Norwegian Proto-Feminist Cora Sandel

Born Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius in 1880 in Oslo (and therefore an almost exact contemporary of Virginia Woolf’s) and growing up in Tromso, Cora Sandel was a painter turned writer who lived in Paris for fifteen years before and after the First World War, then moved to Sweden with her Swedish sculptor husband, whom she divorced a short while later. Her Alberta trilogy is inspired by her own life among the artist community, and her own struggles to make her voice heard (and use her creativity) in a society where women were still very much marginalised. She gave up painting after she had her son, although she deeply regretted it, and wrote her first book at the age of 46.

I should have started with the first book in the series Alberta and Jacob, which describes Alberta’s youthful struggles as a shy but creative girl in a very confined small-town society. Jacob is her brother, who becomes a sailor and finally emigrates to Australia. In the second book Alberta and Freedom, she has been succesful in her rebellion and moved to Paris, but struggles to make ends meet, to write (in the book, she has no talent as a painter herself) and falls prey to all sorts of predatory men. However, I started with the third volume, Alberta Alone, because the blurb on the back says that this is an accurate depiction of the corrosion of a relationship against the background of the aftermath of the war, and how a woman tries to reconcile her responsibilities as a mother with her creative needs.

And I’m glad I did, because it is probably the most obviously feminist of the three books. Alberta is still somewhat insecure, but she is starting to find her voice, to stop being a doormat, to fight for herself and for her son. She falls somewhat in love with a married French author: she is spending the summer at the seaside with him and his family. However, this is mainly because he seems to be the only one who understands her creative urges and encourages her to take her writing seriously. Her womanising painter husband is insufferable, tries to take her child away from her because he believes she mollycoddles him, compares her unfavourably with other women, and for most of the book she has given up trying to contradict him or tell him anything. Mostly, this book reflects the interior journey of a woman from dependence and fear to independence and pursuing a goal.

Although it was published in 1939 (the first two volumes were published in 1926 and 1931 respectively), the book contains such accurate and contemporary insights and observations both about the feminine condition and about being a writer (unsure of her own talent and lacking the support of her family), that it could have been written today.

[Alberta’s writing]…it amounted to pile in a folder. It had grown in slow stages and as far as possible in secrecy. But suddenly, when she had begun to believe that she had achieved a certain amount of order and coherence, new material had presented itself, at times in such quantities that she became sickened and felt that she could not face it… The task threatened to be endless and the old glint had returned to Sivert’s eye a long time ago when he asked after it. Or he might say: ‘Have you done any scribbling today?’ And then she felt as if he had handled her roughly, and she did not know which she detested most, herself or Sivert [her husband], or the pile of papers.

Alberta is a great procrastinator and self-flagellator when it comes to her writing and probably reflects the author’s own disdain for dilettantism. She can be equally scathing about motherhood and children, although Alberta is clearly very much concerned about the welfare of her rather sickly son.

Neither Pierre nor any other man possessed that endless patience, that faculty of being able to hang about with [children] hour after hour, of answering precisely and good-naturedly the countless questions they use to hold you fast. And those women who really do possess it are usually elderly or a little simple-minded.

But right after she gives birth, when she holds her baby in her arms, she feels:

There existed nothing more helpless or more dependent on human good-will… Her first coherent reflection had been: Now I am truly vulnerable. Now I can be hurt as never before.

The work is filled with so many precise observations, in almost throwaway lines, that I could easily quote them one after another.

It struck Alberta how stooping most women’s work is. Man stretches: he rows, or reaches out for stones or planks. He is often bent beneath burdens, but woman bends over almost all her tasks, except when she hangs up washing.

Certain moments were almost too painful to read: they resonated a little bit too much with me. Sandel is almost recklessly candid, there is no sugarcoating or attempt at political correctness in Alberta’s inner monologue.

The boy suddenly seemed to resemble Sivert in a way that was almost horrible: Sivert’s ability to dash cold water over one’s enthusiasm and extinguish it effectively and at once. It was not right that a child should be so like an adult… She put the things down to take him in her arms, but did not do so. One can be reserved in one’s love for a child, just as in other relationships.

When Sivert tells her he has fallen in love with someone else and promptly follows that declaration with a lecture on how it is in fact her fault, Alberta finally speaks up – and not only in her head.

He gave a brief lecure on woman as mother and mistress; she was either the one or the other, seldom both. Then there were those who were neither the one nor the other. Exhaustion drifted through her brain as black patches… thoughts for which she failed to find the words immediately: something to the effect that we are not divided into categories, we would like nothing better than to be both, but it takes strength and the right conditions. Not even a plant will develop all its qualities in any kind of soil…

Then he said something that left her wide awake. ‘You said, I love you, first.’

‘Did I? It must have been at some moment-? It must have been in your arms?’ Alberta searched her memory confusedly…

‘You did. And it’s a mistake. It’s the man who should say that sort of thing first.’

Suddenly Alberta did not know whether to laugh or cry. ‘You – you ninny!’ It was a word that Sivert had taught her. At home they said booby.

The fiercely individualistic Cora Sandel did not want to become known beyond her pseudonym, nor did she want to be part of the feminist movement. Her work was revered in Norway, and adapted for film, but she was only translated into English by Elizabeth Rokkan in the 1960s but somehow failed to make a lasting impact.

I happened to come across some old Peter Owen editions for sale outside the Waterstones in Gower Street. I’ve been so blown away by her work that I will not only read the other books in the trilogy but have also ordered her only other book translated into English The Leech (about which I know nothing other than the title). She reminds me in a way of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, who perhaps has more humour in her memoirs, but is equally honest and unafraid in her writing. I would love to see a resurgence of interest in Cora Sandel’s work, further translations of her work and a reissue of her novels.

Empowering, Inspiring, Energetic and Fun: Janelle Monae

You may remember I had planned a whole summer of activities, trips and events to celebrate my birthday this year. This was the last but perhaps most flamboyant event in my calendar: attending the Janelle Monáe gig at The Roundhouse in Camden. All of the usual arguments came up: too tired, too busy, too old to be standing for hours, too expensive, too self-indulgent. But I ignored all of that and had an absolutely wonderful time. She is even more pretty, energetic and amazing live than she is in her (zany and infectious) videos. I am utterly in love!

This was a celebration of being a woman, being black, but also being whatever the hell you want to be. A really warm, inclusive atmosphere, with a hearty dollop of confident feminine power (not of the Spice Girl kind) thrown in for good measure. Four people were invited onstage to dance to ‘I Got the Juice’ – one was an actress, two were female audience members and the last one was a girl in a wheelchair, who perhaps got the biggest applause of all.

Janelle has so much charisma, she could easily become a cult leader. She had us in the palm of her hand, we were ready to do whatever she asked – sing along, shout ‘I’m dirty! I’m proud!’ and even lie down on the floor. She talked about standing up for what you believe, daring to be different and how love is the only thing making the world worth living in, but this was not someone who was using the stage as a political platform or who loves the sound of their own voice. She sang and danced pretty much non-stop for 2 hours, and gave a great encore, so she certainly gave value for money.

What surprised me most were all the humorous little touches. I’d seen them on video, but it was so much more obviously sheer complicity with the audience (winking, a little sideways smile, teasing with her body poses). This was a performer who was having fun on the stage, by herself, with her dancers and musicians, and with us the audience. I found myself giggling out loud at some of her antics, like her long-drawn out end to a song. There were thoughtful, gentle ballads too, and a rather touching tribute to Prince at the end of a song with a purple light shining on an empty stage.

Most of the songs were from the most recent album Dirty Computer (which is after all the name of the tour), but there were a few of the most popular songs from previous albums too to keep fans happy. Crowdpleasers like ‘Electric Lady’ and an encore with ‘Tightrope’, but also quite emotional renditions of ‘Primetime for our love’ and ‘Cold War’. 

I dressed up for the occasion in a golden skirt, black top and a matching ring (my new favourite piece). Although this middle-aged lady here felt very tired standing for 2 hours before the show started (I did not feel the pain during the show itself) and is still recovering from getting home at 1 a.m., I came out of the venue immensely energised. That’s just the way she makes me feel!

Book Launch: Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström

Nordisk Books is a small independent publisher specialising in Nordic literature – trying to demonstrate that there is literary life beyond Scandi crime fiction (fun though that may be). When I heard about the launch of this book by Swedish professor of literature and feminist Ebba Witt-Brattström at Hatchards, in a translation by Kate Lambert, I just had to join in.

Three wonderful women to present: moderator, author, translator.

It is the story of the breakdown of a marriage, and it is stripped to the bare minimum: the dialogue between spouses, in short lines somewhere between prose and poetry. Prosaic verse maybe (prosaic subject, verse-like lines, the pithy a-ha moments of poetry). He said/she said alternate here, often talking past each other, not listening to each other or misunderstanding. It is based upon the author’s own acrimonious divorce, but also on her examination of feminist literature. There are so many elements there which are universal, and will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever been in a relationship with the opposite sex.

She said:
Everything I lived for
believed in
wanted
loved
lies burning around me.
Piles of smoking ash
wherever I look.

He said:
Sorry
but I don’t want therapy
only to live normally
the way I am
with my vanity
or whatever you want to call it.
If you don’t want to
be with me on the ride
any more what can I do?
I am not re-education material
not for my sake
or for anyone else’s.

This dance to the death between the couple, advancing and retreating, challenging and posing, blaming and defending, is like a complicated and furious paso doble. The dark humour of recognition is present – all the women in the audience laughed at certain phrases – but it is also quite visceral and damning, so much so that you need to stop and take a deep breath every now and then.

With this level of intensity, I was expecting Ebba to be loud and dour, but she was delightful: funny, thoughtful and feisty. And when I went to her with the book to be signed, she very sweetly wrote ‘with sisterly good luck’ when I explained the parallels to my own situation. The translator also said she found it hugely relatable but also quite painful to translate. Initially, Ebba said she had written it as a more conventional novel, but then she realised that the real ‘juicy bits’ were in the dialogue, so she left the bare bones or skeleton of the novel.

There were a few brave men who attended the event (and the publisher Duncan Lewis is a man too, so bravo to him for uncovering this book and getting it translated), but I wonder what men make of it when they read it. I hope younger men will be inspired by it to NOT become like their fathers, to learn a different way of relating to women. Anyway, it inspired me to come up with this poem:

Stone Age But Effective

The words chiselled, honed over time,
first the blunt Acheulian handaxe to thrust home the proof.
The flint-knapping tools bring to pin-point precision
an arrowhead bordered by microlith flakes
aimed precisely to inflict maximum organ damage
and blood loss. Yet he kills not just through calculation
but also with thoughtless, sloughing off scales,
absent-mindedly fondling her last open lesion
before driving home anew the blade.

#DiverseDecember: When Writers Are Silenced…

This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).

SilencesFirst published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.

‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:

Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.

Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.

When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk

As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:

The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

 Angharad Pearce Jones installation of 'The Pram in the Hall', from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.
Angharad Pearce Jones installation of ‘The Pram in the Hall’, from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.

Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.

… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.

From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.
Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.

Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.

Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.
Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.

And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.

Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.

How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.

 

And now for something really, really different…

Megan Beech in performance, image from Flickr (unattributed).
Megan Beech in performance, image from Flickr (unattributed).

Megan Beech is young, loud, unashamedly intellectual and feminist. She is one of the freshest voices in the powerful spoken word or performance poetry movement, which is gaining momentum especially amongst young people in the UK. You may have heard of Kate Tempest and her audio recordings in Britain or Saul Williams in the US, one of the leading lights of slam poetry – which is like a sort of ‘dance-off’ for poetry. Megan is just as talented, though less well-known (so far) and I love the way she combines her bluestocking propensities with wit, humour and outspoken candour.

When I grow up I want to be Mary Beard.
A classy, classic, classicist,
intellectually revered.
Wickedly wonderful and wise,
full to brim with life…

Although this is poetry to be heard rather than read on the page, I’ve had ot make do with this slim volume of poetry entitled When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard, published by Burning Eye Books in 2013. There is something clearly declamatory and more direct in this kind of poetry than the one I am used to reading. So much depends on the personality of the poet, I suppose, how they ‘perform’ the poem. It is also much more political – a form of protest poetry.

So sit down, retire your reckless, restless rhetoric
and actually start listening.
Make some decisions.
Sort out the system.
Or better yet,
give me a Britain that’s actually Great
and not this state that I live in.

Portrait from thepoetrysociety.org.uk
Portrait from thepoetrysociety.org.uk

However, although it looks artless and ranting, spoken word poetry is also carefully planned and balanced, it has to sound just right, there are internal rhymes, puns and word plays. The rage and indignation are carefully controlled and edited – yet still ring true and raw.

The charm of fearless youth is that there is no subject that is off-limits. Michael Gove,  rowdy students, negligent parents, Easyjet, a boyfriend with widely differing musical tastes, Harry Potter and a couple snogging on the Circle Line are all targets of her barbed wit. I particularly enjoyed the rant about ‘Behind Every Great Christmas There Is Mum’:

…it seems crazy we’re embracing
misogynistic depiction presented by ASDA-ian dictum,
whereby women must be prim, proper and Christian,
and only give birth to children
in order to spend Christmas in the kitchen.
Having no sense of own volition
under patriarchal systems
which are clearly non-existent.
While her family insist on
a swell of patronising applause
which only stands to reinforce
subservient slave is her dictionary definition.

I can’t wait to see what Megan Beech does next. I hope she doesn’t lose her wild streak and continues to expand her subject matter. You can see Megan in action in one of the videos featured on her website.

Friday Fun (But Is It Fun?): Barbie Princess Power

The lengths Mattel will go to, to revive their stuttering sales…

Photographer Jeff O'Brien Stylist Jennifer Shaw. From Mattel website.
Photographer Jeff O’Brien
Stylist Jennifer Shaw. From Mattel website.

Meet Barbie Princess Power. The following sentences are from their marketing material.

Kara is a modern-day princess with an everyday life. One day, after being kissed by a magical butterfly, Kara soon discovers she has amazing super powers allowing her to transform into Super Sparkle, her secret, crime-fighting alter ego who flies around the kingdom ready to save the day!

Her secret weapon: kindness, niceness and friendship. She transforms the baddies by appealing to their inner ‘nice guy’ – which, obviously, must come to the fore when they see the outfit she is wearing!

As if girls haven’t had enough of being told for generations that they need to be ‘nice’, friendly, kind, even when all around them the others aren’t. To keep a marriage together even if the husband is unkind, unloving, cheating, a bully, a drunk because ‘at least he doesn’t beat you.’ To continue to ‘seduce’ the husband with feminine wiles (and expensive make-up, depilation and lingerie) so that he doesn’t stray. To flatter the male CEO and not be too loud or self-assured in meetings. I’ve seen it in far too many of my friends – and in myself – that we are so concerned with making life comfortable for all the people in our lives, we are so busy bolstering everyone else’s ego, so keen to avoid conflict … that we are not doing ourselves any favours!

‘Nice’ people become martyrs. They most certainly do not win in life. Assertiveness does not mean we’re not ‘nice’.When can we have a superheroine Barbie who can be grumpy on occasion, strong, opinionated, as well as empathetic and gentle? When can we tell our daughters it’s fine to be demanding and selfish and real?