(New Directions, 2013)
In 1968, a 21-year-old Patti Smith finds a copy of Astragal in the 8th Street Bookshop. On the cover is a young woman—the author—with close-cropped hair à la Jean Seberg. Smith buys the book and immediately falls in love with its author, Albertine Sarrazin. Astragal, one of Sarrazin’s two autobiographical novels written in jail, was first published in 1965 in France to great commercial success. Sarrazin became an immediate celebrity and the book found a tentative place in a literary tradition headed by Jean Genet, the archetypal rogue writer. But by the mid-’70s Sarrazin was no longer being read; her work was relegated to the confines of scholarly appraisals, which focused on Sarrazin’s representation of the female prison experience.
Fortunately, Sarrazin is being resurrected. In France, Astragal was republished in 2011, alongside a biography of the late writer. Now, New Directions has reissued Patsy Southgate’s translation of Astragal, with a glowing, highly personal introduction by Patti Smith. In it, Smith pieces together Sarrazin’s biography: born and abandoned in 1937 in Algiers, Albertine Damien is adopted, relocated to Aix-en-Provence, then winds up behind bars for armed robbery at the tender age of 18. She escapes, meets Julien Sarrazin, love of her life, gets caught, escapes again, makes ends meet through prostitution and petty theft, is caught again, until she is finally released from jail, but dies tragically of a botched kidney surgery, at the age of 29, in 1967, only two years after the publication of Astragal.
In her introduction, Smith also presents Astragal as an aestheticized object, which she has come to associate with her own rise to fame and rebellious femininity. She remembers: “In 1976, as I traveled the world, I carried Astragal in a small metal suitcase, filled with sweat-stained T-shirts, talismans, and the same black jacket I wore with careless defiance on the cover of Horses.” Smith alludes to the book’s literary achievements, but doesn’t exactly name them. So what is this Astragal, beyond its talismanic quality, beyond its writer’s compelling biography?
There are the facts of Astragal, which are easy enough to pin down: the protagonist, Anne, 19 years old, escapes from the prison school where she has been serving a seven-year sentence. She jumps from a 30-foot wall and injures the astragalus bone in her ankle. She drags herself to the side of the highway, is picked up by a small-time criminal, Julien, who hides her out in his family home. Anne is moved from hiding place to hiding place, “from a bed to a car seat, from a car seat to a bed, to be put down, lugged around at will by friendly men and strangers.” Anne waits around for her Julien to come find her at night, her obsessive love a new kind of jail sentence. But beyond the facts of injury, of physical communion, the feeling of the book is difficult to pin down. In Astragal, every bit of reality is destabilized by its protagonist’s gaze: both compulsive and myopic. The prose is unruly, peculiar, funny, obsessive, so wholly felt in each of its facets, that reality becomes detached, overlaid, prismatic.
It is impossible, in reading Astragal, not to be reminded of the fact that Sarrazin wrote the book from the confines of a prison cell. Anne’s gaze is fixed; it can roam out to touch other characters, the streets of Paris, Julien’s tawny arms; but it swiftly returns to the self, to the confining experience of Anne’s own broken body. Confinement and yearning can be sensed at the cellular, even molecular level of the prose:
“I looked at my foot, black and ghastly, my foot which would be thrown into the garbage can. And suddenly I realized how much each cell, each drop of my blood meant to me, how much I was cell and blood, multiplied and divided to infinity in the whole of my body.”
Tracking the characters in Astragal highlights a similar emphasis on cells multiplying and dividing. Anne is taken in first by Nini, then Annie—two women who bear an uncanny resemblance to the protagonist, not only in name, but in physical appearance, occupation, in their own experience of criminality and confinement. In life, Sarrazin herself also lived as Anne-Marie, and Anick, to name a few of her aliases. Perhaps the greatest difficulty in reading Astragal, then, is to be confronted with the growing knowledge that all attempts at escape are futile. Anne’s every body part has been inscribed with the experience of institutionalization, the fact of “being weighed, measured, tested,” and “assigned to a group.” The world outside the “rectangle” of the prison cell can only present a series of further imprisonments.
Even in the couple of years Albertine Sarrazin had to appreciate her books’ success, she writes of her struggle with being “classified and reclassified” by the public and critics—another set of judges and wardens. With Astragal’s English reissue and Patti Smith’s new introduction, there is the hope, perhaps slight, that Sarrazin will find a new audience and, with it, a new kind of freedom.