Scraping in at the tail end of August, I finally managed to read a book for the month-long celebration of Women in Translation, hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. Meytal has also been compiling a top 100 WIT books – everyone was invited to send in their top tens (mine is here) – and the final, fascinating list is HERE! But back now to my WIT read…
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Translated by Patsy Southgate
I think I found this short novel online while reading up which French thrillers by Jean-Patrick Manchette to buy – I can’t remember where I found out about him! One of his books was in the same liveried Serpent’s Tail edition as Astragal, so this distinctive cover came up as a ‘customers also bought’ recommendation. Underneath the title, Astragal had the magic words, ‘Introduction by Patti Smith’ and thus it became an instant must-buy, only to be parked on my shelves. I bought it in May 2016, and there it remained until I recently realised I only had a few days of WIT month left and went looking for something quick to read! One of Patti Smith’s favourite books, she says:
Would I have carried myself with the same swagger, or faced adversity with such feminine resolve, without Albertine as my guide? Would my young poems have possessed such a biting tongue without Astragal as my guidebook?
Sarrazin only wrote two novels – she died at the age of 29 – and both were written in prison! Astragal, published in 1965, a couple of years before her death, was a French cult classic, but it is a totally different animal to another mid 1960s French cult classic I read recently – Sébastien Japrisot’s The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (reviewed here). The latter was a tautly plotted suspense thriller, whereas Astragal, despite its thrillerish opening, is a sort of warped love story at heart with a unique anti-heroine. The novel itself begins:
The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.
I sat there, not moving. The shock must have cracked the pavement, my right hand fumbled in the rubble. As I breathed, the silence stilled the explosion of stars whose sparks still crackled in my head.
A young woman barely out of her teens, Anne has escaped by jumping thirty feet from the prison infirmary wall – she’d wanted to reunite with this year’s lover, Rolande. But one of her ankles is badly broken. A lorry driver who stopped wouldn’t take her, but did manage to stop someone who would – Julien, a hustler. He takes Anne to a safe place where she’ll be looked after as her ankle heals, paying a couple to hide her. However, her ankle doesn’t knit, and they have to cobble up a plan for her to get the break sorted in hospital.
It was in the hospital section where I learned that ‘astragal’ is another name for the talus bone in the ankle, and it is Anne’s ankle that is at the centre of everything, forcing her to swap one prison for another. But she does have Julien – and they have started to fall for each other. Julien moves her from one safe house to another. Anne begins to earn her keep in the only way she knows how, but she’s still limping. Julien who can’t afford to be captured either, pops in now and then, and they swear to each other that as soon as they have enough money and Anne can walk that they’ll escape this hidden life together.
That all sounds very romantic, but as is obvious right from the start, Anne is a user, shamelessly manipulating people to do her bidding, making them fall in love with her for a while, even while not being very nice to them. Julien must see something in her though; for her, he is willing to give up all his other women, surely it can’t last?
Astragal is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Sarrazin’s life of crime and prostitution and spells in prison. This life had been all too easy for her to slip into, having been abandoned by her mother as a baby, adopted, raped at the age of ten and then put into a strict reformatory school, from which she escaped. The part of escaping prison, breaking her ankle and meeting Julien in the novel is all true, but not all of Anne’s story matches Sarrazin’s (as far as I can make out).
It’s a brave thing for an author to make their protagonist unlikeable for a large part of the time, even if you tell yourself she’s in pain and suffering from being cooped up. You do hope for redemption for Anne though. Although I’m no expert in the French extistentialist writers, Astragal had that sort of feel to it. Written in the present, Anne’s existence unfolds on the page as it happens. She often has snarky reactions to things people say and do, but then can give herself up to moments of sentimentality, and even love. She is a rebel, and you can see why Patti Smith fell in love with this book back in the mid-70s when she first found it. If I’d read it when I was that ideal age, I would certainly have appreciated it more, instead it was more of a curiosity for me. I felt for Astragal’s author much more than her (anti) heroine. (7/10)
See also Karen’s review here.
Source: Own copy. Albertine Sarrazin, Astragal (1965, trans 1967) Serpent’s Tail paperback, 190 pages.