June 2013

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate

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.

Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate, introduction by Patti Smith
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811220736
186 pages