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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

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue