Prison Sentences

Astragal BY Albertine Sarrazin. edited by Patsy Southgate, Patti Smith. New Directions. Paperback, 186 pages. $15.

The cover of Astragal

You can take the girl out of prison, but you can’t take prison out of the girl. Anne, the nineteen-year-old narrator of Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal—published in France in 1965 and in the US in 1967, and now reissued by New Directions—has liberated herself from a “prison school” by jumping off a thirty-foot wall. Landing, she breaks her left ankle, but this injury may be less grievous than the lingering effects of her incarceration. She has a disturbing awareness that even now, on the outside, she is a creature of the institution: “Prison still surrounded me: I found it in my reflexes, the jumpiness, the stealth and the submissiveness of my reactions.” She is still “ruled by the clock . . . the invisible prison clock that watches you.” Her mind has become the “slave of mechanisms.” Her boyfriend Julien suffers from the same condition. They meet when he finds her sprawled in the road after her escape. Later—having rescued her, installed her at his mother’s house, slept with her—he confesses that he’s an ex-con himself. “I knew it,” Anne thinks. “There are certain signs . . . 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.” Confinement, in other words, forever marks the prisoner’s body and gestures, inscribing itself as a somatic language that can’t be unlearned.

Sarrazin was herself a creature of institutions. Born Albertine Damien in Algiers in 1937, she was abandoned by her teenage mother and raised by adoptive parents in Aix-en-Provence. In early adolescence, she was sent to reform school—the first of a series of sojourns behind bars, with stints in between as a prostitute and petty thief. Along the way, there was a stormy marriage to a man named Julien Sarrazin, who, like the Julien of Astragal, served a number of jail sentences, both before and during his relationship with Albertine. There were also three novels: Astragal and La cavale (The Runaway), both published in 1965, and La traversière (The Crossing), published in 1966. There surely would have been more had she not died at twenty-nine, from complications following a kidney operation.

In the 1960s, critics tended to view Sarrazin as a kind of lumpen-prole savant and a lesser Genet. Yet if she shared Genet’s fine-tuned sense of how “there is often a semblance of the burlesque in the colony or in prison” (to quote The Thief’s Journal), she found little excitement there. Against Genet’s perfervid cataloguing of transgressions, Sarrazin depicts life behind bars as a procession of petty mortifications and curtailed desires. The Runaway, set entirely in prison, is an anti-adventure, a tale of minutiae, of coveted Nescafé, of crossword puzzles, meals, chores. As for the prison school in Astragal, which we see in flashbacks, it is a cheerfully totalitarian environment. The inmates wear blue and white checked smocks, like “little sheep, choirs of angels singing in unison.” The cells are travesties of studio apartments, furnished with “little bookcases” and “upholstered beds.” “Smiling and seraphic” matrons monitor not only the inmates’ sewing and their digestion but also their affect: “Wipe that frown off your face.” In order to become productive citizens, the women must learn not merely to behave properly but to feel properly. Anne has been driven to her thirty-foot leap from the reform school’s wall out of an instinct to preserve her ability to feel improperly—to be sardonic, sexual, bored, or any number of other things that can’t be accommodated within the carefully crafted subjectivity that the matrons seek to impose.

But even after her escape, Anne is hardly free. On the lam and unable to walk, she must rely entirely on Julien. From his mother’s house, he takes her to a tavern owned by one of his associates, the pastis-drinking, accordion-playing Pierre. Then he sets her up in a Paris tenement occupied by an ex-hooker who makes her living sewing ties. Julien visits Anne infrequently at these hideouts—he is busy planning burglaries and, we learn, attending to another woman. When he appears, the two resume an intermittent idyll—lying around, drinking, making love, smoking and using the bidet as an ashtray. Anne whiles away the time between these visits by reading magazines and “little romantic novels” and listening to the radio; you can practically hear the tinny music in the background, as in Breathless. She feels “regret at having changed prisons.”

Eventually, her ankle having partially healed, Anne begins working as a prostitute and living on her own in a series of hotels. But her life still consists of waiting (for Julien, for customers) and hiding (from the cops). Her agency, cramped by life both in and out of prison, is forced to reside in her impetuousness, her salutary arrogance (“Don’t worry about my intelligence, I have plenty and some to spare”), and, most significantly, in the way she frames her own experience—that is, in the prose we’re reading, which is hard-boiled, funny, sometimes gross, oscillating between indolence and intensity, riddled with ellipses and exclamation points. It is wayward, hard to pin down; it can’t be forced to behave. There are associative leaps, synesthetic flights, and characters introduced without preamble or identification. Sarrazin brooked no exposition, no laborious knitting of circumstance to circumstance. One might call her style stream-of-consciousness, but that modernist term fails to account for the impression of Pop hyperreality that communicates itself through her steady drumbeat of allusions to music, to magazines, to Gauloises, jukeboxes, and glasses of Ricard. She had a gimlet eye, in particular, for the accoutrements of beauty, the products that bestow desirability: clothes, makeup. Again and again, Anne sizes up other women’s toilettes, making note of “little curls,” a “tight dress,” a “slit skirt,” observing how, with a bit of cosmetic ingenuity, “the lips grow full and pink,” or how high heels may make a nondescript pair of legs “ethereal.” Indeed, Anne’s obsessive attention to high heels smacks of cathexis; one of the only things that moves her to cry is the realization that, because of her injury, she probably can’t wear them anymore.

Beyond a wry reference in The Runaway to “our brave heroes in Algeria,” Sarrazin’s writing barely acknowledges the colonial war that engulfed her birthplace and roiled France from 1954 to 1962. Yet in its frenetic attention to the stuff of consumerist life, Astragal begins to suggest what Guy Debord would diagnose, in 1967, as the “colonization” of everyday life by the commodity. And it suggests, further, the extent to which this colonial project conducts itself upon the field of gender—how women are subjected with special intensity to the imperative not merely to consume, but to create themselves out of their consumption, to produce themselves in the image of the myriad representations that confront them everywhere, in advertisements and on flickering screens. The “mechanisms” to which Anne is enslaved form a kind of all-encompassing apparatus uniting the matrons’ exhortations—“Wipe that frown off your face”—and those of capitalism itself, in a manner that, one might say, anticipates the collective Tiqqun’s proposal that “in reality, the Young-Girl is simply the model citizen as redefined by consumer society.” Anne is mordantly aware of how representations have colonized her, how, at any given moment, she may find herself ventriloquizing “the heroines of the Série Noire,” how her “run-proof stockings” and “water-proof mascara” are both armor and immobilizing carapace. In the hospital where she eventually undergoes a gruesome “astragalectomy”—astragalus is the name of a bone in the ankle—she puts on makeup before her operation because “even dead I wanted to be attractive to God-the-Father,” i.e., to the doctor. When God the Father comes into the ward, she and the other patients “contract our sphincters, smooth the covers of our beds, we animate our eyes and our lips. The love that we all feel for Him inspires us into graceful poses.” Femininity is a performance that commandeers one’s entire being, right down to the viscera. Anne’s sarcasm is the index of her ambivalence toward this masquerade, which she participates in even as she regards it from a critical remove.

After her death, Sarrazin faded quickly into obscurity. Today a search for her name on JSTOR retrieves only forty-three hits, this in a database canvassing decades of scholarly work in multiple languages. The articles have titles like “Imprisoned Women,” “Women Prison Authors in France,” and “A Cell of One’s Own.” Certainly, no survey of the literature of distaff incarceration is complete without her. Yet this literary niche at the nexus of female and jailbird still seems a bit, well, confining. Somewhat paradoxically, remembering and reconsidering Sarrazin as a novelist without qualifiers—just a novelist, rather than a female prison novelist—requires acknowledging that the carceral was indeed her grand theme. But the forms of constraint that she tracked are operative both within and beyond the penitentiary walls; they mobilize at the level of affect and biorhythm and administer themselves via infinitesimally subtle channels; their agents are ads and “little romantic novels” as well as cops and prison guards. Writing in 1990 about the advent of what he famously called the “society of control,” Gilles Deleuze stated: “Enclosures”—such as prisons—“are molds . . . but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast.” Anne’s own cast is “pastel pink”; her toes protrude from it “like five dead little blood sausages.” It is the prison that is also a prosthesis, part of her yet not part of her. At a certain point, she tries to chip it off, but this proves more difficult than anticipated. She registers as a heroine not because she transcends the strictures imposed upon her or because she avoids internalizing them, but because, even having internalized them, she refuses to succumb to them, countering them with an unflagging will to impropriety.

Elizabeth Schambelan is a senior editor of Artforum.