Upon its publication in 1965, Astragal was a hit. It had it all: crime, a jailbreak, a passionate love affair, and a bewitching author who sported a cropped, Jean Seberg haircut and a life story as fascinating as her heroine’s.
Albertine Sarrazin’s novel was written in jail, and seen in this light the opening could be read as a fantasy: 19-year-old delinquent Anne escapes from prison and falls 30 feet, breaking her ankle (in French, the astragal bone of the title). By chance, on the roadside, she meets Julien, another fugitive, and they fall in love. He deposits her in various hideouts while her foot heals, and Anne’s life quickly becomes a new prison, one of physical pain and obsessive love.
The writing has a jagged circularity: it’s the tormented mind of a convalescent alone with itself. The prose is scattered with ellipses and stops and starts and flashbacks. Anne is always watching her back even as she looks ahead to a new future with her lover. It’s a nicotine-jittery read, whether by design or translation, and it can be hard to follow at times, like a prisoner on the lam.
As inevitable as Anne’s fate is, the masterful finale still manages to creep up and shock. It’s one of a couple of standout moments where Sarrazin’s skill as a writer is revealed, although tragically that potential was unfulfilled – she died during a botched operation at 29, two years after Astragal was published.
In her introduction, Patti Smith, who first discovered the book at 22 and was influential in its republication, asks, “Would I have carried myself with such swagger, or faced adversity with such feminine resolve, without Albertine as my guide?”
I’m only a decade older than Smith was when she first read it, but even that feels too age-weary to appreciate Anne’s indolence and intensity in the same way. I was irritated by her obsession with Julien, whose irregular visits to her between his affairs with other women and time in jail she awaits with an exhausting masochism while smoking her Gauloises – doesn’t she know she’s being such a cliché? But she nevertheless captivated me. Perhaps you don’t need to admire a character to love them anyway.
In the same way, perhaps you don’t need to love a book to admire it. And while I didn’t fall obsessively in love, Astragal is an admirable book and a worthy reissue. BB
Serpents Tail, 192pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "Albertine Sarrazin, Astragal". Subscribe here.