Reviews

Her Life to Live: Albertine Sarrazin's 'Astragal'

This short novel, rooted in some of the grungiest, grimiest levels of experience, is an affecting parable of spiritual progress.


Astragal

Publisher: New Directions
Length: 186 pages
Author: Albertine Sarrazin
Price: $15.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-04
Amazon

There are author bios and then there are author bios. Try this:

"Albertine Sarrazin (1937-1967) was a French-Algerian writer. At an early age she abandoned her studies and turned to a life of crime and prostitution. She wrote her first two novels in prison and was only twenty-nine when she died."

That’s from the inside back flap of Sarrazin's 1965 novel Astragal, newly reissued by New Directions with an introduction by Patti Smith. It’s more of a grabber than finding out where someone got her MFA—but the real news here is that the book is so good it doesn't end up being overshadowed by the author’s life story.

Sarrazin knew how to start a novel. Astragal opens with a jailbreak, or rather, what looks very much like a failed jailbreak. Anne, the 19-year-old narrator, has just dropped herself from a 30-foot-wall that surrounded the women's prison where she’s been locked up; on landing, she shattered her ankle bone—the astragalus or astragal, in case you’re wondering about that title—and can no longer walk. She manages to drag herself to the side of the nearest road, where, just before all is lost, help arrives in the hulking shape of a passing motorist, Julien, who seems curiously willing to help the mademoiselle in distress.

There’s a reason Julien is so amenable. All through this hallucinatory opening scene, both flashbacks and Anne's hardboiled argot ("I had escaped near Easter, and nothing was rising from the dead") have established her as a tough piece of work; ruthless, amoral, a former petty thief and prostitute with no illusions about the fix she’s in. But she no sooner encounters Julien than the two of them experience a pleasant shock of mutual recognition:

"... long before he said anything, I had recognized Julien. There are certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time: a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm, the waiting for night to act or just to talk, after the uneasy silence of the day."

Anne's only real lovers, we learn, have been other women, and her time turning tricks has basically taught her to despise men. But Julien's membership in the criminal fraternity puts him in another league—and before long his "brotherly" attentions start to have an effect. "Julien was calling me back to men."

A teenage fugitive and her roughneck boyfriend taking it on the lam would seem to be irresistibly cinematic material, but in its first half Astragal is primarily intent on all the things that the movies usually leave out. To put it another way, this is a story about criminals, but it's not a crime novel. The excruciating pain of Anne's recovery and rehabilitation is matched by the excruciating tedium of the time she endures in hospital rooms and the increasingly shabby series of hideouts where Julien stashes her. The escapee appears to have traded one kind of prison for another.

But Julien finally brings Anne to Paris, where she gets back on her feet and the narrative finds its legs, too. By now the couple's affair has evolved into a no-questions-asked arrangement that sees Julien off on long absences where he's pulling heists and tending to other filles. Pressed for cash, meanwhile, Anne returns to making money her way: by hitting the streets. Presumably because Sarrazin knew the life firsthand, Anne's account of hooking dispenses with the sentimentality and the prurient appeal male artists often bring to the subject of prostitution. Here she is back on the job, and back on her back:

"I am absent, submissive, I don't think about anything. I won't even be late for lunch."

The detachment is chilling, but gradually we begin to realize that it’s a protective façade; for Sarrazin's boldest gamble in Astragal is to convince us that Anne is in thrall to an intense inner life, one riven by a kind of romantic, even spiritual yearning.

Initially that yearning is bound up with her previous lover, Rolande, a powerfully evoked presence who never actually appears in the novel. But as Julien's absences grow longer and longer (he even does a stretch in jail), it's evident that he is now the redemptive figure Anne needs to keep herself from teetering into the abyss. Finally, when the two of them reunite and hit the road as a prelude to a decisive getaway, Anne undergoes a humbling epiphany on the beach:

"... a pain in my stomach or the pain in my leg I can put aside and move away from; but here there is no possible drug or dodge... I understand the terrible consistency of loving, and I am mad with pain."

But just as in a classical tragedy, the awakening always comes too late. From the scene on the beach it's only a few pages to Anne's long-deferred rendezvous with fate, in an abrupt climax that's all the more wrenching for being so terse.

This short novel, rooted in some of the grungiest, grimiest levels of experience, is an affecting parable of spiritual progress. Its depiction of an individual's passage to grace amid a lowlife milieu is also inimitably French—as Gallic, you might say, as all the cigarette smoke that wafts from these pages—in a way that places Sarrazin in a long line of cultural heroes. To cite just one obvious reference point, while reading Astragal I was put in mind of Robert Bresson's movie Pickpocket, but other readers may just as plausibly associate Sarrazin with a tradition of literary renegades stretching back to the 19th century.

That makes it all the more appropriate for this new edition to come with the imprimatur of Patti Smith, the passionate advocate for Rimbaud and a host of other stalwarts from the too-cool-for-school school. Smith's sensitive introduction, which describes how she first encountered Astragal in a Village bookstall in 1968 and later clung to a paperback edition for decades, also serves as a bracing reminder of how a good book can surface once and then disappear from sight for a generation.

Here one also wants to hail the translator, Patsy Southgate, whose pungent idiomatic rendering of the original lets us forget that Anne isn't, in fact, a native speaker of English, and to note that Astragal is as beautifully designed as most recent New Directions titles, a pleasure to hold and behold. (Less happily, the scandalous number of typos in the text makes one wish this publisher could take as much trouble with the insides of its books as it does with the exteriors.)

I alluded to the sensational aspects of Sarrazin's life story above, and even a quick search on her name suggests a more-than-passing correspondence between her biography and the events recounted in Astragal. But it would be a disservice to insist on an equivalence between the book and the life—as, evidently, some of its earliest readers did, in 1965. A fierce fictional presence like Anne deserves better than that, as does the woman who created her. Sarrazin's career may have been tragically curtailed, but her legacy is a novel that grateful readers are discovering now, almost 50 years after her death.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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