The Long-Lost Novel Patti Smith’s Carried in Her Suitcase for Almost 40 Years

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 9:20 AM

My Albertine

Patti Smith on the long-lost novel she’s carried with her for almost 40 years.

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Illustration by Lisa Hanawalt

The Slate Book Review is proud to publish Patti Smith’s introduction to Astragal, the 1965 novel by Albertine Sarrazin, which is being reprinted this month by New Directions.

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—new scriptures shunned by the populace. 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 toward 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 meager 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 Our Lady of the Flowers, make love to me, and then disappear for weeks on end.

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These were the nights of one hundred sleeps: Nothing could appease my restless 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 encyclopedia, 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 toward 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 5 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 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 reline 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.

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