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Patti Smith: why Albertine Sarrazin is the rebel author I can't put down

French-Algerian writer Sarrazin was in prison for armed robbery when she wrote her autobiographical first novel. The singer-songwriter Patti Smith celebrates a book that guided her through her youth.

Jailbird words: novelist Albertine Sarrazin in 1965. (Photo: Getty)

Perhaps it is wrong to speak of oneself while writing of another, but I truly wonder if I would have become as I am without her. Would I have carried myself with the same swagger, or faced adversity with such feminine resolve, without Albertine as my guide? Would my young poems have possessed such a biting tongue without Astragal as my guidebook?

I discovered her, quite unexpectedly, while roaming Greenwich Village in 1968. It was All Saints’ Day, a fact that I later noted in my journal. I was hungry and craved coffee, but first ducked into the Eighth Street Bookshop to inspect the reduced fare on the remainder tables. They held stacks of Evergreen Reviews and obscure translations from Olympia and Grove Press. I was on the lookout for something I had to have: a book that was more than a book, containing certain signs that might spin me towards an unforeseen path. I was drawn to a striking, remote face – rendered violet on black – on a dust jacket proclaiming its author “a female Genet”. It cost 99 cents, the price of a grilled cheese and coffee at the Waverly diner, just across Sixth Avenue. I had a dollar and a subway token, but after reading the first few lines I was smitten – one hunger trumped another and I bought the book.

The book was Astragal, and the face on the cover belonged to Albertine Sarrazin. Returning to Brooklyn by train, devouring the meagre flap copy, I learned only that she was born in Algiers, was orphaned, had served time and had written two books in prison and one in freedom, and had recently died, in 1967, just shy of her 30th birthday. Finding and losing a potential sister all in the same moment touched me deeply. I was approaching 22, on my own, estranged from Robert Mapplethorpe. It was to be a harsh winter, having left the warmth of certain arms for the uncertainty of others. My new love was a painter, who would come unannounced, read passages aloud from Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, make love to me, and then disappear for weeks on end.

These were the nights of one hundred sleeps: nothing could appease my agitation. Trapped in the distracting drama of waiting – for the muse, for him – was a malicious torment. My own words were not enough; only another’s could transform misery into inspiration.

In Astragal I found the words, written by a girl eight years older than me, now dead. There was no entry for her in the encyclopaedia, so I had to piece her together (as I had Genet) through her every syllable, with the understanding that a poet’s memoirs must move through falsehoods in order to unmask the truth. I fired up some coffee, propped the pillows on my bed, and began to read. Astragal was the bone that fused fact and fiction.

Sentenced to seven years for armed robbery, Anne, a girl of 19, jumps over the prison wall – a 30-foot drop. She cracks her ankle in the process and beneath a myriad of pitiless stars is seemingly helpless. Tiny but tough, she drags herself across the pavement, inching her way towards the road. She is mercifully scooped up by another soul on the lam, a petty thief named Julien. She clocks him and knows he’s done time; he exudes that ex-con scent. They make their way through the bone-chilling night on his motorcycle. Before dawn he lays her child body tenderly in the childbed of a contact. Later she is moved to the upstairs room of a disgruntled and suspicious family, then again to a friend of a friend. That’s how it goes – her so-called liberation – getting deposited in a series of hideouts.

She writes of bouts of restiveness. What kind of sleeps did she have? Were they sounder in prison, not having to look over her shoulder? How was it to sleep on the lam, wondering if narrowed eyes revealed soon-to-be-open betrayal? Her bum leg is encased in plaster, but even more painful is the startling fact that Julien has cracked open her hustler heart. Her intense longing for him is a kind of jail term of its own. She has no choice but to endure being shifted around. Hermes with an ankle bent and broken, cruelly tattooed with a mercurial wing drained of speed.

The heroine is condemned to wait for her precious hoodlum. Trials, missteps, incarcerations and small joys constitute their story. They are characters from the life of a book that she has written. I pictured her no longer lame but free, in a straight skirt and sleeveless blouse tied above her waistline, with a wisp of chiffon around her throat. She was under five feet tall, but she was no trembling waif – more like a stick of dynamite that in exploding might not kill but would certainly maim. Her ability to size up a situation, to read a john or her lover’s every gesture, is profound, her one-liners swift and cutting. “You wanted to burden me with your love.” She possesses a lively slang of her own – an argot spattered with Latin.

A female Genet? She is herself. She possesses a unique highbrow poet-detective deadpan style: “I had escaped near Easter but nothing was rising from the dead.” This poetic perspicacity – “crafty and purified” – runs through her narrative like a narrow river breaking over the rocks; a dark vein crashing and rejoining.

Albertine, the petite saint of maverick writers. How swiftly I was swept into her world – ready to scribble through the night, down pots of scalding coffee and pause just long enough to re-line the eyes with Maybelline. Her youthful mantra was wholeheartedly embraced, my malleable spirit infused.

“I want to leave, but where? Seduce, but who? Write, but what?”

In joining the legion of Albertine, it is necessary to salute the translator Patsy Southgate. In 1968 she was also under the radar – a stunning blonde with the ice-blue eyes of a husky who wrote and translated for the Paris Review. Finding a picture of her sitting in a Paris café having chopped her blonde tresses was a revelation. I taped it to my wall alongside Albertine, Falconetti, Edie Sedgwick and Jean Seberg – girls with close-cropped hair, the girls of my day.

Patsy Southgate was an enigma. As a child of privilege and neglect, she instinctively knew just how to slip into Astragal, and may have felt a hidden kinship with her subject. She was intelligent, complicated, and passionately drawn to every rung of French culture: an expat darling of the post-beats and famously adored by Frank O’Hara. A lonely and severely disciplined child, she had a French governess named Louise who lavished more tenderness on her than her own parents. When Louise returned to Paris to marry, Patsy was devastated: she spent much of her life longing for her imagined mother, the true mother of her invented French soul.

Within her fleeting life, Albertine also longed to know the identity of her mother. Born and abandoned in 1937 in Algeria, she was given the name Albertine Damien by the social services and baptised Anne-Marie when she was adopted. Her origins were always in question, and perhaps only a cluster of DNA samples could have revealed them. Was she the daughter of a teenage Spanish dancer and a sailor? Or was she the illegitimate child of her adoptive father and his Jewish-Algerian maid? Romance and controversy in either case, and a set-up for a marginalised existence.

She was a precocious little thing and by the merit of her gifts – she excelled in Latin, literature and the violin – should have experienced a rich musical life and a scholarly education. But a lack of loving protection and a series of wrenching external events twisted her path forever.

At ten, she was raped by a member of her stepfather’s family. After her attempts to run away, her parents placed her in a girl’s reformatory paradoxically called the Good Shepherd. It was a wretched place where she was humiliated and stripped of her baptismal name of Anne-Marie. At 13 she kept a spiral notebook, a record of her perceptive observances: it was confiscated when the lily-of-the-valley perfume she wore was deemed too strong.

She was petite and pretty, armed with the discerning wit of Joan of Arc on trial, and she escaped from reform school and slipped into the Paris streets, eventually to lead the life of a prostitute and petty thief. At 18 she was arrested, with a female accomplice, for armed robbery and given seven years. Her last stint was four months in 1963 for pilfering a bottle of whiskey. Through it all she wrote: throughout her adolescence, through love and abandonment, in or out of prison, she wrote.

Life is often the best movie. Hers ended sadly, in a hospital, where she wearily smiled at her lover, Julien, then surrendered her fate to a negligent anaesthesiologist. What dreams lay behind those heavy eyelids crowned with a Maybelline crescent, as she was wheeled away – a future with Julien, peace and prosperity, recognition? All was possible, for at last they were on the cusp. They had married, kissing crime goodbye. She exited the world loved, but also as she had entered it – on a cloud of neglect.

St Albertine of the disposable pen and the interminable eyebrow pencil. I lived in her atmosphere. I imagined the blue smoke of her cigarette curling around her nostrils, moving through her bloodstream and riding the chambers of her heart. I was too bronchial to smoke myself, but I carried a pack of Gauloises vertes in my skirt pocket. I paced the floors waiting for my painter to come and rescue me from my self-imposed prison, as she had waited for Julien. Never was the wait so bearable, nor Nescafé such an elixir. I created my own jargon, primed by Astragal and extended with La Cavale, her next novel, translated as The Runaway, with one of the great opening lines in French literature: “I am really done up for my entrance into prison tonight: opossum and slacks.”

Abandoned by one hope, I found another in Sam Shepard. When we, too, had to part, we wrote our swansong in the form of the play Cowboy Mouth, and in homage to Albertine I named my character Cavale, a name that means escape, as she explains at the play’s end.

In 1976, as I travelled the world, I carried Astragal in a small metal suitcase, filled with sweat-stained T-shirts, talismans and the black jacket I wore with careless defiance on the cover of Horses. It was a Black Cat paperback edition with a picture of Marlène Jobert on the cover. It cost 95 cents, roughly what I’d paid for the hardcover in 1968. I carried it to Detroit where I met my own true Julien – a complex, guarded, beautiful man who made me his bride and later his widow. After he died I brought Astragal back to New York with me in 1996, packed among a trove of bittersweet memories.

Before a recent tour of France, I unwittingly unearthed this same copy, but I could not bear to open it. Instead I wrapped it in an old handkerchief and carried it along in yet another metal suitcase. It was as if I had Albertine, a battered blossom, beneath my 21st-century version of sweat-stained T-shirts. Then one waking night in a hotel in Toulouse I suddenly unwrapped it and once more began reading it, reliving the leap and the crack of lightning that was her ankle splitting and the headlights flashing as her angel examined her startled heart-shaped face. Scenes of my life commingled with her words with a muted force. And there, pressed between the yellowed pages, was an old picture of my love, and within its well-worn folds a lock of his lank brown hair – a precious relic of him within a relic of her.

Not passing angels but the angels of my life.

One day I shall visit her grave with a Thermos of black coffee and sit with her a while and sprinkle lily-of-the-valley perfume on her headstone – in the shape of an astragal bone, which Julien had placed in remembrance. My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps.

A new edition of Albertine Sarrazin’s “Astragal” is published by Serpent’s Tail (£8.99) on 20 March

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Photo: BBC
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Why you should watch BBC3's This Country

The show is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom.

“In rural Britain today, studies show that young people feel more marginalised than ever. To explore this problem, the BBC spent six months filming with some young people in a typical Cotswold village.”

These words appear over cute aerial shots of Northleach, Gloucestershire, in the opening moments of the BBC3 mockumentary, This Country, which has just been confirmed for a second season. Cut to cousins Kerry and “Kurtan” Mucklowe, both clearly in their late 20s, squabbling like children over the top shelf in the oven or pointing out where they experienced such thrilling celebrity sightings as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

Written by brother and sister Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, who also play the leads, This Country is a masterclass in the idiosyncrasies triggered by rustic boredom. “I’ve got enemies in South Cerney, I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick,” Kerry boasts in her broad Gloucestershire accent. “Oh, having a picture of your winning scarecrow on the front of the Gazette is sad, is it?” Kurtan says sarcastically.

I tell myself that, as a Gloucestershire girl, This Country speaks to me because I’m in on jokes about how “it takes Gramps four hours to drive from Gloucester”, but the fact is it’s just really, really funny. Kerry and Kurtan are ridiculous but, based on Daisy and Charlie and their real experience of financial struggle on moving back to Cirencester, they are drawn with love.

“You’ve just got to live in the moment and appreciate what’s around you,” Kurtan philosophises. “Because while you’re pining for Noel Edmonds’s House Party, you’re missing out on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man.” Don’t miss out on This Country

“This Country” is on iPlayer until 6 August

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue