Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
“In everything one writes,” said the Norwegian novelist Cora Sandel, “there is woven in a thread from one’s own life. It can be so hidden that nobody notices it, but it is there and it must be there, I suppose, if it is to be seen as a piece of living writing.” Sandel, born Sara Fabricius in Kristiania (now Oslo), tried to avoid undue conjecture on her fiction’s autobiographical basis by using a pseudonym. When she published her first novel, Alberta and Jacob, in 1926 at age forty-six, she gave her publisher no author photo, nor did she ever agree to be interviewed on television. The two other books in the acclaimed Alberta trilogy appeared shortly thereafter: Alberta and Freedom in 1931, and Alberta Alone in 1939. After Alberta and Jacob drew a wide and appreciative Scandinavian readership, an uncle wrote to her in Sweden, where she was living, to tell her: “I have just read a book by a woman who calls herself Cora Sandel. Everyone here says that it is you.” He had always known, he added, that she would achieve something significant.
The demands placed on today’s authors, the all but mandatory self-disclosure and endless media promotion, would have horrified Sandel. “I have always been of the opinion,” she said, “that no more needs to be expected of an author than she should write books.” Though she lived in Paris for fifteen years she didn’t, on principle, engineer an encounter with Colette, whom she idolized and whose novel The Vagabond she translated into Norwegian. “I considered it too presumptuous to have friends arrange a meeting—Colette was forced to meet so many people anyway.” Sandel valued solitude above all, and spent long hours in silent contemplation of the precise words she needed to capture a mood or sentiment. In the final novel of the trilogy, the eponymous writer-heroine reflects of her manuscript: “Each word had come floating up singly from the unknown depths, where the truth hides itself and then rises again, in different guise, unrecognizable as a dream, but irrefutable.”
The Alberta trilogy follows “fire-worshipper” Alberta Selmer from her frustrated, shame-blighted adolescence in a freezing province of northernmost Norway, to a hand-to-mouth yet infinitely freer vie bohème in left-bank Paris, then to a relationship, motherhood, and finally a return to Norway, where she chooses a precarious independence and commits to becoming an author. “She had finished groping in a fog for warmth and security … She would go under or become so bitterly strong that nothing could hurt her anymore. She felt something of the power of the complete solitary.” Even by the standards of early twentieth-century Modernism, Sandel’s themes—the tyranny of feminine beauty ideals, the sacrifice of safe respectability for artistic fulfillment and emotional freedom, the perilous renunciation of patriarchal frameworks—were revolutionary. The fiercely individualistic Sandel did not wish to be part of an official women’s movement. But aesthetically and politically, her novels count as feminist classics, with Alberta at the era’s literary vanguard alongside Clarissa Dalloway, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam, and Djuna Barnes’s Robin Vote.
Like Alberta, Sandel came of age deep inside the arctic circle, in Tromsø, where she moved when she was twelve with her father, a naval commander, and his beautiful wife, who was vocally disappointed in her plain, shy daughter. At age twenty-five, both her parents having died, Sandel fled to Paris to be an artist. It was 1906: the School of Paris phenomenon, headed by Picasso and Matisse, was gathering pace. With quiet determination, Sandel learned French from newspapers and the novels she would read while standing inside the bookstore in the Odéon Theatre arcade. She enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, the alma mater of Paul Gauguin, Camille Claudel, and Alphonse Mucha, where women were not only admitted as students but provided with nude male models. Over the next decade Sandel painted furiously, and in 1913 she married a Swedish sculptor, Anders Jönsson. In 1921 they moved to Sweden with their young son, Erik (leaving Paris was “like having one’s heart torn out”), but Sandel and Jönsson soon separated and later divorced. She sent Erik to boarding school and, thereafter, dedicated her life to writing.
The trilogy broadly follows these events with the notable exception that in Alberta and Freedom, Alberta is not an artist, though she lives in the thick of artistic Montparnasse. In Sandel’s unsparing portrayal, this storied cosmopolitan milieu is more insalubrious and hardscrabble than romantic. Alberta’s friend Liesel can’t afford “a petticoat, stockings, shoes,” and likewise frets about the cost of paint: “Chinese white costs a fortune, let alone colors like cadmium and carmine lake.” Still, for Alberta, “even the bleakness had something of adventure about it.” She works sporadically as a model; or as Sandel puts it, she “took her clothes off in front of this strange man. It was disagreeable, it was mortifying, but it was life’s bitter law and no worse than much else.” Whenever destitution beckons and the English man she sits for doesn’t need her, Alberta writes sketches of Parisian life for Norwegian newspapers. To this novelist-at-heart, such hackwork is almost too jejune to bear:
She found a topic, stowed away impressions into a suitable number of lines and signed it A.S., doing so with reluctance and shame, feeling that she was doing violence to something in herself, and that what she had described was untrue, because it was shallow and merely superficial.
In Alberta and Freedom, dilettantism is spoken of with contempt, and this attitude was perhaps matched in Sandel’s all-or-nothing approach to writing and painting. During her years as a painter, she didn’t write seriously, only a few bits and pieces for money, putting all her creative energy into art. Then in 1917, when she had her son, she stopped painting for good. It was a loss she felt keenly for the rest of her life. In her seventies, she said: “If I had been less nervous, less easily disconcerted both by life’s joys and its set-backs, perhaps I could have been a painter after all.” (At age ninety-one, having not picked up a brush for over half a century, Sandel was given her first and only exhibition, in Stockholm.) The decision not to make Alberta an artist may reflect Sandel’s mourning of her first creative love. But from a story perspective, it allows a heightened focus on the specific alienation that, Sandel suggests, occurs when an intelligent young woman without the alibi of beauty or charm, or even, in the parlance of the day, much pluck, refuses to bow to convention.
During her penurious Paris years, Alberta is a rare kindred spirit of Jean Rhys’s early heroines, especially the depressed, alcoholic Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight, who also shares her creator’s sharp outsider’s honesty but not her occupation. Alberta’s instinct is to write, but the scribbled words are “recalcitrant … like a mutinous flock tripping each other up.” Leaden with passivity and denied the resource of artistic purging, both Alberta and Sasha are doomed to haunt shabby, bug-infested left-bank hotels, to fend off loneliness with the company of men who aren’t quite what they’re looking for, to blot out memories with a glass of vermouth and a cigarette—and to offer readers an unvarnished portrait of a female consciousness contorted by longing and inconsolable grief. Alberta, penniless and alone in her attic room but for “the concentrated agony she continually carried within her,” is caught between despair and the stubborn impulse to survive:
Mortification and anxiety and regret crept interlaced through her mind like cold snakes. She wept painful, tearless sobs, wretched and smarting, a grimace merely; a caricature of the liberating stream that cleanses the mind and from which one rises assuaged, even perhaps born anew.
In all her veins there beat an urgent, all-embracing hunger for warmth.
Alberta endures her deprivation aware that the easier alternative, a provincial petit-bourgeois existence, was technically available but spiritually inconceivable to her: “she regretted nothing … she could only wish she were someone else, that she need not be the person she was.” No amount of hunger or loneliness is worse than the claustrophobia and entrenched narrow-mindedness of her hometown, depicted so viscerally in Alberta and Jacob. Made to feel “ugly, boring, hopeless and impossible,” not least by her mother, Alberta can never entirely shake off her self-disgust, her apprehension that she is unworthy as a woman. But at least in Paris she is more at ease, less judged. “Was she ugly?” she muses. “Probably. But here in Montparnasse people wandered about with snub noses and many kinds of facial faults and were quite acceptable.” Men are drawn to Alberta, but her romantic adventures are haphazard, ill-considered, and cannot be otherwise; the reader knows not to expect a conventional happy ending. With greater subtlety and insight than any novelist before or since, Sandel shows how a woman’s sense of herself, and thus her very destiny, is defined from the cradle by her place in the beauty hierarchy.
Central to Alberta’s path to self-definition as a writer—and to the trilogy’s status as a landmark female Künstlerroman—is her acceptance and even embrace of suffering as the necessary foundation to wisdom. Literature, Sandel believed, came from lived experience. Near the end of Alberta and Freedom, Alberta goes through her scraps of writing: brief transcriptions of possibly meaningful exchanges, observations begun and abandoned. Sitting by the window in a warm ray of sunshine, pencil in hand, she is astonished to feel a new kind of inspiration. An epiphany dawns:
All the pain, all the vain longing, all the disappointed hope, all the anxiety and privation, the sudden numbing blows that result in years going by before one understands what happened—all this was the knowledge of life. Bitter and difficult, exhausting to live through, but the only way to knowledge of herself and others. Success breeds arrogance, adversity understanding.
In Scandinavia, Sandel was recognized from the outset as a major literary talent and an important feminist voice. Yet success brought her neither financial ease nor much professional satisfaction, and she wondered if it was all worth it. Like so many brilliant writers, she was a self-punishing perfectionist, for whom writing was a painstaking slog. “I am deadly tired of the dreadful métier I’ve gotten involved in,” she wrote in 1938, with the trilogy near completion. She found the commercial publishing industry tawdry and unscrupulous, a cynicism that can only have deepened with the postpublication fate of Alberta Alone. In 1941, when the trilogy came out in new editions and Norway was under Nazi occupation, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag’s editorial board decided to remove (apparently without Sandel’s consent) passages criticizing the Germans’ conduct during Word War I. (The original version was not reissued until 2002.)
Sandel kept writing through her disillusionment and published two more novels: 1945’s Krane’s Café, which was adapted for television (as was Alberta and Freedom), and The Leech in 1958. Over the course of her career she also published several volumes of short stories. In Norway she was famous (she wore dark glasses when she visited Oslo, fearful of being recognized) and, from 1940, the recipient of an author’s stipend from the government. But Sandel wasn’t known to anglophone readers until the sixties, when the independent British press Peter Owen published her novels, in translations by Elizabeth Rokkan.
People wondered what had taken so long. The Alberta trilogy, William Trevor remarked, “has a place to itself among the finest contemporary writing.” In his review for the Guardian in 1965, Christopher Wordsworth described Alberta as possessing “great intricacy and truth with deep insights and passion, resignation, and resolve, lit by an inner wisdom that comes from the conjunction of art, intuition, and bruising experience.” Sandel was then eighty-four; she did not live to see the reissue of her books by The Women’s Press in the UK and Ohio University Press in the U.S., which sparked a second renaissance in the eighties. Alberta and Jacob, Kim Chernin wrote at the time, “is one of the most penetrating psychological portraits of adolescent struggle I have ever read.”
Despite these brief resurgences of interest in Sandel, she remains scandalously unheard of in the U.S. and the UK. Peter Owen, which still publishes her books, is planning a 2020 edition of the trilogy in a single volume. Sandel would have been gratified by the prospect of such an apt imprimatur, especially since posthumous glory requires no interviews on her part. When Gyldendal Norsk Forlag threw a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, Sandel’s response was an introvert’s excuse for the ages: “It is my fate not to be present.” Unsurprisingly, she dreaded becoming the subject of biographies, “being flayed and stuffed after death by any little youthful and self-assured doctor of literature.” In 1957, however, when she was in her late seventies, she approved a biography by the Norwegian novelist Odd Solumsmoen. Another, by Janneken Øverland, appeared twenty-one years after Sandel’s death in 1995. Neither has been translated into English, yet one imagines that no biography could decode the mysteries of Sandel’s inner world, which she guarded so closely and transmuted into literature of such exceptional power. It was a tantalizing process, according to Alberta, who finds that at daybreak
the brain is ready to arrange and put together, to precipitate words with content and significance, part of a sequence. They seemed … to float up from the mysterious life-stream itself, which, dark and secretive, reaches down into the depths of the mind. They were brewed of bitterness and sweetness. But to reach for them was often like reaching for soap bubbles. When she opened her hand there was nothing there.
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words without Borders, and other publications.