My rating: two gender dilemmas out of five
At 98 pages, George Moore’s Albert Nobbs is a sliver of a novella. That’s why I picked it up in the first place. I was trolling the shelves of my local public library and looking for something I could finish in about a weekend, and this book’s thin black and orange spine jumped out at me. Mostly because it seemed to have two authors’ names but no book title.
I slipped it off the shelf and was immediately stared down, on the cover, by a face that looked really familiar. Is that Robin Williams in the black tuxedo? No . . . it’s Glenn Close, dressed like a fancy waiter and flanked by Mia Wasikowska and the hard-jawed Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But why is Glenn Close dressed like a man?*
Curious, I flipped the book over and read the blurb on the back.
It’s a fair bet that if I get more than three lines into a book’s back-cover elevator pitch, it would have to sound pretty awful for me not to give it a try. In this case, I made it all the way through to the last sentence: “Albert Nobbs is a moving a startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.”
So I took it home and I read it.
Albert Nobbs is not a modern book. According to the copyright page, it was originally published in 1918, but even without looking for the date, the novella’s age is obvious from the first page. The vocabulary of the author and the manners and expectations of his characters place this in the past, but so too does the way it was written.
We have become accustomed to certain conventions in modern fiction — for example, that the dialogue of two conversing characters starts into a new paragraph when the speaker changes — that are absent from Albert Nobbs. For example, dialogue isn’t placed in quotation marks, and entire conversations between two and three characters are crammed together into single, two-page paragraphs. At times, I had to study the text closely to decipher which lines were spoken by which characters and which were thought rather than said.
The story proper is set up within a frame which, in my opinion, is entirely pointless. In the first chapter, we hear one man relaying to another man a childhood memory of the Morrison Hotel, wherein the fictional listener and factual reader alike are introduced to Albert Nobbs, the most respected and professional waiter at this high-class hotel.
One night, Albert Nobbs is veritably forced into sharing his room — indeed, sharing his bed — with a well-known and well-liked itinerant painter, Hubert Page. That night, Hubert discovers the secret Albert has kept for a decade: Albert is really a woman. This isn’t really a spoiler. The reader learns this on page 14, on the last page of the first chapter.
The rest of the book is concerned with Albert’s internal struggle to maintain her place in society while for the first time dreaming about and taking steps toward finding a peaceful, rewarding domestic life. She begins by “courting” a young woman who the reader knows from the beginning is a bad choice — which makes it difficult, as a reader, to hold any hope for Albert’s future. And, indeed, there is none. No twist ending. No redemption. No denouement at all, as the story line doesn’t so much arc as gently and evenly sink into darkness.
Albert Nobbs might have been “moving and startlingly frank” in its day, but by today’s standards, it’s tame to the point of tiresome. Literary academics and lovers of early-twentieth-century American fiction will find something to enjoy here, as might those with a particular interest in gender roles and self-identification. Most, though, will find it entirely forgettable.
I will, however, see whether my public library has a copy of the movie I can check out. This might be one of those few instances in which the movie is better than the book.
*Glenn Close played the role of Albert Nobbs in an off-broadway adaptation of the novel early in her career. She reprised the role in a film version 29 years later in 2011, hence the cover image of Glenn, Mia, and Aaron.