Albertine Sarrazin, translated from the French by Patsy Southgate
192 pages, $15.95
Cruel fortune followed author Albertine Sarrazin. Abandoned as a child, she faced abuse, a teenage life of theft and prostitution in Paris, prison, and, after a daring escape, lingering injuries. Dead before the age of thirty, Sarrazin was at the height of her sudden literary fame—two novels, written while incarcerated, found publication in 1965; she and her husband, Julien, another career criminal, had settled down—when a bungled kidney surgery ended her life. Known for her defiance, her dangerous existence, her mistrust of authority, she expired in July of 1967, not via dodgy escapades, but in supposed safe hands.
Astragal, the superb novel that helped make Sarrazin a star, recently reissued by New Directions, parses through some of the author’s unfortunate kismet. Semi-autobiographical, the short narrative concerns Anne, a tough nineteen-year-old thief serving a seven year jail sentence. The novel opens with Anne leaping over a prison wall. Plummeting several stories, she lands hard on her foot, shattering her ankle. Unable to run, or to hide, Anne is left to the mercy of Julien, a helpful drifter, who scoops her from the ground and shuttles her from one safe house to the next, weaving her around France. As Anne’s injury slowly heals—it takes some time before a doctor tends to her—she ends up at the Paris home of Julien’s acquaintance, Annie. It is here that Anne realizes her true love for Julien, her savior. Her heart melts for the man, who, himself a criminal on the lam, wanders in and out of her narrative, popping in for brief visits before disappearing for weeks, if not longer. The closer Anne gets to walking, to leaving Annie, the hideaways, to rejoining the world of prostitutes and thieves, to being independent, the more her love chains itself to Julien. He is a force she cannot escape. So she waits for his return, a prisoner able to roam, yet unable to flee.
The rhythmic quality of Sarrazin’s prose—expertly translated by the late Patsy Southgate—provides most of Astragal’s brilliance. This rhythm works on two levels, both in the motif of imprisonment that bounces along throughout the narrative, and also on the basic level of sentence. Speaking first to the motif, one need not look far to witness it on display. Anne, hoping to break free from prison and to find her female lover at the beginning of the story, instead breaks only her talus (or astragalus) bone. The result: she cannot walk; she cannot hide; she must rely on others to survive. This leads to physical imprisonment, as Julien drops her in three different safe houses for protection. Not only can she not move, but she cannot be seen by the public, either. She is a veiled being, a ghost to the outside world, able to control very little (“I double-lock myself into my room; it consoles and liberates me to bolt the door of my jail myself,” Anne proclaims, only somewhat convincingly). And even when Anne’s ankle does heal, when she finally is able to move on from life with Annie, panoptic paranoia and carnal desire prevent her from achieving true freedom. As she works the streets, every face turns into a potential nemesis, as Anne claims: “…I am frightened and leery of everybody. The thought of getting caught never leaves me: I learn to look it in the face, I tame it, I never chase it away.” And Julien, often hovering but rarely around, leaves her in an emotional state of limbo. Gone is Anne’s longing to find her girlfriend. Now all that matters is happiness with Julien. While Anne thinks, “…the constant thought of Julien conceals and protects me,” certain questions arise: How long must she wait for him to return? How far can she truly stray without him?
That Sarrazin continually finds new forms of imprisonment for Anne thematically binds Astragal’s otherwise episodic narrative: in order to move forward, Anne must constantly look back. On the basic level of sentence, Sarrazin also uses the rhythm of language to drive the pace of Anne’s story, often employing long, patterned passages to sweep the reader into the mindset of her protagonist. These extended sentences sometimes work to generate an accelerated effect, as in when Anne describes the pain from her freshly broken ankle:
“Circuits had been formed, cadences: in my ankle, suddenly, something would wake up hissing, like water spurting from a broken pipe, more springs would start gushing, then they would all run together and flow insidiously through the length of my body. Or else, the pain would gather into a ball above my heel, slowly twisting and winding itself up; when the ball was finished—I now could tell the exact moment—it would burst with a sensation of light; and the flashes would shoot through my foot and explode, in stars that quickly went out, in the ends of my toes.”
The intensity of this moment, the pure jolt of the experience, exists thanks to Sarrazin’s choice to include only one full stop while expressing the agony of Anne’s injury. The words steamroll forward, building momentum from every previous syllable. Astragal‘s story progresses through a constant reference to what has already occurred. Conversely, at other points in the novel, Sarrazin employs long sentences for an opposite effect, implying almost a dreamlike, lyrical, internal quality to the narrative, like in this description of cigarette smoke:
“I think of the warmth of the smoke which flows, liquid, with a slight bitter edge, into your throat and chest, making your blood tingle; I think of all the ashtrays I’ve emptied in my life; tortured by my cravings, I sit there, unable to care about what Annie’s saying, my eyes riveted on her pants.”
Here, nearly every word builds on what precedes it: “smoke” becomes “liquid,” “throat” becomes “chest” and “blood.” “Think” is repeated twice, and these thoughts turn to torture.
When Astragal was first published, Sarrazin’s style drew comparisons to Jean Genet, another criminal turned author, and while that link is valid—both loiter in the realm of the felon; both write with a poetic flair—in hindsight Sarrazin’s work may best be associated with the 1950s and 1960s cinema of the French New Wave. Her long, rhythmic writing mirrors the long takes of Goddard and Truffaut. Her rebel personality slots in comfortably with the youthful exuberance of the movement. And just as Michel in Breathless finds a persona in the guise of Humphrey Bogart, so too does Sarrazin discover her double in Anne. Not only that, but both Anne and Julien have their own variations in the characters of Annie and Jean, one of Anne’s johns. Annie, a former prostitute, is what Anne could grow into, while Jean—wealthy, lonesome, desperate—allows Anne to take full advantage of his generosity, moving her into his home with the full knowledge that she only loves Julien. Where Anne’s true love is often distant, Jean is the opposite: always there, always willing to bend over backward. He is everything she wants, only in the wrong package. Such is the life of Anne throughout Astragal: a negative for every positive, a cruel twist always waiting to pounce.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.