Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had in our 20s, while still bearing a literary feel that is more thought provoking than The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps this is why Patti Smith, as described in the introduction, carried around the work in her travels for so many years.
Astragal begins in a disruptive and disjointed style, evolving into a tragic love story and ending with the empowering breakup. The anti-heroine, Anne, escapes from prison only to injure her ankle after jumping from the prison wall. From there she crawls to the road, where she is picked up by a criminal, Julien, and taken to a defunct brothel on the outskirts of Paris run by Nini and Nini’s boyfriend, partners in crime. The longer Anne is in hiding the more necrotic her leg becomes, until she is eventually taken to the hospital by Nini, who poses as Anne’s sister to prevent recognition of Anne as the escapee. After numerous surgeries, Anne’s ankle bones are fused together resulting in a painful recovery and a permanent limp. This ankle injury, as you likely guessed, is a subtext for the innocence and often forgotten things in life that can cause inflated problems in our lives, i.e., prison, but once we overcome or move past them, they revert back to their innocent state—except now there is a residual existence manifested through memory and paranoia of their return.
Of course Anne falls in love with Julien, who, of course, leaves often without any notice or indication of when he will return. The reader quickly gets a sense that Julien is involved in some form of smuggling and burglary, but always wins women through lascivious gifts so they will overlook the details of his existence.
Anne, as expected, waits around a little too long and cares a little too much about Julien, causing her to withstand the prison-like conditions Julien has placed her in. That is, Anne has broken out of one prison only to willingly admit herself into a second created by Julien. To add fuel to the fire, the people she imposes on are only deferential when Julien is away or when Anne provides money. As Anne describes,
I realize that my hosts feel a greedy sort of servility toward him, hidden under their friendly tone of complicity, poised between the two extremes of respect for the guy who knows how to steal, and condescension for the guy you’re doing a favor for.
Eventually Julien is apprehended by the law and Anne is able to rediscover freedom, although through a man she is not attracted to and which she uses to hide the fruits of her own resorts to burglary.
You have probably encountered slightly different versions of this story before, but Astragal is worth the re-exploration for Sarrazin’s frank yet poetical prose and lens of a life that cannot be led by the faint of heart. Astragal would not exist if it were not for Sarrazin’s tumultuous life. Like the characters, she was young, imprisoned, and died at 29 due to a botched surgery. (Is anyone reminded of Clarice?)
As Patty Smith explains in her introduction, Astragal easily becomes a travel companion not only for its familiar love story, but also for its honesty on the daily life of someone hypersensitive to their relationship and also to physical pain, and who is now only identified by that relationship or pain.
Due to the focus on slightly seedy characters living under the radar of the law, there is also something scandalous and addictive about Astragal. The reader is left to wonder why Anne never tries to escape from Julien’s arranged prisons or his life of crime. However, Sarrazin counters these feelings by leading the reader through Anne’s growth and maturation—“Little by little, I get organized, I have a steady income, shopping lists . . .” Despite maturity, Astragal leaves us to wonder whether we are all imprisoned through our loves and relationships.