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Figurative Space in the Novels of Cora Sandel (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 84, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 120-122 | 10.1353/scd.2012.0010

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What is the significance of space in Cora Sandel's work? This question takes center stage in Ellen Rees's latest book. Her point of departure is that although Sandel's work has been studied from topographic perspectives, no one has made "a meticulous, close reading of the specificity and signifying quality of the various types of spaces (physical locations) that Sandel depicts" (10). Rees aims to do such a study, and her book is indeed a meticulous reading of the figurative functions of spaces in Sandel's five novels, and as such it is a study that contributes new knowledge to the understanding of her work.

Before getting to the spaces of Sandel's novels, however, Rees critically reads previous biographical studies of Sandel and provides a new account of her life story. Sandel's work has often been read as autobiographical, but by showing how little we actually know about Sandel's life, Rees demonstrates the inadequacy of such an approach. Against this background Rees's own readings of Sandel's novels come across as much more fruitful. The next three chapters deal with the Alberte trilogy. Rees argues that three themes are recurrent and interlinked through the trilogy: class identity, sexuality, and artistic production. They are treated in different ways in each novel, and Rees shows that they are connected to various spaces.

Chapter 2 deals with Alberte og Jakob, which is dominated by bourgeois and proletarian spaces. The novel has been read as a coming-of-age portrayal, but Rees argues that Sandel turns this genre into something new. She does this partly through her use of the uncanny, which in turn connects her to modernism. Rees focuses on two aspects of the uncanny: "first, that the uncanny is ... both a product of and an indicator of modernity; and secondly, that the uncanny is largely a bourgeois phenomenon" (44). It is a sense of bourgeois uneasiness produced in the meeting between classes. Throughout this chapter, Rees demonstrates how Alberte's striving to break free from her bourgeois class background is interlinked with the uncanny by focusing on various spaces that bring out the uncanny, such as furniture, windows, the wharves, and the landscape.

In Alberte og friheten, Alberte lives in Paris, and the predominant spaces in this novel are the rented room, the atelier, and the urban street. As Rees shows, these are spaces that allow for penetration, which is this novel's main theme. Alberte's fear of penetration is both literal and metaphorical, and the penetrable spaces mirror "Alberte's exploration of her sexuality and engagement with the various challenges to gender identity that were prevalent at the time in which the novel is set" (75). Rees skillfully traces various penetrable spaces and gazes in the novel, but she also shows how the text itself is structured by a kind of narrative penetration, in which various passages and textual elements permeate, or infiltrate, each other.

The last novel of the trilogy, Bare Alberte, is about Alberte's striving to find the right place—literally. Rees uses the metaphor of the oneiric house—a house of dream-memory, a symbolic return to a dream of childhood— in order to map out Alberte's trajectory through the novel. This journey goes from a house of hopes in Bretagne, through the Paris studio where her relationship with her husband is falling apart, and home to Norway, to a kind of sanctuary house, where Alberte can finally write and might be able to finish her manuscript. The sanctuary is intimately linked to Alberte's writing project and could be seen as a room of one's own, in Virginia Woolf 's sense. Rees brings out the importance of this journey by emphasizing that the search for a sanctuary drives Alberte's wandering throughout the entire trilogy.

The last two chapters of the book deal with the novels Kranes konditori and Kjøp ikke Dondi, respectively. While the Alberte trilogy shows some faith in literature, these two novels are more pessimistic. The narrative structures of Kranes konditori and Kjøp ikke Dondi demonstrate a further break with realism and traditional novelistic conventions, and metafiction is used to bring out...

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