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.

Growing Up Is Hard to Do…

… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Zazie‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys,  crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.

Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).

The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:

– T’as vu le métro?

– Non.

– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?

– J’ai vielli.

Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).