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.