Extract > Alberta and Jacob #WIT
First published in English in 1962, Cora Sandel’s trilogy of Alberta novels, has sadly fallen into obscurity. They are classics in every sense of the word, deserving of a much wider English readership. Read them and fall in love with Alberta. Read them and make room for Sandel on your bookshelf; she will become your favourite writer, and the Alberta trilogy your favourite books.
This extract is from Alberta and Jacob, the first in the trilogy, which follows Alberta in adolescence, in conflict with herself, her family and her small northern town and tiring of the obstacles to her freedom.
The Alberta trilogy was translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan (The Ice Palace).
Alberta rose, drawing her shawl about her. One more nightmare had taken shape, one she had glimpsed farthest out on the edge of evil dreams. For days and nights she had suspected that it was moving towards her, and had wept with horror under the bedclothes. Now it was upon her, and she could not avoid it. To live with this deep weariness, this disgust for all existing possibilities, this endless oppressive greyness of everyday existence behind her and before, this fear of life—she could not bear it. But then she must do it—must—the sooner the better.
It was late. The final creak of the floor boards under Papa’s heavy tread had died away long ago; it was a while since the church clock had struck its four slow quarter-strokes followed by eleven very fast strokes on the hour.
When she was out of the back door and the autumn darkness enclosed her, malevolent anxiety settled like a mask over her face, stiff and cold, yet burning and pounding painfully out through her ear lobes. Something knotted itself in the pit of her stomach as when, as a child, someone had done her an injustice. But just as she had occasionally, in spite of her fear, crossed Dorum’s threshold, and Papa’s, and contradicted Mama, so she took one step forward, then another. She walked across the yard and down to Flemming’s quay as she used to walk through dark rooms when she was small; not too fast, struggling to keep calm as if to deceive watching eyes – half senseless with fright.
Now she could distinguish dark from dark. The piles of barrels and crates rose up threateningly on either side. The knot tightened in her stomach. Her body seemed to be dwindling and shrinking with agonizing fear.
At the same time everything was strangely unreal, as if she were already outside life, out in a world of shadows, where what she was doing was fated to take place in accordance with inexorable, cast-iron rules—one action inextricably linked to the next, dragging it after. First this, then this, and no way back.
She felt as if she were re-enacting something she had done once before in some obscure past, as if she were once again carrying out something difficult, sinister and inescapable.
She did not think, but she wept calmly, making no sound. She was at the steps. It was low water and far down, a black, repellent abyss. As if remotely, from far away, she sensed that here it was shallow, with large boulders, she must go out in one of the boats; remotely too, she sensed her own horror. She found the boat chain, climbed down backwards, holding on to it—
Then she slipped on the smooth steps, hung by her arms on to the chain, clawed the air with her legs and found no foothold, while her blood ran cold from top to toe, and she wailed aloud in fear. Her skirts and legs were in the water. Her clothes absorbed it and she was dragged down by an icy and terrible gravity.
Shortly afterwards Alberta lay full length face downwards on the quay, clawing at the planks beneath her, breathless and whimpering with exertion and fright; no longer daring to move, or to believe that she was on dry land.
One thing was hers. Her bare life. It was hers still, hers—it throbbed and hammered through pulse and heart, quivering in every muscle. They had not succeeded in driving her into the sea, and never would. Something had been roused in her down there in the icy cold as it crept up round her body. It had been terror, violent beyond control, but it had also been something bright and hard, a raging refusal. It had been like touching bottom and being carried upwards again.
Below her the water slapped lightly against the stones. There it was again, that little swarming sound of activity and labour. The tide was coming in. In a kind of demented rapture she lay listening to the incoming tide and to her own throbbing blood.
Once Alberta was inside the back porch, enfolded in the little warmth that seemed to reside in the staircase when one came in from outside, she collapsed. Her legs gave way, gusts of heat and cold passed through her. A feverish shivering rose from her wet skirts. And the terror, which had lain in wait and seized her as she groped her way back up Flemming’s quay, making her stumble and run in panic, still moved like puffs of wind over her body.
Voices had whispered behind her, hands had clutched her. Miserable and idiotic, here she sat on the stairs. Only one thing was lacking—that she should meet Mama. Then her expedition would be described as it deserved, as foolery and showing off. And she would be utterly prostrated, for the laws of nature cannot be changed.
No matter. She had brought one thing back to the surface with her – life. Life, that at any time, even at its most wretched, bears every opportunity within it as does the dry, inconspicuous seed. No one sees them. But they are there.
Alberta opened the kitchen door cautiously. Her wet skirts slapped heavily about her legs. Then a chill went through her once more and her heart stopped. For through the kitchen window and a window lying at an angle to it she saw a light. The person carrying it was shielding it with the other hand, and Alberta first saw only the light-encircled black hand, as it passed the opening between the curtains. Then the candle must have been put on a table, for the glow from it fell steadily and clearly on something white, moving between the table and the sideboard. And the whiteness was no ghost. It was Mrs Selmer, Mama herself. Alberta felt rather than saw her.
She held her breath, and squeezed herself into the darkness between the kitchen cupboard and the wall, prepared for the worst.
But the candle remained in there, stationary. Alberta peered out. She saw Mama hold something up to the flame and inspect it, touching it with a finger as if making marks. It sparkled for a moment, opaque, golden, like a large, round topaz. It was the whisky decanter.
Mama put it down again. She remained standing above the table, leaning on her hands. Her face sagged as if her legs were failing her. The candlelight fell on it strongly, and Alberta could see her expression, an expression so empty, so tired, so bereft, that she herself seemed to shrivel too.
Mama stood thus for a second, perhaps two, perhaps longer. Time stood still while it lasted. Essential facts were revealed, a whole sequence of cause and effect was exposed. Mama’s true face, moulded by life and the years, was in there by itself in the dark, as if the strife and turmoil of everyday had parted to let it be seen. Simultaneously, memories floated up from the deepest layers of Alberta’s mind: memories of Mama’s hands, cool and firm, good and safe about her head, of warm kisses from Mama’s mouth, of tender smiles; memories of times long ago when everything had been different. And something that had frozen and died one evening in the dining-room put out fresh shoots in her mind.
Now the candle was being lifted, now it disappeared. Alberta heard a door, and the night settled down on everything.
When the church clock began its twelve strokes she found herself in Jacob’s room, heaven knows why. From some sort of need to be with him for a while as best she could, from old habit. For leaning her forehead against Jacob’s window frame she had ridden out many an inner storm, found calm after many tears of distress.
His books still stood on the shelf. There were invincible ink blots left on the unpainted wooden table—they could be glimpsed even in the dark. And that indefinable smell of the wharves that Jacob had had in his everyday clothes and which had transferred itself to the rest of his belongings, to Mama’s despair – did not a little of it still hang in the air?
When she had crept past the bedroom door a stripe below it and the rustle of a book had betrayed the fact that Mama was not asleep. Papa was snoring with a loud droning sound.
Alberta was back again. Back to it all, to all that was warped and desultory, to the lies and evasions and small, hidden irons in the fire, to humiliation and hopeless longing, to the grey road of uniform days.
To live in spite of it, to live on as best she could, with her two warring natures: one that willed, no-one knew how far—one that could let itself be bound any time and anywhere. To live and lie and listen her way forward, to seek haphazardly in her tomes, to wait and see—
Everything was unchanged and the same. But Alberta had been in touch with what lay beneath and behind ordinary existence.
Behind Mama’s bitter little everyday face, behind her almost convulsive party face, a face which was the real one, and which was deathly tired and corroded by lonely anxiety—
Behind Papa’s little catchword, ‘Cheer up, back we go,’ the set features of one without hope—
Beneath her own weariness and despondency a stubborn will to continue, a hungering uneasiness, that could only be quieted by life itself; that could intoxicate itself with small, fluttering verses on a clear evening in spring or a moonlit night in August, yet hankered restlessly and desperately for something else, something undreamt of, far distant and obscure.
Over it all flowed everyday existence, turbid and shallow, with many small backwaters and eddies—
People swarm about together. The one knows so little about the other.
It occurred to Alberta that ultimately Jacob was the only one who turned his true face out to the world, a face full of undaunted confidence in his own two strong arms.
The street lights had been extinguished a long time ago. The church clock shone alone, like a moon in the night sky. Alberta was still standing with her nose against the pane. Then she picked up her wet skirts, shuddered with cold, and went to her room.
Soon it would be another day.
CORA SANDEL was born Sara Fabricius in Oslo in 1880. After a difficult childhood in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø, she wrote the semi-autobiographical Alberta trilogy (of which Alberta and Jacob is the first part). These novels earned her an immediate place in the Scandinavian canon, but it was not until the 1960s that Sandel, now living as a recluse in Sweden, was discovered by the English-speaking world. Her books were acclaimed in the mainstream press, and feminist critics reinvented her as a champion of women’s emancipation. She wrote many other novels and short stories and was awarded a State Pension for artists by Norway. She died in 1974.