Albertine Sarrazin - a cult rebel classic. Fear of capture, memories of her prison cell, claustrophobia in her hideaways: every detail is fiercely felt.

Astragal - Serpent's Tail Classics (Paperback)

Albertine Sarrazin, Astragal, Trans. by Patsy Southgate, New Directions, 2013.

Patti Smith on the long-lost novel she’s carried with her for almost 40 years.

As if the reader were riding shotgun, this intensely vivid novel captures a life on the lam. “L’astragale” is the French word for the ankle bone Albertine Sarrazin’s heroine Anne breaks as she leaps from her jail cell to freedom. As she drags herself down the road, away from the prison walls, she is rescued by Julien, himself a small-time criminal, who keeps her hidden. They fall in love. Fear of capture, memories of her prison cell, claustrophobia in her hideaways: every detail is fiercely felt.
Astragal burst onto the French literary scene in 1965; its fiery and vivacious style was entirely new, and Sarrazin became a celebrity overnight. But as fate would have it, Sarrazin herself kept running into trouble with the law, even as she became a star. She died from a botched surgery at the height of her fame. Sarrazin’s life and work (her novels are semi-autobiographical) have been the subject of intense fascination in France. Patti Smith, who brought Astragal to the attention of New Directions, contributes an enthusiastic introduction to one of her favorite writers.

'My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps. And now she is yours.' At the age of twenty-one, a sad and hungry Patti Smith walked into a bookshop in Greenwich Village and decided to spend her last 99 cents on a novel that would change her life forever. The book was Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin. Sarrazin was an enigmatic outsider who had spent time in jail and who wrote only two novels and a book of poems in her short life - she died the year before Patti found her book, at the age of twenty-nine. Astragal tells the story of Anne, a young woman who breaks her ankle in a daring escape from prison. She makes it to a highway where she's picked up by a motorcyclist, Julien, who's also on the run. As they travel through nights and days together, they fall in love and must do whatever they can to survive, living their lives always on the edge of danger. A bewitching and timeless novel of youthful rebellion and romance, this new edition of Patsy Southgate's original translation includes an introduction by Patti Smith.

Astragal is amazing ... Anne is a wonderful anti-hero - a rare role for a woman - and her journey is thoughtfully and poetically expressed. She is the best of the bad girls: spend time with her. - Anna Fielding

Astragal, originally published in France in 1965 and translated by the Paris Review's Patsy Southgate in 1967, evokes a grittier 1960s than Americans might be familiar with, a 1960s that evolved, eventually, into the revolution and revolt of 1968. Albertine Sarrazin was dead by 1968. She died in July of 1967, having just experienced the leading edge of literary fame, dead of a botched kidney surgery. The fear she expresses in Astragal, when Anne, the autobiographical heroine, is finally hospitalized for her broken ankle, a serious fracture of the astragalus bone, rings chillingly true in light of the author's tragically short, rough life. Sarrazin's novels, written during her own imprisonment, invoke lives as ill-starred and adventurous as her own. Born in Algeria, abandoned, adopted, abused, and eventually incarcerated, she was certainly no less revolutionary than her student inheritors. Anne and Sarrazin share lives of criminality and precocious intellects that, finally, can't save either. Sacrificial heroes, these wild radical girls prefigure the potential of 1968's revolutions, abandoned, like Sarrazin herself, in its nascence.
Indeed, perhaps the most lyrical and melancholy chapter of Astragal evokes one of the Situationist slogans of the summer of 1969: "Under the paving stones, the beach." Anne travels on le train bleu from Paris to Nice, after some success as a prostitute. Yet Anne's unruly presence within this world of leisure and luxury seems truly revolutionary, especially because a successful heist has enabled Anne's leave, walking from the paving stones of Paris to the beaches of Nice.
Until this point, Anne has persisted in such a fever pitch of fear and desperation that readers need her vacation on the beach as much as she does: "The warmth of the sun stores itself up in me, not yet radiating out: soon I'll be going back up into the cold again. I'll need my supply." After the beach, Anne gently confronts the Algerian heritage and the nearly-debilitating injury she shares with her ill-starred author,
I could easily stay here until fall, stretched out, lazy... Shake yourself, girl, you're black enough, your teeth have whitened in your smile, and when they approach you people will ask: "Do you speak French?" Julien won't find the pale child of that first night, I will be a Negro and beautiful and I will please him like a new woman. Even the scar on my foot which has gotten tanned.... My asymmetry? Pff, I am a charming mulatto who limps a little, that's all.
This suntanned disguise relaxes Anne because she is, throughout the book, a fugitive escapee whose ankle has been shattered by the ultimate leap, from imprisonment to freedom.
As much as Anne is dogged by her status as a fugitive, she is also literally hobbled by her broken ankle. Kept from medical care for too long, she receives medical attention almost too late, and is told, in terror, "You know, you might lose it..." Through traction, surgery, pins, and various casts, Anne keeps her fugitive state secret, even as she senses that, especially in the institutionality of the hospital, her years in prison betray her: "I had also obeyed quite thoroughly, from habit, the 'Get undressed' of the nurse. Prison still surrounded me: I found it in my reflexes, the jumpiness, the stealth, the submissiveness of my reactions. You can't wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self."
This disassembling, and constant reassembling, of self that Anne must perform necessitates the beach vacation. She must always stay one step ahead of her pursuers: both the police and the men from whom she tries to maintain autonomy even as they pay her for intimacy -- and indeed, these pursuers seem to meld into the same kind of man. The walking that Anne spends the first part of the book yearning to be able to do becomes a minimal degree of freedom as she struggles to live outside the law. "Where can I find you?" asks an enamored client. "Oh me... I just keep walking," replies Anne.
Astragal touched readers who were living through the cataclysmic years after the book's publication. Patti Smith's introduction to this new edition, "My Albertine," characterizes Sarrazin and her autobiographical heroines as "Not passing angels but the angels of my life." In Anne, the young Smith found both a kindred spirit and an icon, "armed with the discerning wit of Joan of Arc on trial." Smith's introductory essay not only situates Astragal in her own early life as an artist, but also, in a luminously elegiac tone, revisits Astragal's resonance in her artistic maturity.
As the young Smith treasured her ninety-five-cent copy of Astragal and carried it as a talisman in her suitcase, so readers of this new edition will, I think, find in Albertine and her alter-ego Anne saints "of the disposable pen and the interminable eyebrow pencil," and bright stars of a 1960s too little recalled. Smith's essay and Sarrazin's crackling and incandescent prose make Astragal a gift, a memento of a decade that was both rough and radical, yet full of potential, and the testament of two astonishing lives, one real, one fictive, both self-invented and utterly extraordinary. - Madeleine Monson-Rosen

French-Algerian author Albertine Sarrazin’s 1965 novel Astragal is the kind of slim volume so immediately captivating that one might easily feel compelled to read it straight through in one breathless afternoon. But it’s not so much the story — of a young, injured girl’s anxious days on the lam — that keeps the pages turning. Rather, it’s the girl herself. Astragal seduces through the intimate voice of its fugitive narrator, 19-year-old Anne. The story — drawn from Sarrazin’s own life — of Anne’s escape from prison, subsequent incapacitating ankle break (the book is named for the bone she snaps), and arduous recovery, is so alive with Anne’s voice that reading it, one wants simply to remain in her presence, to sit by her bedside as she squirms, frustrated, towards recovery. Anne makes good company.
Anne and her lover and rescuer Julien live precarious lives. He pulls heists to pay for her care while she anxiously awaits his return, and later, when she can walk, she supports herself as a prostitute on the streets of Paris. But much of the book is more quiet, invoking the feeling of being submerged in the mind of someone who has been too long alone, thoughts circling round and round. We know all of Anne’s momentary cravings and discomforts. As she sits anxiously at dinner, she’s unable to go to the bathroom because she can’t walk on her broken foot. She writes:
Since the beginning of the meal, I’ve reminded myself of a kid jiggling about shyly on a grownup’s chair: I dream of rising discreetly and with dignity, saying, ‘Excuse me a moment,’ and of walking, casually, as though there were no particular hurry, to the back of the ballroom where the corner “Toilet” has lost its neon but kept the letters.
Later, in another hideaway, she sits deprived of cigarettes, attempting to listen to her host speaking to her, but instead thinking, desirous and distracted, of “the warmth of the smoke which flows, liquid, with a slight bitter edge, into your throat and chest, making your blood tingle . . . ” and “all of the ashtrays I’ve emptied in my life.”
She spends much of her time thinking of Julien: what he is doing, what she owes him, in what ways she loves him. In this sense, Astragal is something of a love story. But Julien always remains shadowy. He is a protective and comforting — but also unpredictable and frustrating — figure, coming and going and saving Anne’s life while she’s stuck in bed. Anne sometimes wonders whether her love is just circumstantial: “Do I really want this man so much? He eases my idleness and pain, he is my joy, yes, but . . . If I were able to hope for something else, some other form of pleasure, would I have chosen him?”
This sense the book gives, of a friend telling a story, is perhaps what lent Astragal such a talismanic quality for Patti Smith, who writes the introduction to the new reissue of Patsy Southgate’s 1967 translation. Smith writes of finding her worn copy years after having first read it in the early 1970s, and, strongly feeling the presence of Albertine herself, wrapping the book in a handkerchief: “It was as if I had Albertine, a battered blossom, beneath my twenty-first century version of sweat-stained tee shirts.” This sense of delicacy and damage comes partly from the fact that Sarrazin died at the age of 29, just a few years after her book was published. It becomes impossible to read Astragal or know its heroine outside of the context of Sarrazin’s own tragic story. Through Anne, Sarrazin emerges as a person fragile and vulnerable, yet full of a fierce energy, leaving some of the substance of herself behind in the form of her writing.
Anne represents a kind of free and rebellious spirit that might, in the mold of Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac’s On the Roadpresent a tantalizing sense of dangerous possibility to young readers, as it did for Patti Smith. But this gets to an odd tension in Sarrazin’s story. Everywhere Anne goes she somehow finds herself confined to a “rectangle” of one kind or another. While Astragal at times recalls such tales of lovers on the run as the films Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde, this is not a road novel, but a story of imprisonment that is always present even if it sometimes changes form.
Everywhere Anne is sitting or lying or strenuously trying not to limp. She does not move with ease. At once determined and resigned, she tells us “Jail is my right road,” and she never doubts for a moment that she’ll go back someday. While Astragal always maintains an edge of suspense as Anne teeters constantly on the edge of arrest or some other disaster, this is really a story of long convalescence and scraping by to just barely survive. Still, for all the tedious detail of hospital rooms and ankle casts, for all of the rectangles Anne can’t quite make her way out of, she remains an utterly romantic and engaging figure. We always want to spend more time with her. -

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. - Jeff Tompkins

Albertine Sarrazin’s novel Astragal, originally published in 1965, is full of a free-wheeling, self-mythologizing attitude rare in modern fiction, but which evokes an era which thrived on heroes who took control of their own fates, seeking complete personal freedom even if it meant living beyond the law - an attitude which was a contributing factor in the conflicts of 1968. Albertine herself never made it to that date (she died in 1967 of complications following surgery, after a life spent in and out of prisons and reformatories), but the novel still reverberates with her energy and spirit.

Albertine was born in Algeria in 1937, and was abandoned by her parents as a baby. Adopted and bought to France, she was an intelligent child, particularly good at Latin and Maths, but was abused by a member of her new family and placed in a reformatory school. This marked the beginning a life marked by transience and conflicts with authority. Escaping from the school, she travelled to Paris and worked as a prostitute, before being imprisoned in 1953 following a hold-up. She escaped from this prison, too, before meeting her husband. The two stayed on the run for the next decade, communicating by letters when one or the other was locked up. These are the experiences which went into the creation of the semi-autobiographical novel Astragal, written in prison in 1964, and published after her release.
Astragal is narrated by Anne, a stand in for Albertine herself. The novel opens with her escape from jail, during which she fractures her ankle badly. She is picked up at the roadside by a man on a motorcycle, Julien. She immediately sees that Julien is a fellow outlaw, recognising ‘certain signs imperceptible to people who haven’t done time; a way of talking without moving the lips’. The opening passages are filled with a sense of possibility; ‘the sky,’ she says, ‘had lifted at least thirty feet’. As the couple drive away, she announces that ‘a new century begins’.
This idea that one might meet one’s lover by chance, at the side of the road, go away together on the back of a motorbike via a series of safehouses and find your identity on the open road, is a common Sixties motif, referenced by everything from Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and A Bout de Souffle to Natural Born Killers. Astragal, though, shows the experience from the point of view of the woman, frequently abandoned in a series of hostile or confining environments while her man goes off housebreaking. Held back by her damaged ankle, Anne spends her time on the run washing shirts, sewing ties and fending off pimps while Julian disappears for weeks at a time. She worries about being a liability to him, and about how she is going to pay for her board with the various opportunistic hosts Julian finds for her.

Albertine’s prose is lyrical and impressionistic, filled with images of rebirth. Anne’s initial escape takes place at Easter, and she knowingly refers to her ‘resurrection’ after spending three days in a hospital bed. The narrative recognises that rebirth is not an easy process. While her healing ankle suggests development, or growth, it also holds her back, physically. In the first house they come to, Julien places Anne in a child’s bed. Here, she is nursed, and begins the process of learning to walk again. She doesn’t have the agency of an adult, struggling against the constraints she is placed under and the behaviour she has learned (‘prison still surrounded me: I found it in my reflexes, the jumpiness, the stealth and the submissiveness of my reactions… several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self’).
More important than this, though, is the mental effect of freedom: ‘suddenly I realised 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: I would die if I had to, but all in one piece’. In her introduction to this volume, Patti Smith, who encountered Astragal as a young woman thanks to a cheap edition in a Greenwich Village book stall, asks ‘would I have carried myself with the same swagger, or faced adversity with such feminine resolve, without Albertine as my guide?’ It is her powerful sense of self-definition, of control over her destiny, which gives Anne such strength. As a poor woman, on the run, many of the people she encounters are hostile, but she faces down individuals like the surgeon who treats her ankle but never ‘deigns to notice that, surrounding bone, there is a woman, an uncarvable being who works and thinks’.
She is unwilling to compromise her sense of self in any way; in Paris, she begins earning money again, street-walking, and considers sending some of her earnings to Julien, who is in prison at this point. His family object, as she is not his wife and they dislike her association with their son, so she drops the idea completely, declaring that ‘to send Julien money under another name doesn’t interest me’. Gradually, Anne becomes more independent, but still continues to wait for Julien, believing that they are fated to be together, even as her lover becomes increasingly unreliable. Several times she almost breaks away, travelling to the coast, but she is always drawn back to the Parisian underworld they both inhabit.
The narrative moves frequently between the present day and flashbacks, employing the kind of jump-cuts seen in a Godard film. Albertine never goes full stream-of-consciousness, but Anne’s interior monologue is brilliantly captured. She is also able to nail characters with a well-chosen phrase, such as Anne’s preening suitor, who is dismissed with the line ‘even the hairs of his moustache seem to have been planted’. Albertine Sarrazin is a rare literary voice, and Astragal is a compelling view of the counter-culture of her time, retaining a powerful sense of urgency half a century on from its creation. - 

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.
Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.
Of course Anne falls in love with Julien, who, of course, leaves often without any notice or indication of when he will return. The reader quickly gets a sense that Julien is involved in some form of smuggling and burglary, but always wins women through lascivious gifts so they will overlook the details of his existence.
Anne, as expected, waits around a little too long and cares a little too much about Julien, causing her to withstand the prison-like conditions Julien has placed her in. That is, Anne has broken out of one prison only to willingly admit herself into a second created by Julien. To add fuel to the fire, the people she imposes on are only deferential when Julien is away or when Anne provides money. As Anne describes,
I realize that my hosts feel a greedy sort of servility toward him, hidden under their friendly tone of complicity, poised between the two extremes of respect for the guy who knows how to steal, and condescension for the guy you’re doing a favor for.
Eventually Julien is apprehended by the law and Anne is able to rediscover freedom, although through a man she is not attracted to and which she uses to hide the fruits of her own resorts to burglary.
You have probably encountered slightly different versions of this story before, but Astragal is worth the re-exploration for Sarrazin’s frank yet poetical prose and lens of a life that cannot be led by the faint of heart. Astragal would not exist if it were not for Sarrazin’s tumultuous life. Like the characters, she was young, imprisoned, and died at 29 due to a botched surgery. (Is anyone reminded of Clarice?)
As Patty Smith explains in her introduction, Astragal easily becomes a travel companion not only for its familiar love story, but also for its honesty on the daily life of someone hypersensitive to their relationship and also to physical pain, and who is now only identified by that relationship or pain.
Due to the focus on slightly seedy characters living under the radar of the law, there is also something scandalous and addictive about Astragal. The reader is left to wonder why Anne never tries to escape from Julien’s arranged prisons or his life of crime. However, Sarrazin counters these feelings by leading the reader through Anne’s growth and maturation—“Little by little, I get organized, I have a steady income, shopping lists . . .” Despite maturity, Astragal leaves us to wonder whether we are all imprisoned through our loves and relationships. - Tiffany Nichols

Laura Jordan: The Rebellious Artistry of Albertine Sarrazin

Albertine Sarrazin (1937-67) 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 died at twenty-nine.Patsy Southgate (1928-98) was an integral figure of both the 1950s Parisian literary scene and the New York School.

Albertine Sarrazin