Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

Astragal – Albertine Sarrazin (1965, trans. Patsy Southgate 1967) 190 pages

I first came across Astragal on Kaggsy’s blog last year, and not long after reading Kaggsy’s post I found a copy in my favourite charity bookshop (how I miss browsing those shelves… it’s been good for my wallet though…) It’s sat in the TBR since then but NADIM prompted me to pick it up.

Generally I’m not one for biographical readings of novels, I prefer to let the work speak for itself and not get too caught up in looking for insights into the author’s life. In Astragal though, it’s pretty unavoidable. Albertine Sarrazin wrote Astragal in prison; she was a French-Algerian who spent her childhood in care and then in reformatory school after being abused by a family member; she escaped to Paris and earned money as a sex worker and through crime. She died at the age of 29 after complications from surgery. It is her picture on the cover.

You’d expect that Astragal was thoroughly depressing, but maybe due to the author’s youth, it stays resolute and optimistic. It begins with Anne leaping to freedom from a prison wall and shattering her talus bone (astragale in French) in the process.

“A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight. No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment, then gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through my head, and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk.”

She is rescued by Julien:

“Long before he said anything, I had recognised 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.”

These two jailbirds fall in love and go on the lam while Anne’s ankle heals, or fails to. What follows is a series of safe houses where Anne is left while Julien disappears to commit robbery and visit other women. Eventually Anne makes it back to her beloved city:

“Beaten, broken, I’m here all the same; furthermore, as we often said in jail, the winner is the one who gets away. I’m coming back, Paris, with what’s left of me, to start to live and fight again.”

I liked Astragal more than I thought I would. Anne and Julien don’t always behave well, but Sarrazin doesn’t ask the reader to like or excuse them. She also writes beautifully without overwriting:

“I was busting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot dreamed a lot and lost the thread.”

She also has a hard-won wisdom about the impact her life is having her. It’s not that she unthinkingly follows destructive paths but rather that she does what is familiar to try and improve her situation while knowing how unlikely this is.

“You can’t wash away overnight several years of clockwork routine and constant dissembling of self.”

Sarrazin was undoubtedly a writer of talent, its truly sad that she didn’t live to see what else that talent could produce and where it might have taken her.

To end, this edition features a rhapsodic introduction by Patti Smith “My Albertine, how I adored her!” If you’ll permit me a paraphrase: “My Patti! How I adore her…” Here she is singing about lovers, which I thought was apt for Anne and Julien:

 

10 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #24

  1. I was just about to say ‘didn’t Patti Smith write the introduction this?’ and there it is at the end of your review! It’s a book I’ve toyed with buying in the past, but not sufficiently so to actually make it to the till. It sounds very good, but maybe not top of my list in the midst of the current crisis. I’ll keep it in mind though, especially as you’ve recommended it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad to have been an influence, and what a lucky charity shop find! The knowledge of her life does give this an extra element, and reading up on it afterwards added poignancy. I don’t know if Julien’s book was translated – I think I tried to find it after reading this. And thanks for the reminder of Patti’s brilliance – love that woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Funny how sometimes a story like this can leave one even more inspired than a less demanding or upsetting story; I can think of a couple of indigenous writers (Dawn Dumont, Thomas King, for instance) who often write about very dark times and situations but what the reader is left with in the end is the matter of endurance and resilience and that’s a gift indeed. (I love that you found a copy of this shortly after having determined that you wanted to read it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, she did have a resilience that meant I was a lot less depressed by this than I expected to be! I’ve not read King or Dumont but I’ll look out for them.

      It’s really odd but often in that shop I find books that I’ve recently read about on blogs. Which of course means it’s fated that I buy them 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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