Authors > Tracy Chevalier on Cora Sandel

 

‘I read her masterpiece, the Alberta trilogy, with growing admiration for her psychological acuity and her clear, uncluttered prose. She is a breath of fresh northern air  …’ writes Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) in her introduction to Alberta and Freedom, the second novel in Cora Sandel’s remarkable trilogy of coming-of-age novels.


TRACY CHEVALIER

 

Why didn’t I know about Cora Sandel before? Is it because she was Norwegian, hence not front-centre on the world literary stage? Or because she was a woman writing in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when female authors still weren’t taken seriously? Or because she wrote about the personal rather than the political? Or because her most notable heroine, Alberta Selmer, is so awkward and frozen that it may seem too much like hard work to follow her through three novels?

Read an extract from Cora Sandel's Alberta and Jacob

Read an extract from Cora Sandel’s Alberta and Jacob

Whatever the reasons, Sandel’s work has been slow to come to light outside of Scandinavia. It has been our loss to ignore her for so long. I read her masterpiece, the Alberta trilogy – Alberta and Jacob (1926), Alberta and Freedom (1931) and Alberta Alone (1939) – with growing admiration for her psychological acuity and her clear, uncluttered prose. She is a breath of fresh northern air.

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym for Sara Fabricius, who grew up in Norway, first in Oslo and then in the far north in Tromsø. As a young woman she moved to Paris, studied painting and married a Swedish painter, with whom she had a son. While in Paris she wrote articles and short stories for Norwegian newspapers and also jotted down ideas and sentences on scraps of paper she kept in a suitcase. After following her husband to Sweden, she divorced him but retained custody of her son.

None of these biographical facts would matter to readers except that they are shadowed in the Alberta trilogy. Sandel was clearly drawing on her own experiences, first in Tromsø with her family in Alberta and Jacob, then as a poor expat in the artistic community of Paris in Alberta and Freedom, and finally at the French seaside, back in Paris and in Scandinavia in Alberta Alone. We follow Alberta’s/Sandel’s painful growth from a timid, uncertain girl crushed by domineering parents and rigid small-town society; through soul-destroying poverty and humiliation as an artist’s model and would-be writer in Paris; as a young, ambivalent mother of a highly strung son; and, finally, back in Norway, to a Virginia Woolfian breakthrough concerning physical space in which to write and an exhilarating if difficult decision to escape into a new life. Though Sandel has said that the trilogy is not strictly autobiographical – for instance, unlike Alberta, Sandel was a painter in Paris before turning to writing – it is hard not to read the books without ticking the boxes of Sandel’s own life.

Alberta is a tricky heroine. Her low self-esteem and inability to act are frustrating for reader and character alike. She is so uncomfortable in her skin that at times you want to shake her. In Alberta and Jacob she is always cold, gulping coffee in secret to warm herself, hoping her mother won’t catch her. She sits silently with others, who tease her for being unsociable. In Alberta and Freedom she lives in dark, dirty Parisian rooms infested with mice, eats little and waits for something to happen to her. It’s a surprise when men manage to court her and even more surprising when she gets pregnant. As a mother in Alberta Alone she frets over her son, passing her anxiety on to him. Though she feels stifled by looking after him, she doesn’t like to let him out of her sight. Alberta Alone may be one of the first novels to deal with childcare issues, dissecting the intense love, boredom and confinement women can feel when looking after their children.

And yet Alberta is also sensitive to the landscape and to the people around her, especially to those suffering, too. She is trying so hard to find a way to be true to herself that you follow her willingly through her misery, just to reach brief, transcendent moments of understanding. We all search for such moments, and Alberta manages to find them, despite her circumstances. In all her rawness, she is very real and believable; Sandel has created a magnificent portrait of an authentic soul, captured at all angles, ugly, beautiful and true.

The trilogy charts not only a girl’s psychological growth into maturity, freedom and independence but a writer’s discovery of her gift. Most of the high points in the books concern Alberta’s ability to express herself At the end of the first book, caught between the polar opposites of her beloved brother Jacob, who escapes his confined life by going to sea, and her best friend Beda, forced to marry to legitimize a pregnancy, Alberta comes to understand that ‘Life . . . even at its most wretched, bears every opportunity within it as does the dry, inconspicuous seed. No one sees them. But they are there.’

In Alberta and Freedom she begins to find ways to express herself, writing innocuous articles about French life for Norwegian newspapers but also noting down observations on bits of paper she keeps in a trunk. After several rounds of loss – of her parents, of a lover, of her health, of her independence to a dominant man – Alberta experiences an epiphany while sorting through her ‘scraps’:alberta-and-freedom

She read them, put them down, read once more. Involuntarily she began to put some order into the muddle, sometimes finding several scraps about the same thing. In the course of time she had come upon new characteristics, had noted them and thrown them in. Laid out in small piles it almost looked like a collection of material. For some reason she knew more about people and their relationships than before, and could continue here and there. Where she had once broken off because she only glimpsed obscurity, full light now fell; where she had faced mute darkness, light began to dawn. She now suddenly saw through conversations, short exchanges she had written down hastily with the feeling that something lay behind them; she saw the people concerned coming and going before and after, moving in surroundings she had not known she could imagine.

For anyone who has wondered how writers do what they do, Sandel describes the process beautifully.

Alberta finally understands that ‘All the pain, all the vain longing, all the disappointed hope . . . all this was knowledge of life. Bitter and difficult, exhausting to live through, but the only way to knowledge of herself and others.’ Writing gives her a route to self-understanding and, eventually, to acceptance and independence. By the end of Alberta Alone her fragile hope of becoming a writer is moving towards a reality – one that we readers know from Sandel’s own life will be fulfilled.


 

Elizabeth Rokkan translated the Alberta novels as well as many of the novels of Tarjei Vesaas. She died earlier this year without fanfare. Besides The Ice Palace her astounding legacy as a translator is to be found in the delicately wrought details of Sandel’s Norwegian landscapes and the inner world of her greatest character, Alberta Selmer.

In her introduction to Alberta Alone she offers further biographical notes on Cora Sandel.



alberta-and-freedom ELIZABETH ROKKAN

Sarah Fabricius was born in Kristiania, twenty-five years before Norway achieved her independence from Sweden in 1905. Her mother tongue was Norwegian, she was published in Norway and rewarded with a writer’s stipend by the Norwegian government; yet she lived in other countries for much of her life and guarded her privacy behind her pseudonym, Cora Sandel. It is significant that she adopted a female pseudonym. To be a twentieth-century woman writer, and to write about women in order to champion their cause, became her sole purpose. Her brief autobiography reads: ‘I was a child in Oslo, a young girl in north Norway, a grown woman in France and Sweden, am growing old during the Second World War, had a son during the first war and live in fear that he may be sacrificed during the second.’

Initially, however, her aim was to become an artist, hoping that her return to Oslo in 1899 to train at Harriet Backer’s studio would free her from her ties to her family in Tromsø, which lies halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Cape. After the death of her parents she continued her training in Paris, living from 1906 on the Left Bank and in Brittany until she and her Swedish husband moved to Sweden in 192 l. She began to write after the birth of her son in 1917, drawing on her experience of north Norway (Alberta and Jacob) and France, including the First World War (Alberta and Freedom) for the first two volumes of her trilogy, published in 1926 and 1931 respectively.

alberta-alone-180The volumes can be read independently, each covering one year in the life of the protagonist. The present volume, Alberta Alone, focusing on the tensions and disloyalties of love, liaisons and family life, is set in Brittany, with a return to Paris and then a final homecoming to Norway. Its publication date, 1939, and the subsequent isolation of Scandinavia during the Second World War, was probably the reason for the late translation of Sandel’s work into other European languages. Norway was given the respite of a year after the outbreak of the war before being occupied by Nazi Germany, and Sweden remained neutral. The immediate enthusiasm of both critics and public at home for a work that was recognized as an instant classic was followed in 1940 by the government’s award of her stipend.

In the chronology of twentieth-century Norwegian literature, the trilogy invites comparison with Camilla Collett’s nineteenth-century novel The District Governor’s Daughters and Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy. In the context of British literature, comparisons may be drawn between Sandel and Jean Rhys, in that both experienced and described the struggles of Left Bank artists and writers of the same period and both could be said to have come from the periphery to one of the centres of European culture. Virginia Woolf, Sandel’s almost exact contemporary, also parallels her style and sensibility closely. Sandel adds the sensitivity of the pictorial artist, drawing attention to the quality of light or indicating the grouping and individual gestures of her characters in the settings where she has placed them, as in her description of Paris seen from the Metro crossing Passy Bridge:

There was a rustle along the benches as newspapers were lowered and people looked out. Far below lay Paris, bright in sudden sunshine beneath a tremendous sky full of moving banks of cloud. People, cars, fiacres, bustled about like toys. To the north-east above Ménilmontant was a coal-black shower of rain; directly beneath, the Seine like flowing metal. A tug with a string of barges behind it, working its way upstream, hooted piercingly and belched out thick, black smoke, making the sharp light even sharper.

Yet this modest purpose and quiet ambition expressed what came to be recognized much later as central political arguments on war and feminism. Norway was slow to interpret Alberta’s pilgrimage to freedom as a contribution to the second feminist movement. But in the United States the Alberta books had been passed from hand to hand and gave rise to excitement and admiration among American women.

As the title of the final volume implies, the trilogy culminates in Alberta’s realization that she must find the courage to leave the father of her child and earn her own living as a writer. Only then will she be able to return at a future date to reclaim her son from a position of equal independence and strength.


 

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