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.”