One of the best things about going on a journey is selecting the book to take along. Sometimes the book forms part of the experience of visiting somewhere, and becomes entwined in remembering the place or with the travel itself. In this case, Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin, the book I take with me to Paris.
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. … without Astragal as my guide book.Patti Smith, Introduction
My edition of the book is introduced by Patti Smith’s essay on Astragal in which she describes her first encounter with the book, and touches on details that evoke the feeling of being young and hungry. Our young selves, the ones we remember and carry with us in clear images and snatches of memory, but so hard to put into words. It is a beautifully written essay, light in touch, and lyrical, with a flow to it but understated; it strikes that perfect balance between the personal and the significant.
‘My own words were not enough, only another’s could transform misery into inspiration.’ This encounter with another’s words and its capacity to change, to alter or steer one a certain way – the all important journey of the mind – is what I’m reaching for in my own work. And although I feel temporarily silenced by my admiration for Patti Smith’s essay, for its clarity and precision, by my wish to craft my own writing in a similar way, I know at least the flow of ideas begins by breaking the silence. Reading other’s words starts off the trail, the invisible connecting lines and the flow of thoughts; like walking.
At the end of a long day of walking, I have strayed along the Rue Mouffetard and stop at a cafe, slightly disoriented and in an unfamiliar part of the city. The cafe looks welcoming, with its sign for ‘happy hour’ outside, and seats on the terrace. Inside Paris Saint-Germain are playing Lille, and it is just the end of the first half. Later, when the football is finished, I order another glass of wine and move to the terrace, in the company of Albertine. There are breathless moments in the book, and I am in admiration for the quality of the writing, in capturing experience and the fleeting sense of things, with such precision and originality. It is the perfect companion to my trip.
The book begins with a leap, the escape from prison, the fall and landing. Rescued by another runaway, and taken to different hideouts across the city, a new life begins. A fugitive love, ever on the move and yet both still and dependent. The injured leg clouds everything, fuses everything that is happening around it, in pain. Another form of enclosure. This fugitive freedom takes its form in a restricted movement, and of waiting; for the leg to heal, for a lover to return. A surge of images both transcendent and bound to the physical, explore each crescent and pattern of the light of this new sensation, the restrictions and dependency in movement. Pain encircles each moment like the prison her heart is now contained within.
Through Jean Rhys I am finding a way to write about prisons, and escape. The prisons we find ourselves in, and prisons of our own making.
I have never read anything quite like it. Its vivid and imploring syntax, the words traverse back and forth and around the central image, the point of experience, the moment slides and forms between and across the words. The prose bends around the pain of the damaged leg, it drags her down and contains her, like the enclosed spaces of her life away from prison; love and the encircled and winding heart.
… I was bursting with images anyhow: I’d been locked up too young to have seen much of anything, and I’d read a lot, dreamed and lost the thread. For me, reality was distorted like everything else …
A life had taken shape, after my arrest: for years, I had let it sprout, joyously absurd, naive and shameless. In that life you were never carried off, petted, saved; you stood up straight, in the dark cages of the paddy wagon, or sat up on the hard wooden slats. But in that life, all the same, you could get your kicks in secret in the certainty of each day’s routine. My new freedom imprisons and paralyzes me.
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin