candour she is looking for but with it a certain harshness, to Faye, with her unreliable borderline personality, and to Wilf, who is perhaps the most obvious representative of the kind of stark existence she is after: wanting nothing, doing nothing. From beneath such starkness the authentic life must surely emerge of its own accord.
The novel paints a vivid portrait of the era. Not just of London and the rise of post-punk bands like Joy Division but of young people financially supported by their parents, able to choose any kind of further education they like, yet with no clue as to which direction to take or what their role in society might be.
Art historian Mariëtte Haveman is merciless in her description of the art world. Maria expects to find true life in art but instead she learns, at a high price, that true art feeds on life (unbeknownst she is being photographed by her friend) and when Faye commits suicide – or perhaps falls out of the window under the influence of drink and drugs – the media and the art world steal her work. Articles about Faye’s art are published that Maria feels are incompatible with the woman she knew.
Despite the tragic plot, Haveman’s style ensures there is nothing pathetic about this novel. Her use of descriptive detail to illustrate her main character’s state of mind is remarkably astute. Take sentences like: ‘In the end I walked. There was simply no clear alternative.’ Or about a sandwich she finds in her coat pocket: ‘I didn’t eat it, and then suddenly I did.’ They indicate with great exactitude Maria’s lack of direction. Haveman succeeds in describing her character’s world convincingly from within, without the reader ever being required to lose touch with reality altogether. Only at the end do we realize just how far Maria has allowed things to go. It seems her landlady was right to say that ‘London is no city for young girls.’