When the Context Matters More Than the Content- Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel
Last night I finished a book that I liked but didn't love, despite expecting to when I picked it up. (The following commentary will be spoiler-free, I promise.)
It was the second volume in a trilogy I read for Women In Translation Month (#WIT). I loved the first book by Cora Sandel, called Alberta and Jacob. I was taken by the atmosphere, the stillness, the boredom that surrounded the teenaged Alberta as she was growing up on the Gulf of Finland. Her constant fight against the blistering cold made me ache along with her. I could hear the sounds of her shoes crushing the icy snow under her feet as she walked around her little village, trying to stave off boredom while she escaped the lack of physical or familial warmth in her home. Her parents were poor, and to save money, they didn't keep the house as warm as other places in their small village. So she went looking for heat. But because of the constraints of polite society, she had to act as if she wanted to be with other people. I suspect that if her home were properly warm (and kind), she probably would have been just fine to stay and read in her room.
I closed that first volume with Alberta posting for jobs far away- anything to get out. Imagine my surprise when I opened the second volume, Alberta and Freedom, only to find that we have leaped forward several years. Alberta now lives in Paris and is a nude figure model for an Englishman painter. With scant background details, we are dropped into the monotony of her life in Paris- a life of little to do, little money to make, little to eat, a little room rented on the top floor of cheap hotels in Montparnasse, and a little social circle of artists. So while her milieu has changed, she is not necessarily meeting the moment fully. She will tell people that she is studying French, but people will say that her French is fantastic as an indicator that she should do something more with her time, let alone her life. She is constantly being nudged in the direction of men, but not only is she shy and reserved, but she is also not described by herself or anyone as anything other than plain.
I like Alberta's sense of self. I like her bookishness and her clear-eyed understanding of her place in the world. She seems to be an astute observer of the people, relationships, and world around her. She is a bohemian in the truest sense- not a caricature of women in that scene but in the ideals of living simply, living among artists, and caring about art. When desperate for money, she will sell a story she writes up quickly for a newspaper or magazine but never establishes a routine or pattern that will keep her employed or give her a continual revenue stream. She exists. She simply exists. And she exists independently- without the support of a man or a relationship. She has her girlfriends who form a bond of support and help to each other.
And here is where the context matters more than the content. As much as I admired the story, I was frustrated with Alberta. We know of her extraordinary intellect and see her potential. Maybe it's the American puritan work ethic instilled in me that made me wanted her to leverage her skills into something not just to fill her time, but fill her stomach, warm her toes, and also to allow her to live in better conditions. Her ennui and lackadaisical attitude to her life and future were exasperating to me. Even her friends would comment on wanting her to find something to do or to settle down with someone. Everyone had an opinion because she seemed so unmoored, unrooted, and ultimately at risk for calamity.
But as I thought of the book more, I opened it back up to see when it was written after I had finished it. I was shocked that it was initially published in 1931. The type of material here was quite revolutionary for its time- and even a few decades after. Some of the things Cora Sandel writes about in this volume would enter spoiler territory, so I will avoid telling too much here. But suffice it to say, the freedom Alberta has and the price she and her female friends pay for that way of living are detailed out in the pages of this volume. While it's not always a pretty picture, it must have sparked a million flickers of hope in Norwegian women who read it. It wasn't translated into English until 1963 with the translation from Elizabeth Rokkan. But it does stand as a remarkable piece of literature for its time, even though I didn't love it as I thought I would.
(Image above is from Ed van der Elsken's book Love on the Left Bank, from 1950. It features the fascinating Vali Meyers, an artist in her own right who was a bohemian living in Paris at the time of these photos, but decades after Cora Sandel had Alberta living in Montparnasse. I am using this image because I can't help but imagine that women reading this book would have been like these ladies, flocking to Paris to get a taste of some of that freedom for themselves.)