Novelist Albertine Sarrazin evokes confinements inside and outside criminal institutions
by Albertine Sarrazin
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You can take the girl out of prison, but you can’t take prison out of the girl. Anne, the nineteen-year-old narrator of Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal—published in France in 1965 and in the US in 1967, and now reissued by New Directions—has liberated herself from a “prison school” by jumping off a thirty-foot wall. Landing, she breaks her left ankle, but this injury may be less grievous than the lingering effects of her incarceration. She has a disturbing awareness that even now, on the outside, she is a creature of the institution: “Prison still surrounded me: I found it in my reflexes, the jumpiness, the stealth and the submissiveness of my reactions.” She is still “ruled by the clock . . . the invisible prison clock that watches you.” Her mind has become the “slave of mechanisms.” Her boyfriend Julien suffers from the same condition. They meet when he finds her sprawled in the road after her escape. Later—having rescued her, installed her at his mother’s house, slept with her—he confesses that he’s an ex-con himself. “I knew it,” Anne thinks. “There are certain signs . . . a way of talking without moving the lips while the eyes, to throw you off, express indifference or the opposite thing; the cigarette held in the crook of the palm.” Confinement, in other words, forever marks the prisoner’s body and gestures, inscribing itself as a somatic language that can’t be unlearned.
Sarrazin was herself a creature of institutions. Born Albertine Damien in Algiers in 1937, she was abandoned by her teenage mother and raised by adoptive parents in Aix-en-Provence. In early adolescence,
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