6 August 2018

Jacques Layani: Albertine Sarrazin : une vie (2001)

On the cover, the beautiful and photogenic Albertine Sarrazin stares longingly at the viewer, as if she loves him or her. The shot was taken two years before her senseless death, when she was for just two years caught up in in a merry-go-round of publicity after publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert had discovered that she was a brilliant writer and published two novels of hers: L'Astragale and La Cavale, both in 1958, swiftly followed by her third and last novel, La Traversière. And then her life – frequently out of control – went out of control for keeps.

This biography tells us that Albertine Sarrazin – who was forced to assume a number of names throughout her life, only some of which she invented for herself – was born in Algiers and adopted by a much older couple via the Assistance publique. Well, that was always the official story – and one Albertine believed all her life – but it was in part a lie. Her 'adopted' parents were only half adopted, as her 'adopted' father, a doctor and a slimeball who appears to have believed in a kind of droit du seigneur (or droit de cuissage), was in fact her real father by his maid. But he never said a word about it, and never showed any fatherly love.

Growing up unloved and miserable, Albertine was shunted about to various places, one being the Bon Pasteur school-cum-prison in Marseilles from which she escaped for Paris. Raped by an uncle at the age of ten, she seems to have taken for granted the lust of a few of the people who picked her up while hitch-hiking, and on arriving francless in Paris what could seem more natural to her than prostituting herself in order to survive?

And then Albertine pursuaded Marie, a friend inmate from Bon Pasteur, to run away and join her. A mistake, as they acquired a gun and Marie used it when they held up a woman in a clothes shop  and shot her in the shoulder: but although Marie did the shooting, Albertine was seen as a instigator and got two more years than Marie's five. Moved from Fresnes to Doullens, Albertine couldn't face the thought of staying in prison any longer, jumped over the wall (the equivalent of four floors) and hurt her ankle.

This is when it gets really weird, far less believable than any movie. Staggering, Albertine was spotted by a lorry driver who could have lost his job if he'd taken her, so flagged down the next vehicle which contained a certain Julien Sarrazin and his boss, who was well aware of where she'd come from and was having none of it. By the way Sarrazin spoke though, Albertine could tell that he had served time, and (quite a stocky guy) Sarrazin told his boss that if he revealed any of this to anyone he was in trouble: meanwhile back in Amiens (a mere thirty kilometers away) he'd come back on his motorbike to pick up Albertine and hide her at his mother's.

The large Sarrazin family could barely afford another mouth to feed, and Albertine was shunted around various places in Amiens, but the relationship grew and they married, partly living by stealing and making a few returns inside.

However, Albertine had been writing for most of her life and was an undiscovered brilliant writer, although it was some years before Pauvert discovered her and she became famous. Her novel L'Astragale, translated into seventeen languages and as Astragal in English (but not 'The Anckle [sic] Bone' as Layani states), comes from the broken ankle bone on her fall from Doullens. She was now an important literary figure, but this was not to last.

Albertine Sarrazin died a few months before she reached thirty, and the repercussions continued for years: Albertine was mis-anaesthetised, should have had a blood transfusion but her blood group wasn't known, in effect her operation was a farce, but Julien Sarrazin – who had spent years waiting for release in prison – had all the time in the world to wait until the 'toubibs' (quacks) who had killed his wife got their just deserts. And eventually he won, although the surgeon had died before manslaughter was declared.

Needless to say, until the end of his life Julien Sarrazin worked to promote Albertine's work, and wrote a book himself – Contrescape (1975)concluding when he met Albertine. Albertine Sarrazin is quite a read, and the 320 pages fly by.

Albertine was originally buried in the cemetery in Matelles, Montpellier, but transferred to L'Oratoire, where Sarrazin had built a tomb and sculpted a work of art on the top of it: a representation of an astragal.

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