Friday, 12 June 2015

Book Review: Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel
Summer days are long in the North, but unfortunately where there is light there is shadow too. The more reviving and cheerful the warm season may be close to the Arctic Circle the more dazing and depressing the cold and dark winters can be. For the teenage protagonist of Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel the pleasures of summer are few and too quickly past to make her forget the chill and the dimness of winter which use to weigh heavily on her soul. However, it’s not just the inclement climate in one of the northernmost towns of Norway that makes Alberta feel miserable. The always tense atmosphere at home, constant pecuniary troubles and the necessity to keep up the appearance of a happy bourgeois family in a small town add to her increasing desperation that separates her from her family and society altogether. 

Cora Sandel is the pen name of the Norwegian writer and painter Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius who was born in Kristiania (today: Oslo), Norway, in December 1880. In 1892 financial problems forced the family to move to Tromsø in northern Norway where she started painting. Early in the new century she moved to Paris where she worked as a painter and supported her family writing short stories for Norwegian magazines. Cora Sandel’s first book, the semi-autobiographical novel Alberta and Jacob (Alberte og Jakob), was published only in 1926, though. It was an immediate and big success in her country and encouraged her to write two sequels, Alberta and Freedom (Alberte og friheten: 1931) and Alberta Alone (Bare Alberte: 1939), forming the so-called Alberta Trilogy. Apart from several short story collections the author wrote two more novels, namely Krane’s Café (Kranes konditori: 1945/46) and The Leech (Kjøp ikke Dondi [Don’t Buy Dondi]: 1958), and translated La Vagabonde by Colette into Norwegian. Cora Sandel died in Uppsala, Sweden, in April 1974.

Already from the beginning it becomes clear that the siblings Alberta and Jacob live in a cold environment in more than just one respect. It’s winter in the unnamed North-Norwegian seaport town – presumably the author’s Tromsø of the late nineteenth century – and teenage Alberta suffers terribly under the cold that makes her body stiff and her mind numb from morning till night when she can finally slip back into her cosy bed. Her greatest pleasure on winter days is to drink boiling hot coffee from the stove to warm her from inside whenever she gets a chance. Her father is the town’s magistrate and expected to cultivate a life-style befitting his station, but behind the façade the family is hard up because of debts that he made long ago when the family was still living in the capital. To her mother she is a big disappointment. Not only is Alberta timid and silent, her mother also reproaches her for her lack of care in making herself up and calls her terribly plain, sometimes even in front of others. In addition, the girl is bored and without perspective being confined to life at home and within the rather restricted limits of her social circle since she has been compelled to leave school when her younger brother Jacob needed expensive tutoring to be promoted. Both siblings suffer under the cold, even hostile relations between their parents which often lead to skirmishes making the mother dissolve in lamentations and tears while the father pours himself a drink from the whisky decanter. Of course, nobody outside the closest family is supposed to know any of this and even Alberta is forced to lead a double life of make believe in public. Only her brother Jacob has the courage to show his true face to the world and to seek a way out from the desultory atmosphere of home. In the end he is even allowed to leave school and to join the merchant navy… while Alberta is doomed to stay behind alone with their parents and without hope of being able to fend off the usual fate of her sex, i.e. of passing her days trapped in the monotony of married life and motherhood.

In Alberta and Jacob a third-person narrator shows the deep emotional struggles of adolescent Alberta who is just coming of age in a bourgeois environment that sets great importance to social conventions at the cost of authenticity and human warmth. The shy girl is a keen observer and becomes ever more aware of the ambiguity and hypocrisy all around. And she feels that she doesn’t fit in, moreover that she doesn’t really wish to fit in, but unlike her younger brother Jacob lacks courage as well as opportunity to follow her own way. Even at home she is always lonely, always cold, and atmospheric as well as meticulous images of Arctic landscape and the small town perfectly mirror her emotional state in the cycle of seasons. Also the fact that father and mother are talked of only as “the Magistrate” and “Mrs. Selmer” (except in direct speech, of course) intensifies the notion of isolation and desolation enveloping the girl. All in all, there doesn’t happen much in the course of this novel, a fact which still more emphasises the monotony of the girl’s life and her hopeless situation. The author tells the semi-autobiographical story of Alberta in a language that is clear and precise even in translation and that often shows subtle irony between the lines. The general tone of the novel is quiet which may make it feel boring to some, but at the same time it’s deeply personal and touching although there is a third-person narrator as a go-between. As for me, I enjoyed the read.

Being in my mid-forties I’m not usually drawn to coming-of-age novels, but I spent some pleasurable, even though also melancholic or at least contemplative hours with Alberta and Jacob by Cora Sandel. I was surprised to find that the author's work is part of the Scandinavian literary canon since it is virtually unknown in the German-speaking as well as the English-speaking world. Her debut novel definitely deserves more attention… and my recommendation.

* * * * * review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category 20th Century Classic.

»»» see my sign-up post with the complete reading list.


it is another review of a book written by a woman for Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!, too.

»»» please read my sign-up post to know more.

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