A woman's life - poignantly depicted in an absorbing fictional trilogy; The Alberta Trilogy: Alberta and Jacob, Alberta and Freedom, Alberta Alone, by Cora Sandel. Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan. Introduced by Solveig Nellinge. Afterword by Linda Hunt . Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 3 volumes. 798 pp. $15.95 in cloth, $7.95 in paperback.
CORA Sandel's fictional trilogy about the making of an independent woman was originally published during the years 1926-1939 and has long since been recognized as a classic in its author's native Norway. The work first appeared in English translation in 1962, and it was reissued in 1980 by the Women's Press of London and now by Ohio University Press.
Sandel, whose real name was Sara Fabricus, led a long and productive life ( 1880-1974) as a novelist and painter, climaxed by her later years in Paris when admirers clustered around her and initiated the critical praise that would culminate in her present status as a kind of guiding spirit of the feminist movement.
From what we know of Sandel's life, the ''Alberta Trilogy'' - her major work - is probably highly autobiographical. Its first volume ''Alberta and Jacob'' ( 1926) describes Alberta Selmer's adolescence in a small, stifling northern Norwegian town, in the bosom of an unimaginative petit-bourgeois family. Her father (''the Magistrate'') is a lumbering martinet, her mother a nit-picking near-neurotic. Her brother Jacob, a pleasure-seeking underachiever, is given the education Alberta yearns for but is denied. The exterior climate is a pressure chamber of cold and darkness. Alberta's mind busies itself with hopeful fantasies of escape from this imprisoning world.
The book is an accretion of negative responses to inhibiting circumstances and of gravitational pulls toward different ways of life. The very furnishings in Selmers's drab household seem antagonistic; Alberta promises herself ''to have few possessions.'' She suffers guilt over her lack of religious feeling and her vacillating affection for her parents, who, Sandel fairly points out, are simply tired and disappointed people, not monsters. Her realization that they won't permit her to ''apply for a post'' but hope instead to marry her off conspires with the influences of artistic and free-spirited friends - and Alberta's ''new unrest and . . . longing for knowledge'' push her toward the unstated decision with which this volume ends: she will leave home, and seek to become her own woman.
''Alberta and Freedom'' (1931) describes her life in Paris just before World War I as an artist's model, beginning writer, and, gradually, a mature sexual being. The book contains a convincing evocation of this strange new world and successfully sketches a number of vivid minor characters - but they're too often mouthpieces for assorted theories, and this volume is something of a grind.
In ''Alberta Alone'' (1939), the narrative curve is a movement away from everyone and everything that exerts a claim on Alberta - her artist husband, Sivert, her young son, and her remaining social and sexual inhibitions. An affair with another woman's husband - a sensitive man who encourages her artistic yearnings - reshapes Alberta's character; so does her relationship (once the family has moved back to Norway, also Sivert's homeland) with a mysteriously placid, beneficent farm woman. The trilogy concludes with Alberta's final leave-taking - carrying the manuscript for her first novel, determined to ''go under or become so bitterly strong that nothing could hurt her any more.''
This is a rich and impressive work that's riddled with imperfections and overemphases. Volume 1 is magni-ficent; its successors are a real falling-off, though they have their great moments. The idea of ''obstacles to artistic success for women'' created by uncomprehending men is argued ad nauseam, and the dialogue is littered with bald thematic statements like the (male) complaint made to Alberta that ''you live in perpetual opposition and believe it to be freedom, independence.'' Sandel's characters become so fixed in their postures as representatives of conflicting ideas that they never quite take on the eccentric individual integrity her flexible style and her flair for finding revealing incidents seem to promise. It's as if she can create anything she wants to but can't bear to let her characters breathe or fuss or misbehave.
And yet there are many, many great things here. Alberta's hesitant adversary position within her repressive family is beautifully captured through a patient assemblage of evocative details. We watch Alberta surreptitiously taking extra firewood and coal for her bedroom stove, doing feeble battle against the overpowering constant cold; hoping against hope that new clothes may make her beautiful; fearing the annual ordeal of the Selmers's Christmas gathering at which she's always an awkward outsider. We really feel the killing, slow pace of her life, the dulling repetitions and disappointments.
In Volume 2 the scenes become longer and fuller, with the growth of Alberta's personal confidence and understanding of her place in her newly chosen world. When we reach ''Alberta Alone,'' the narrative units are extended, chapter-length scenes. Thus does the novel's structure mirror the changes in its heroine's character. It's a triumph of intelligent craftsmanship.
But what most readers will remember longest are the images that fill these books - sharp, clear renderings of sights and sounds, showing both a keen sensitivity to landscape and weather and an almost preternatural sense of how people are formed by and respond to their surroundings. Sometimes we're struck by an uncannily vivid scenic description - like the following (which is worthy of Flaubert): ''Windows stood open everywhere. Curtains were carried inwards by the breeze, the hammer blows from the shipyard were echoed in the rooms. When they ceased, the cataracts roared evenly, now closer, now further away. The scents of tar, cod-liver oil, and sea shifted with the wind.'' Elsewhere, we're propelled toward greater understanding of Sandel's people by momentary glimpses during which their inner essences seem revealed.
One example is a haunting early scene in which Mrs. Selmer, playing the piano , is seen at a distance, in half-shadow - and, for an instant, her daughter's fears and resentments disappear (''She looked so small and so inexpressibly lonely out there in the darkness, her shawl over her shoulders, sitting between her two candles, that something in Alberta melted and she was overcome by great tenderness for Mama'').
In its best moments, the Alberta trilogy offers what must be one of the most complete portrayals of a woman's life that exist in modern fiction. Sandel's delineation of her heroine's ingrown, hungry sensibility is a feat of characterization comparable to such better-known creations as George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke and Doris Lessing's Anna Wulf, perhaps even Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. Some readers are bound to feel that the trilogy eventually breaks down into a feminist tract, but there's much more to this accomplished and absorbing work than special pleading: It conveys the quality of a life, and it is a book for readers of all persuasions.