The Real-Life Prison Escapee With a Broken Foot Who Just Wanted a Boyfriend
In this week’s Sex Scenes: French writer Albertine Sarrazin’s French autobiographical novel about prison escapee lovers.
Sep 5 2018, 5:13pm
Albertine Sarrazin. Photograph by Philippe Le Tellier for Paris Match via Getty Images.
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This week we flip to the pages of Astragal, a 1965 novel by Albertine Sarrazin. The semi-autobiographical tour de force tells the story of the protagonist’s prison break, her broken foot, and the ensuing fast-paced romance of a couple on the run—except that in this case, one of the star-crossed lovers literally can’t walk. One is on the run; the other is stuck.
It’s a story about the highs of heterosexual romantic love and its rock bottoms, how this love is always a sort of prison. What makes the novel especially curious is that the protagonist Anne and her lover Julien are based on the writer and her real-life husband, Julien Sarrazin, who were incarcerated together at Amiens prison, though in separate, gendered wings. During her (tragically) brief life, Sarrazin encouraged an autobiographical reading of the text, courting confusion between the book and her factual biography.
Astragal begins with Anne escaping from prison by jumping over the wall, breaking the astragalus (ankle) of her foot. But pain is nothing new for Anne—pain has always been the price to pay for freedom and love. When she was incarcerated, she would sneak in the infirmary and inject herself with every liquid she could find, hoping that it would make her sick.
But now, suddenly, she is on the other side of the prison wall. Crawling along, her elbows covered with oozing mud, thorns from bushes scratching her, she drags herself to a highway where she flags down a trucker who introduces her to Julien, a man whose job, it vaguely seems, is to help fellow escaped criminals, and find shelter for them.
Julien moves her through a series of safe houses belonging to friends, his own mother, accomplices. He leaves for days on end but always comes back, late at night, and this is how the two begin their entanglement. Stuck in bed, Anne spends her days worrying for Julien and waiting for his nighttime visits. Anne mentions early on that they’d had sex, almost as an afterthought—as if the sex had always happened, as if they’d always been together, cosmically, eternally. Their sex is like talking all night, like drinking, like cigarettes, a natural ebb and flow. She reminisces about how Julien felt bad at first for having sex with a girl unable to walk, all bruised up, but then she laughs this off—of course we, the readers, know that she wanted it.
Julien also teases her for how much she likes their sex. She tells him of an affair that she’d had in prison with a woman named Rolande, a friend who early in the texts she decides is too needy, and who she doesn’t want to see anymore. “Of course it’s different than with your girlfriends,” Julian says as she relishes his maleness. She writes, “I could see only the bulk of his silhouette and two lighted hands: I took one of them and felt up his bare arm, stopping at a pajama sleeve rolled up over a hard bicep, hard…. Four years without touching a man’s arm.”
The queerness in Astragal might be glossed over, or at least becomes the backdrop for her theme of all-consuming heterosexual love, but it shouldn’t be discounted. The relationship that Sarrazin describes having with a fellow female prisoner in her books and private journals—which served as a sort of basis for the book—would have been incredibly fraught behind bars. In his book Jail Sentences, Andrew Sabonet writes on Sarrazin’s conditions, explaining that that if two prisoners became too friendly, got too close, they would be reprimanded, separated, shamed. Isolation was, and remains, a popular “corrective” device. Desperate prisoners would resort to talking into their toilet bowls, letting the sewer system carry their voices to other cells. The prison system was geared towards creating a sense of all pervading loneliness that would dull desire and make the prisoner docile, malleable, obedient. Sarrazin writes specifically about this in her journals, how prison gradually transforms person into a passive anonymous creature: “A kind of tepid dopiness is taking hold of my mind, I’m barely simmering and I feel myself getting soft.”
Sarrazin illustrates how women depend directly on husbands, pimps, rich business men, clients, and their boyfriends.
In her book of essays, Imagination in Confinement: Women’s Writings from French Prisons, Elissa D. Gelfand points out that by writing about Julien while imprisoned, Sarrazin held onto her ability to desire, to sexualize. Sarrazin was constantly stoking her desire for Julien, elevating their love to an almost mythical status, and through the act of writing, she enacts a resistance against the carceral institution. And in fact writing, too, was forbidden. Supplies had to be smuggled in; reams of paper had to be hidden. Multiple times, her work was destroyed, and Sarrazin had to rewrite pages and pages from memory.
But what had in prison been a source of liberty, becomes a further trap once outside. In the story, Anne, through the gimmick of her injury, is now dependent on a series of men, and in a state of rest, is uniquely capable of seeing how the women around her are, too. When she’s finally sent to a hospital for treatment, patients in the wing put on coquettish airs hoping to attract the attention of the head surgeon, calling him a God. Sarrazin illustrates how women depend directly on husbands, pimps, rich business men, clients, and their boyfriends.
When Anne is able to walk again, she returns to her outside life of petty theft and sex work, but is still always waiting for Julien. She turns her focus to the tools of femininity, to no-run stockings, waterproof mascara, and notices how makeup transforms the face of Annie, one of her caretakers—how heels make her legs appear ethereal. She’s acutely aware of how women are made to create a “self” from consuming with the expressed goal of being “consumed” by men. To perform femininity is literally costly.
To quote gender and sexuality scholar Lauren Berlant, “Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” While in prison, Julien was a way to keep Sarrazin to keep desire alive; once out, her desire for Julien is that which excludes all other desires. Her love for Julien has taken away everything. Anne waits patiently for him to return and give her back her world, which without him, seems to her empty and flavorless. After all, heteronormative desire, as opposed to queer desire, is based on exclusion: exclusion of bodies, relationships, desires. Its function is to circumscribe and define when desire is appropriate and how one should pursue it. But it also tells us how we should be, and in Astragal, there are the echoes heard throughout female writing on love—that very Lana Del Rey-esque notion that girlhood is defined by putting love first. Anne wants it all, a ride or die love, and she’ll live with the sole focus of romanticizing this aspect of feminine existence.
Her life takes the form of a trip from prison to prison. In making heterosexuality a theme, Sarrazin has been accused of female passivity, referred to as “conventional” by some modern critics. But in writing herself in and around love, twisting always further into love, she’s working toward a self-possession, centering her desire, herself as the lover, the female troubadour. Her literature becomes a form of resistance that allows her to escape the entrapment of heterosexual desire. “Gendered writing”, which includes Astragal and this column, is a form of writing that constructs femaleness as a shared intimacy. Through writing we keep alive a community and the desires that go beyond our loneliness while normalizing our struggles. The book forms a community around it of female friendship, desire, readership, and longing—and a reminder that there is more to life than a boyfriend.
Astragal ends just as Julien and Anne are about to begin their life together: Anne’s foot is healed and Julien has—finally—decided to completely dedicate himself to her. But just as their new life is about to begin, the law catches up with Anne: the police arrive at her door to take her back to prison. Anne seems almost giddy, relieved. There’s almost no difference: in prison or out, she’s still waiting on Julien. Either way, she’s writing in and out of the delicate chasm between romantic fantasy and lived intimacy.