Long out of print in the United States, Astragal (L’Astragale, 1965; tr. from the French by Patsy Southgate, 1967) came to New Directions in a wonderful way. One day Barbara Epler, publisher and president of New Directions, was talking to Patti Smith about favorite authors when Smith brought up Albertine Sarrazin. Epler admitted she had never heard of Sarrazin. Obviously, when she did sit down to read it Astragal made an impact as New Directions has brought back to us this fantastic book by this tragic author.
I can’t imagine how this book must have felt when it was published back in 1965. What was more shocking, its autobiographical content — Sarrazin wrote it in when she was 19 while in prison — or the detailed, immediate style by which that content is conveyed?
The story opens up with sudden action: “The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.” Anne, a young woman who has been in prison for some time, has just jumped from the thirty-foot wall of her prison. She doesn’t know it quite yet, but in the process she has nearly destroyed her ankle — her astragal, something that will soon become a symbol of her never-ending captivity imposed by a seemingly never-ending list of captors.
Luckily for Anne, she is still able to drag herself on the “soles of [her] kneecaps] to the nearby highway, where she is eventually found by Julien, a man who says he will help. She trusts Julien, knowing that he, like her, has been a prisoner:
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.
Julien takes her to his mother’s house, a place with kind children, something Anne never knew since her own childhood had been so cruel. Though she puts up a fight, Anne knows that “Julien was calling me back to man,” and she longs for his visits. His visits are rare, though, because he himself is in trouble with the police and is technically not supposed to be at his mother’s home.
But, in some ways, Anne’s freedom is worse than prison. Due to her ankle, she cannot leave her bed — or, her rectangle, as she calls it. Sometimes the pain is so terrible she just wants to end it all, even if it means going back to prison. At other times — sometimes just a few lines later — she finds the will to defy, to get a few inches closer to freedom. If they take her back, at least she will be a bit farther away when they catch up to her.
There are also true moments of peace, almost an idyll, as the young man and woman stick together under cover (the reference to Jean-Luc Godard is absolutely fitting, and I don’t mind saying that the whole time I had Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in mind; Pierrot le Fou also hit the world in 1965):
And Julien pulls the bidet, by its iron legs, out from under the sink. We flick our cigarettes into it: We are saved, we have all the time in the world; hot stagnating time, time which passes minute by minute, quietly, calmly, whispering.
These moments of peace also had me thinking of a film: the fantastic treehouse that Kit and Holly take refuge in while they run from the law in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, from 1973. (Bonnie and Clyde was made into a film in 1967.)
Much of this is autobiographical. While it is not necessary to know Sarrazin’s story to enjoy Astragal, I found it deepened its impact on me. Likewise, Patti Smith’s own personal introduction to the book ushered me into the personal realm, a realm that wants to trust but cannot because trust has never paid off. With trust, there is always the possibility you will be betrayed and capture; but without trust, one is never free — if freedom is a possibility at all.