One of the joys of travelling, for me, is discovering the literature of foreign authors. Like Norway’s Cora Sandel. “She has a place to herself among the finest contemporary writing,” deemed The Guardian. “A masterpiece,” The Observer called her first novel Alberta and Jacob. Her novels, says The Paris Review, “aesthetically and politically, count as feminist classics.” The thing is Cora wasn’t her real name. And she really wanted to be a painter. So, it was with great delight when I discovered the Perspektivet Museum in Tromsø, located in the building where Cora’s family rented an apartment, had an exhibition celebrating her life and work.
Cora’s novels about sexuality, class identity and artistic production are often considered highly biographical, so I’ll start by telling you about her life.
Cora Sandel’s real name was Sara Fabricius. She was born in 1880 in what is now Oslo, but when she was twelve, her father, a naval commander, moved the family to Tromsø, a remote coastal port between the Arctic Circle and North Cape. Plain and shy, Sara was admonished by her vain and beautiful mother. Frustrated by the rigid limitations placed on girls and women from respectable families, she turned, with some support from her father, to art.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Magellan and I looked at Sara’s paintings at the Perspektivet Museum in a small room, what may have once been a bedroom, an intimacy of space complementary to her art. I looked for clues to Sara’s restlessness in the family photographs.
In 1906 at the age of twenty-five after the death of both her parents and with a little financial assistance from an uncle, Sara fled to Paris. There she lived a pernicious life for fifteen years. She learned French from newspapers and novels and enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, the alma mater of Paul Gauguin and Camille Claudel. Influenced by the work of Cezanne, she began painting portraits and still lifes and spent a few years in Florence. In 1913 she married the Swedish sculptor Anders Jönsson with whom she had a son, Erik. The obligations of motherhood stopped her from painting.
Like Pessoa, a writer I discovered through a trip to Portugal, Sara began jotting down ideas and sentences on scraps of paper and storing them in a trunk. Reluctantly (for Sara), Anders insisted they leave Paris and move to Sweden. The couple separated soon after and later divorced. Erik was sent to boarding school and Sara began a life of solitude, of dedication to writing under her pseudonym, Cora Sandel. (Pessoa too, published under what he called heteronyms, about 75 of them.)
It wasn’t until we returned from Norway that I read Alberta and Jacob. But at the museum that Sunday afternoon, I wondered about Sara’s choice of a new name. Maybe she selected Cora because it’s a variant of Corinna, which in the Greek language means “maiden.” Sandel in the Swedish language means “sand” and “el” can turn the meaning into “sandy hill.” A maiden living on an unstable surface?
Alberta and Jacob was published in 1926 when she was forty-six years old, the first of a trilogy with Alberta and Freedom in 1931 and Alberta Alone in 1939. The Alberta trilogy chronicles a young woman’s psychological growth into maturity, freedom and independence, following Alberta Selmer from her frustrated adolescence in northern Norway to life as a penniless bohemian in left-bank Paris, a sexual relationship, motherhood (Alberta Alone is said to be one of the first novels to deal with the intense love, boredom and confinement women can feel when raising their children) and a return to a hardscrabble and bleak life in Norway where she eventually commits to becoming an author.
“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,” writes Emma Garman in The Paris Review. Her writing, which The Christian Science Monitor called “one of the most complete portrayals of a woman’s life that exist in modern fiction,” was influenced by independent French women of the time, especially the writer Colette and the scientist Marie Curie.
Here is an example, precise and psychologically acute, that I noted from Alberta and Jacob:
It seemed as if all the old, unpainted wood down there had stored the warmth and was giving it back, now that the air had turned cold and autumnal. Framed by the grey, it looked greener than ordinary grass. Behind the small windowpanes fuschia and calceolaria glowed. A lapful of summer had hidden away down here and been left behind.
Alberta sat down and sank into vacancy. Beneath her the sea busied itself, lapping round the posts with gentle little gurgles. The tide was coming in.
Beneath her own weariness and despondency a stubborn will to continue, a hungering uneasiness, that could only be quieted by life itself; that could intoxicate itself with small, fluttering verses on a clear evening in spring or a moonlit night in August, yet hankered restlessly and desperately for something else, something undreamt of, far distant and obscure.
And another describing Alberta trying to make ends meet working as an artist’s model in Paris:
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.
And here is Cora on the writing process and coming up with the right sequence of words:
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.
Cora refused to give her publisher an author photo or be interviewed on television. Renowned immediately as a major literary talent and an important feminist voice, she wore dark glasses to avoid being recognized. When her publisher threw a twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, Cora declined with these words: “It is my fate not to be present.”
Good for her I say. Today, it seems to me, novels have become increasingly financialized, success depending on high-powered marketing as much as authorial talent. “I have always been of the opinion,” Cora said, “that no more needs to be expected of an author than she should write books.” Imagine how angry she was in 1941 when her trilogy came out in new editions while Norway was under Nazi occupation and her publishers—without consulting her—removed passages criticizing the Germans’ conduct during World War I.
Along with about sixty short stories, Cora published two more novels. Krane’s Café, her tribute to Tromsø and her personal favorite, was adapted for the stage, film and television and staged frequently in Norway. Her writing wasn’t available in English until 1962. At that time Cora was living as a recluse in Sweden, supported by a life’s stipend issued in 1940 from the Norwegian government. After her death in 1974 a second renaissance of her work occurred in the 1980s thanks to The Women’s Press in the UK and Ohio University Press.
When Cora’s son, Erik Jönsson passed away in 2016, he donated a large collection of objects, documents and photographs along with twenty-five paintings and two sketches to the Perspektivet Museum.
I especially like the Perspektivet’s vision:
to be courageous, curious and relevant, and to treat human beings as the central focus of our attention.
Garman, Emma. “Feminize Your Canon: Cora Sandel.” The Paris Review. August 5, 2019. How fortuitous this article, from which I learned so much about Cora, was published weeks before we left for Norway.