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Naked Life

Written by: Janneken Øverland |

“Destiny? Destiny?

“An end to entering a man’s life like a little pet, being housed under his roof and eating from his hand. No longer can a man be a woman’s destiny. A companion for life, that he can be. For the whole road or for part of the way. But destiny… no.”

These lines were found on a little note among the papers of Norwegian writer Cora Sandel after her death. We have no difficulty attributing the view expressed to the creator of Alberte Selmer. Nor is there any difficulty in reading into these lines experience that reveals an early-twentieth-century woman, a somewhat resigned, but nevertheless proud, woman who has learnt that her first job is to provide for herself – love, children, and other pleasures, duties, and good things in life would have to come later.

Many of the women who came from Cora Sandel’s pen could have heaved this heartfelt sigh. Her female and male characters are more likely to be complete contrasts than loving couples. The tension in her texts is found in the force-field between woman and man. Time and again, Cora Sandel depicts the man as seen through the woman’s eyes. Her female characters are driven towards the man, towards his otherness, even though their expectations are often disappointed. Their relationship alternates between short-term affection, long-term compassion, and periodic anxiety, all coupled with a sincere desire on the woman’s part to understand the man.

Cora Sandel endeavours to understand the ‘riddle of the man’, at the same time as she is mapping out the nature of woman.

The Impossible Love

Sandel, Cora (1880-1974): Portrait of her husband, the Swedish sculptor Anders Jönsson. c. 1913. Oil on canvas. Private collection

Cora Sandel is by no means the only Norwegian writer of the inter-war period to address love and difficult relationships. Love between a woman and a man is, without a doubt, the dominant subject in Norwegian fiction of the period, not least in psychological-realistic novels written by women.

Just to mention three of the multi-volume works that fall into this category: Gisken Wildenvey’s trilogy about Andrine, Andrine (1929), Andrine og Kjell (1934; Andrine and Kjell), and Andrine og lykken (1939; Andrine and Happiness) (a supplementary volume was published in 1955); Magnhild Haalke’s trilogy about Gry, Åkfestet (1936; Subjugation), Dagblinket (1937; Short Is the Day), and Rød haust? (1941; Red Harvest?); and Cora Sandel’s trilogy about Alberte, Alberte og Jakob (1926; Eng. tr. Alberta and Jacob), Alberte og friheten (1931; Eng. tr. Alberta and Freedom), and Bare Alberte (1939; Eng. tr. Alberta Alone). All these trilogies follow the life of a woman from youth to adulthood, and they all focus on central issues of love and liberation. Gry first manages to achieve an independent life once she is an adult and her mother has passed away, whereas both Andrine and Alberte have to get away from their childhood setting and families – and finally from husbands and children too – in order to create their own lives.

Towards the end of the third book about Alberte, her relationship with her husband, Sivert, is described thus: “With amazement she remembered how she had alternated in her feelings for him. Many would have called it sensuousness; on the contrary, it had been spiritual, a need to solve the riddle that was he.”

This key book in Cora Sandel’s oeuvre ends with Alberte leaving her husband and child in order to attempt to set up as an artist, on her own. At this point, moreover, she believes that she has solved the “riddle that was he”. The solution has actually been obvious from the very outset. Sivert is one of those people who is ‘himself’ whatever life throws up. He does what it pays to do, and his talent for getting what he needs comes just as naturally as for “the beast in the woods”. She is the one who has mystified this silent, ordinary man, and she leaves him so as to survive: “Sivert is a wall; I shall demoralize myself in the long run if I go on striking my head against it.” Alberte’s ‘love project’ breaks down, but this does not mean it is a ‘breakdown novel’.

In a situation of new departures, Alberte’s future prospects even include the possibility of a new, solitary woman’s power:

“She walked along, certain of only one thing. She had finished groping in the fog for warmth and security. The mist had risen now, there was clear visibility and it was cold. No arms round her any more, not even those of a child: naked life, as far ahead as she could see, struggle and an impartial view. She would go under or become so bitterly strong that nothing could hurt her any more. She felt something of the power of the complete solitary.”

A Female Flâneur

The trilogy about Alberte Selmer, Alberte og Jakob, Alberte og friheten, and Bare Alberte, is Cora Sandel’s principal work. The trilogy is a detailed and moving account of a young woman’s path to becoming an artist. It is the story of Alberte, maturing from young girl to adult woman, but it is also a realistic story about Norway and Europe from just before the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth century and onward to 1920. The nature of women’s opportunities during this period is, in particular, addressed in a way that is unprecedented in Norwegian literature.

Besides the historical forum of the novels, the narrative is enriched to an even greater extent by the geographical and environmental span in the storyline itself. Alberte’s story moves from small-town life in the north of Norway to metropolitan Paris, from the culture of the ‘official class’, heavy on values from the previous century, to avant-garde Parisian bohemian culture. Alberte is a transitional figure and an outsider who must constantly battle her way towards her own solutions. In the conventional small-town environment, her mother’s expectations of her are particularly inhibiting; Alberte does not conform to the type of girl her mother wants. And she will not be married off. The destiny offered to women in the little community is linked to their biology, which is manifested visually in midwife Jullum. With her “worn, black bag” and a “quiescent, know-all smile” she makes her way through the first novel like some kind of ominous, magic figure, a reminder that the life of woman is biologically determined and sooner or later it will be domesticated and turned into an illness.

In the second novel we meet Alberte in 1912, a young, insecure woman living in Paris. She lives from hand to mouth and here, too, she is lonely and searching. She wants to write, but it amounts to little more than notes on scraps of paper – which she puts in a suitcase. Alberte lives in the middle of a pulsating creative milieu. Read in terms of art history, the book contains a number of valuable observations about Scandinavian artists, the lives of painters and sculptors in Paris at the opening of the twentieth century.

“To plunge into it. To drift, wander about, watch, absorb it all, with no other purpose. To take one of the old-fashioned horse-buses, which still swayed along here and there. […] Alberte had had this inclination to drift since she was small. […] She could follow people unknown to her up and down streets, getting on and off the same means of transport with them to see where finally they went; listen intently to conversations between total strangers as if her whole existence depended on it […].”

Cora Sandel: Alberte og friheten (1931)

Holmström, Tora Vega (1880-1967): Cathérine och Ramono. 1931/40. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

Alberte herself is a spectator – something in the nature of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur. She roams around soaking in impressions as she goes. And she lives in the midst of ‘modern life’, in cafés, at exhibitions, along the quayside, at the vaudeville theatre, among artists gathered at the restaurant table. This is where, while to all appearances she simply drifts for years on end, she matures as a writer. Alberte is a female flâneur. Through her eyes we can see how, in the seemingly so liberated bohemian milieu, it is the male artist who sets the standard and the premises. The women have to resign themselves to the actuality that their expectations of life and their artistic ambitions are of secondary importance. The portrait of Liesel – Alberte’s painter friend who lives with a sculptor and has an abortion because he does not have room for a child in his life – sums up the tragedy of gender. Liesel keeps her man, but she is physically and mentally broken.

“She would return home from her expeditions tired, hungry, knowing that she had yet again used money, time and shoe leather to no purpose, and yet strangely satisfied, as if deep and mysterious demands in her had been pacified for a while. […] But one night a little while later she would perhaps be sitting up with smarting eyes and feverish pulse, scribbling illegibly on paper […].”

Cora Sandel: Alberte og friheten (1931)

Alberte also becomes pregnant, but chooses to keep the child, even though it was a case of loneliness rather than love that led her into the arms of the child’s father. The pregnancy and the child make her a more complete person, but hold back her artistic process – and it does get going again until many years later. Nonetheless, through all her hardships she hangs onto the belief that art, the written word, represents her way out.

Alberte’s long search for her ‘own way’ is also a search for her ‘own room’. She did not have one of those in her childhood home, in the free artists’ milieu, or in her marriage. No one has been able to establish whether Virginia Woolf, writing in the same period, or her extended essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) were familiar names to Alberte’s creator. There is, however, a strikingly strong similarity between the thoughts voiced by the British and the Norwegian writer. Alberte’s struggle for freedom – both artistic and human – illustrates with all possible clarity how lack of money and, in the widest sense, a room of one’s own are crucial factors. Finally, she finds her ‘own room’ in her writing: “She bound herself to her manuscript like a knot. She felt as if she were in a heated house, in which one exit had been left to her. It was beautiful outside, of course, but…”

Cora Sandel: Bare Alberte (1939)

Sara Fabricius – A Life

The books about Alberte are not autobiographical, albeit the depth and the laboriously won wisdom in Alberte’s story clearly borrow features from the life of the woman who concealed herself behind the pseudonym “Cora Sandel”. She was called Sara Cecilie Margareta Gjörwel Fabricius. She was born in 1880 in Christiania, into a family from the ‘official class’, and she was the eldest daughter of Anna Margareta Greger and Jens Schouw Fabricius.

Both sides of Sara Fabricius’s family were Eidsvollmenn (‘Men of Eidsvoll’, members of the Constituent Assembly held in Eidsvoll in 1814, Fathers of the Constitution), naval officers, and merchants. Her father was a naval commander and eighteen years his wife’s senior. In his young days he had been a lieutenant in the French navy, and while Sara was a child he was still travelling the world in his official capacity and would return home with exotic objects for his family.

The major upheaval in Sara’s life occurred in 1893 when her father decided, for financial reasons, to move the whole family to Tromsø, a small town of seven thousand inhabitants in the north of Norway; there was no electric lighting, and that part of the country was dark for two months of the year. Newspapers from the capital arrived once a week, but social life was hospitable and flourishing. The small northern Norwegian town plays a big and essential role in much of Cora Sandel’s later writing, including her first novel Alberte og Jakob. It is also possible to see where fiction displaces authentic experience; for example, relative to Alberte’s, Sara’s childhood and adolescence were much happier– she liked to read, was good at writing and enjoyed acting. As is the case with Alberte, artistic interest took Sara away from her childhood home. She wanted to be a painter, and in 1899 she was allowed to study with Harriet Backer at her school for women painters in Christiania. Five years later she moved to Paris in order to paint – with eight hundred kroner in her pocket. She stayed in Paris for fifteen years. She attended art schools and painted for many years. She cut her writer’s teeth for the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, read a great deal, and was inspired by French authors, especially Colette. In 1913 she married a Swedish sculptor, Anders Jönsson, and in 1917 they had a son. At that point she put her painting aside, and the family returned to her husband’s native Sweden. This was when she began to write in earnest.

In 1922, under the pseudonym she made up for herself, “Cora Sandel”, she published her first short story – an ‘artist story’ from Paris. Although she lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, she continued to write in Norwegian. Following divorce from her husband in the mid 1920s, and after a long legal dispute, she won sole custody of their son.

Throughout the inter-war period Cora Sandel lived from her pen, but money was often tight. She lived off her advance, spent a long time on her novels, and earned but little from her short stories. Right up until 1940 she would occasionally be obliged to pawn her typewriter between fees, which might seem almost paradoxical when we know that her debut novel, Alberte og Jakob, was published in four print runs, a total of nine thousand copies, in its first year.

Besides Kranes konditori (1945; Eng. tr. Krane’s Café) and Kjøp ikke Dondi (1958; Don’t Buy Dondi Eng. tr. The Leech), the rest of Cora Sandel’s ouevre amounted to approximately sixty short stories written between 1922 and 1949. The themes stretch from a sympathetic tale of polar bears in the streets of Tromsø to women’s lives in an Eastern harem. Cora Sandel’s principal interest is in the vulnerable individual, and she takes the side of the outsider, whether it be a woman, a child, or a man in a difficult situation.

Experience and Observation

The events in Sara’s life that form the basis of the books about Alberte occurred from approximately 1895 until 1922. Once she was a few years removed from what she called her own “experiences and observations”, she started the process of remodelling them into literature, and the result became available in book form between 1926 and 1939. It is this ability to create an artistic distance to personal experience that makes Cora Sandel a major author.

“The material comes to one via far more mysterious routes than the doctors of literature and the psychoanalysts dream of. Aggressive war and the arrival of a son in 1917 knocked the brush out of my hands, and I never got hold of it again. But one has to do something, I started writing out in Brittany – without any thought of ever being able to call myself ‘author’.”

Letter from Cora Sandel to Odd Solumsmoen.

Scraps of personal experience can be clearly detected in the rest of her work: pressure to conform in a small community, the Parisian cultural milieu, the artist’s slow route to maturation and battle with the words, the vulnerable position of women and children. Cora Sandel is, above all, the conveyor of women’s experience. The forum she creates around her fictional female characters has genuine intimacy, which has led generation after generation of readers – especially women – to her books. She achieves this authenticity chiefly by means of her writing style, which is both direct and implicit. She puts words to experience while being careful not to tell too much.

“It might be bad advertising when I claim not to have fully experienced everything I wrote about. And that the characters are not portraits either of my closest family or of my friends. The mechanics are not that simple when it comes to invented persons. On balance, it is probably safe to say that. The average reader will have his or her own opinion on it anyway.”

Cora Sandel in Arbeidermagasinet, vol. 2 (1939; The Workers’ Magazine).

From the very first story published under the name of Cora Sandel, “Rosina”, we find the female ‘we’ which she later uses to great effect both in novels and short texts. This story is, all in all, a both early and clear – albeit somewhat unfinished – example of how a sense of intimacy is established in Cora Sandel’s ‘female forum’: often between two people with vastly different backgrounds and outlooks on life, but who have the female body as shared experience. The knowledge that proliferates via exchange of this female body experience relates to issues of sexuality, finance, and freedom.

Rosina models for the first-person narrator, a woman artist, and tells her about her life. She had saved up enough money to leave her home in an impoverished north Italian village and, after a while, she eventually ended up in Paris. The joys of freedom are possibly not quite as sparkling as she had expected them to be, but she makes ends meet by working as an artist’s model and having male ‘acquaintances’. She has been ‘unlucky’ once, and had an abortion. Now the doctors say that in order to regain her health completely she must undergo an operation. But Rosina does not dare:

“‘Then I’d lose my friend, signora, for sure I’ll lose him if I’m ill in bed. We mustn’t be ill, signora, the men don’t like it. We just have to pretend everything is all right.’”

And the first-person narrator of the story can but agree. She does so by making common cause: “‘That is so. It is hazardous for us to be ill, whether we are an affluent, bourgeois madam or a little Rosina in a Parisian artists’ quarter. Most of us know this, and we keep going for the longest time, and we do not surrender. It is, so to speak, our last coin. ’”

In this, and in a number of Cora Sandel’s early texts, there is not much of the strength through standing alone with which the author eventually equips some of her characters. The ‘oldest profession’ is here also the woman’s only profession.

The theme is reiterated and elaborated elsewhere in her writing, particularly in the muted late-night conversations between Liesel and Alberte in the Alberte trilogy. The two women discuss what it means to be a ‘real’ woman, and they search for a forum both for their personal creativity and for the role of mother in this version of womanhood. In these conversations, the author is searching and not in the least bombastic. At this stage, Alberte and Liesel reach compromises with regard to the demands of others and their personal expectations.

In other texts, she might verge on propagandist black-and-white. This is the case in, for example, the story “Mange takk, doctor” (1935; Thank You, Doctor) where, following an abortion, the link between body and money becomes even clearer to the young woman artist. A female ‘we’ is set against a male ‘they’.

Her husband and the male doctor “merge before her into a hostile element”.

Instinct and Need

Although the man is the butt of women’s rancour, irony, and contempt, there are actually a number of sympathetic and pleasant men in Cora Sandel’s books. She is not averse to depicting men who have charm – one of them being the French writer Pierre, with whom adult Alberte has a strong, spiritual relationship. She is also capable of depicting strong sexual attraction between man and woman or between boy and girl, as in, for example, the story “Eksperiment i juni” (1935; Experiment in June), where we read of the young girl:

“For she wanted to be kissed – kissed and kissed. That is enough for her, fills the body with a joy that runs and flows out into the limbs, is in the elbows, in the knees, in the neck. From it she becomes nothing, becomes as if released from herself and gone.”

Portrait of Cora Sandel, c. 1910. Photograph. Private collection

Alberte is also familiar with this urge to be “released from herself and gone”. There is a both strong and almost hidden story of lacking and yearning for love running through all three Alberte books. Alberte’s story of repressed emotion starts off with her relationship to her mother, who rejects her throughout her adolescence; their daily life is one of great distance and coldness between them. Now and then, however, Alberte glimpses “Mama’s true face”. At these moments, memories of an earlier time emerge, of “Mama’s hands, cool and firm, good and safe about her head, of warm kisses from Mama’s mouth, of tender smiles; memories of times long ago when everything had been different.”

When Alberte, still but a teenager, at the end of the first volume of the trilogy attempts, in desperation, to drown herself, two completely different sensations cause her to abandon her project: “something bright and hard, a raging refusal […] a stubborn will to continue […]”, but also an urge: “a hungering uneasiness, that could only be quieted by life itself”.

This can be read as pure will to live and instinct of self-preservation, but it can also be read as a desire to be loved, to love.

Young Alberte’s experience of love and falling in love is extremely limited. She falls for a boy from the capital who visits for the summer, and just the once she lets her brother’s friend, good-looking Cedolf, kiss her when they are on the waterfront. This kiss is her first conspicuous encounter with the erotic, what she calls “insidious and dangerous”. Cedolf emanates a “compelling power”; there is something mysterious about him, “a dark timbre” to his voice.

To Alberte this kiss is far more than a kiss. It is an act of rebellion. The daughter of the district stipendiary magistrate kissing seaman Cedolf is also a social protest against the life she is being forced to live in the lap of plush and porcelain, while she waits to be ‘married off’. It is not until many, many years later, in Paris, when Alberte meets the Danish schoolteacher Veigård, that she again lets these feelings unfold – and falls in love.

This love and Veigård’s subsequent tragic death cause her to open up her emotions. She revisits memories of her parents and of their death, and tries to reconcile herself with the past. She quickly moves in with a Norwegian painter, Sivert Ness. Their relationship is based on loneliness, longing and pure instinct, could almost be said to resemble her relationship with her mother, and is more about need than love. Not even unqualified love of their child is enough to satisfy Alberte’s “hungering uneasiness”.

Perhaps – but this lies beyond the framework of the novel – her new role as writer will fulfil her appetite for life, at least if she can get close to what she, at one point along the way, draws up as an ideal: to “gain possession of both her child and her work!”

Interior with Figures

It has been said that Cora Sandel’s prose verges on playwriting, which is easily corroborated by many of her short stories.

Cora Sandel had a sense for transgressing genre. A number of her prose works have the vigour of drama while, at the same time, the poetic idiom is inherent in the detail, in the use of rhythm and language parallels, and in the imagery. The papers she left behind include poems and drafts of plays.

In the 1930s she was encouraged to write novels – at the time the genre with the highest prestige on the Norwegian book market. However, due to financial and practical considerations, she wrote mostly short stories. Her talent for dramatic-prose is even more evident in the books she wrote after the Second World War, particularly Kranes konditori. In terms of theme, the story about dressmaker Katinka Stordal is no new departure in Cora Sandel’s work. Katinka rebels by going to a café and drinking port with a Swedish casual labourer, Stivhatten, for two days in a row – instead of finishing the dresses for the fine ladies of the little town. In terms of form, however, this story is driven to the extremities. The writer introduces a gossipy, chatty chorus, which through its treatment of the outsider Katinka pushes the reader more and more over to her side. Kranes konditori has much easy humour, but the text is primarily powered by irony, and what is not said carries just as much weight as that which is said.

“The ones who leave? Yes, in modern plays they always leave in the end. I’m going now, they say. I’ve often wondered how they made out once they had left. They cannot live in the north, that much is certain; they cannot take the boats up the coast. They would need at least seventy-five kroner. And that would only get them as far as Trondheim.”

Kranes konditori (1945; Krane’s Café)

She thought she had made up the secondary title “Interiør med figurer” (Interior with Figures) herself, until she noticed that Victoria Benedictsson, whom she held in very high esteem, had used it earlier.

Although Cora Sandel’s publisher, powerful Harald Grieg at Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, reserved the right to call Kranes konditori “a novel”, it was largely something else, which was also obvious when it was dramatised and filmed. It attracted much attention and praise; the Danish poet Paul la Cour, for example, commended the fact that it was “located between two genres”.

She also gave this secondary title to her final book, Kjøp ikke Dondi (1958; The Leech). Both books are set largely in one scenic space, respectively the café and “the large living-room [where] light came from three sides through windows giving on to magnificent views […]”. Both have a limited number of players. Kranes konditori is also divided into a first and a second ‘picture’. In this it can be said that Sandel makes explicit use of painting technique; that she endeavours, as it were, to compose a literary still-life: she places the figures close together and depicts the way in which they are arranged in relation to one another.

Cora Sandel has been called writer of ‘the unsaid’. The underlying irony and the deeper truths between the lines – together with her ability to create low-key but also defiantly optimistic women – make her texts so good.

When Kranes konditori was dramatised for the stage in 1947, and the writer Helge Krog supplied a new middle act, he broke with the original intention: the newly-written middle act is not set in the konditori (café). By showing what Katinka and Stivhatten do at night, between the two ‘pictures’ of the café, he also violated another Sandelian principle – that of not saying everything, of letting certain areas remain unpainted.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch