Rachel Rabbit White on Albertine Sarrazin

Love Letters: Some of our favourite writers write on one of their favourite writers. Originally published in Issue 21.

Albertine Sarrazin met her future husband while they were both locked up in Amiens Prison; Albertine and Julien were separated by the gendered wings of the institution, yet they managed to fall in love and petitioned that they be allowed to marry. The prison priest refused the ceremony on the grounds that they, like all criminals, would inevitably be unfaithful.

L’Astragal, the auto-fiction-esque novel Sarrazin wrote while incarcerated, begins with a prison escape. Her protagonist, Anne, makes it out by jumping from the institution’s walls, though just barely, breaking her ankle in the fall, crawling in thorns and mud until she is come upon by a trucker who sends help. Rescued by love in the form of a man named Julien, who helps her into hiding.

During her (tragically brief) lifetime, Sarrazin encouraged an autobiographical reading of the text, blurring the lines between art and life. The book is a love story about a pair of fugitives on the run—Julien hustling, Anne laying low with a broken foot—and the faithfulness that love always requires, regardless of whether or not you are waiting on your lover to come back from a heist, or that either of you could get sent back to prison at any moment. It’s about the certainty it takes to choose to fall in love, as well as an uneasiness with the certainty romantic love seems to forever demand, balancing an unwavering self-possession in the face of love even as it becomes obsessive, paralyzing, confining. 

Once Anne is out of prison she finds there are thousands more prisons; even if they are the prisons one chooses. 

In the book, Julien comes and goes and Anne is forever waiting on his return. Julien doesn’t have to tell Anne that he too has done time; there are certain ways of knowing, a way of holding a cigarette in the crook of the palm, a way of talking while barely moving the lips, eyes expressing the opposite of what’s being said to throw anyone off. The uneasiness of daytime.

It’s at night that they move. At night they can be themselves together, doing nothing but letting the intimacy fuse them, as Genet once put it. 

When Julien leaves again in the day, Anne finds herself examining her situation with anxiety. 

In the life of prison she had never had to deal with the bargain of having been saved, she reminisces about that life of hard wooden slats and standing up straight, the certainty of each day’s routine, getting her kicks where she could.

When recalling a former lover, Cine, a woman she knew in prison, Anne complains, “Cine! I was tired of her certainties, of her possessive extremes…” She does this, saying that Julien has called her back to men; but then begins reminiscing about another girl she was involved with. She fantasizes that when her foot gets better she will go and find her, but imagines returning to Julien, inevitably, the thread between them strengthening and coiling itself. Him, me, him, me.

But certainty is never a given, Anne laments. Life would manage to break it, this thread, like all of the others.

The only thing to do, she decides, is to not care about what comes in the end, to not even care what happens next, to desire only what is between them now, lazy, warm in the silence, she naked, on the chair and watching Julien who is sleeping; this moment is real and alive, I stretch it into eternity… 

Eventually, Anne can again walk and before she’s fully healed, grown sick of laying low in hide-outs, she takes off to find a place to live in Paris. Out on the lam, she’s back on the hustle, visiting the bars frequented by prostitutes, reuniting with old friends, making money for new clothes and mascara and stockings.

In her journals, Sarrazin wrote of her life: “I chose elsewhere, because I have a taste for risk.” And on her criminal record of theft: “My theory of theft is not laziness but freedom, because of the heartbeat and the absolute independence.”

Inevitably though, being on the lam catches up with Anne. Just as she and Julien are finally about to settle down together, she’s taken off by the police, and in this way, Sarrazin and Anne both end on unwavering faithfulness, loyal to a love in its dire period of all-consuming passion; Anne is going away and Julien can remain pure for her, with no details of reality to bother them.