Hello and welcome to today’s’ post about… Astragal by Albertine Sarrrazin! I had never heard of this book before, but I am sooo glad to have stumbled upon it in my bumbling ways. I was at a feminist book fair (I know you’re jealous) and on a stall were two books- Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles and Astragal. I was really leaning towards Chelsea Girls, but one detail caught my eye on the pink cover of Astragal and fate was sealed. That detail was a name: Patti Smith.
Yes, Astragal is one of the favourite books of none other than New York’s poet punk rock queen. After a tumultuous period with Robert Mapplethorpe ( no details about Robert are in this book, but to anyone interested ‘Just Kids’ reveals loads about that relationship, and is such a beautiful and tender book you will treasure it forever) when Patti was alone and knocking about New York with just her tattered boots and the pennies in her pocket, she had to make a monumental decision. To eat or to read. A cup of coffee, or a paperback of Sarrazin’s novel- both for 99 cents.
I think we know it is clear what path Patti took that day. And reading this story and Patti’s introduction to it- I am so happy she went without coffee that day.
Astragal is sleek, cool and deliciously dangerous in its style and subject. A French book from the 1960s, it narrates the escapades of Anne, but is really a lightly veiled auto-biography of what Albertine herself went through. Anne: the vulnerable yet acrid femme fatale. She is a character of multiple and conflicting selves, on the run from jail, an escaped prisoner returning to the world of freedom.
But is she more free inside or outside the prison walls? In prison, Anne knew the ropes; was contained but mainly free in her desires to manipulate and break the rules. She climbed out the kitchen windows to see her girlfriends, she knew the measures of time in a day and how to whittle the hours. But once out, she is not fully herself. The bravado gone as she is helpless in the road, alone in pyjamas with a broken ankle after jumping the prison wall. Burdened by the tethers of the law always behind her back, constantly on red alert for another police pig to lock her away. But the greatest barrier to Anne’s freedom isn’t her illegal status. It is her heart.
As soon as Anne is out, she falls in love with the man who saves her. I know, a bit OTT and cheesy. At first, I thought the same. Seriously?!? She literally has just escaped, has the whole world to swindle, already is in love with a girl in jail and a man comes by once again, like the cliched prince on horseback, to save Anne from her queerness and cherish her injured ankle, her vulnerability- because without it, she would run away she would run from him like she’s always run from authority. But, remarkably, Sarrazin does not make this one of maudlin and derogatory romance. It is hypnotic, complex and grittily real in its sparsity of hiding places from the human heart.
It is a tale of freedom VS confinement, of power VS submission, of Appearances VS Motives as Anne hankers after her lover and tries to rebuild her sense of independence and rebellion. Sarrazin writes in the first person view point of Anne, and the use of ellipses and general grammatical smoke screens means that sometimes this book can be hard to follow temporally. I had to re-read many a section to determine whether what was going on was in the present, past, predicted future or a dream. But that adds to the beauty of the book. You can read it as slickly or as slowly as you choose, depending on whether you want to be blown away with the drama, or contemplate deeper signals and meanings in the text.
This book is for anyone who seeks romance, drama and intrigue. It doesn’t take too long to read, and should definitely be on the TRL (to read list) for any Smith fan, as its amazingness really can be seen to filter through into some themes and styles of Patti’s own writing later. I will stop blabbering now, and leave you with a quote to tempt you to that bookshelf you know you shouldn’t stalk, just like Patti and her last 99 cents all those years ago… xoxoxoxooxxo
“A life had taken shape, after my arrest: for years, I had let it sprout, joyously absurd, naive and shameless. In that life, you were never carried off, petted, saved; you stood up straight… But in that life, all the same, you could get your kicks in the secret certainty of each day’s routine. My new freedom imprisons and paralyses me…”