BAD BOYS AND WORSE GIRLS
This post appears a little early, but from now on they should appear every Saturday until further notice. The next post will appear Saturday 31st December
‘For a day and a half, I hovered between life and death, rolled up in a sea of tangled blankets and sheets, which stifled me, bound me, then unknotted into anguished and empty laces, where I rowed and thrashed like a shipwrecked person.’
from Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate)
‘The rumour in the town [in Kent in 1939] was that one night a lady member of the [local Fascist] party had been divested of her clothes, then tied in a crucified position on the blackboard easel, and painted with silver paint, until she resembled the little statuette which used to be seen on the bonnets of Rolls- Royces.’
From Touchett’s Party by Denton Welch ( first published in UK ‘Chance’ magazine in 1953)
Have you heard of those 2 short-lived literary enfants terribles, one a Frenchwoman and one an Englishman, one criminal in the conventional sense, the other arguably beyond the pale as a sexual deviant, because he was a homosexual, when admitting as much usually meant being shunned and abhorred, and even risking jail? Interestingly, they were both severely crippled in the prime of their youth, of which setback they made much that was brilliant and enduring in their fiction. Albertine Sarrazin (1937-1967) was best known for her fugitive novel Astragale (1965) and Denton Welch (1915-1948) as well as being a fine writer, was also a gifted artist. Sarrazin, often described as a female Jean Genet (1910-1986), another jailbird writer, was a French Algerian of debatable parentage. Abandoned and put in an orphanage by the social services, she was then adopted and taken to Aix-en-Provence in France. At the age of 10 she was raped by a relative of her stepdad, whereafter she made several attempts to run away from home. Her understanding step-parents eventually had her put in a hideous reformatory incredibly called The Good Shepherd, where she had an instant apprenticeship in the life of crime, at which she was soon to excel. Despite this predictable trajectory, before being institutionalised Albertine was a precocious child at school and excelled at Latin, literature and the violin. Her bedside photograph taken in her early 20s, shows her to be stunningly good looking, with a potently handsome Mediterranean face.
Eventually with her husband Julien Sarrazin, a petty thief, she transformed into a romantic and also dangerous Bonnie and Clyde figure. In and out of jail both before and after her marriage, she was regularly, whenever she needed the money, a successful prostitute. This tiny woman was an unrepentant heavy boozer, who once engaged in armed robbery with a female accomplice, for which she was jailed for 7 years. She died in hospital aged 29 of kidney failure, compounded by the attentions of an inept anaesthetist. In prison, she had published 2 books, La Cavale and Astragale (both 1965) and also penned La Traversiere (1966) in her precarious freedom. There are in addition Lettres a Julien (1971) and 2 posthumous prison memoirs. As all but Astragale are untranslated, and as I exasperatingly cannot read French, it might sadly be some time before I can get to grips with these.
Astragale gets its title from the French for talus bone, something which her heroine Anne (just like the author) had broken when she escaped over a 30-foot high prison wall. Sarrazin doesn’t bother changing the name of the passing motorcyclist who fortuitously rescues her, her future husband and criminal Julien, and it also turns out that Anne-Marie was Albertine’s baptised name. You can gauge of the book’s impact by the fact that Astragale has been filmed posthumously twice, in 1969 and 2015. The novel meanwhile has been reissued in English in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail, an impressively radical and courageous imprint which doesn’t ever mince its printed words, so to speak.
Anne/ Albertine is ultimately taken by Julien to a succession of criminal hideouts, all of the occupants treating the 19-year-old fugitive in numerous begrudging and spiteful ways. One of these criminal wives, Annie, manages to steal a huge amount of money that her lodger has acquired by burgling at dead of night the premises of a businessman she has picked up off the street. Anne explodes at sheepish Annie, then stalks out limping into the night, but later relents and returns to forgive her for her betrayal. This unusual motif of not caring too much about anything, intelligible in someone so painfully battered by life, runs throughout the narrative, and when the philandering Julien admits to an affair, Anne tells him she doesn’t care at all, as long as he does not abandon her! The Serpent’s Tail edition has a foreword by the celebrated US rock musician and poet Patti Smith (born 1946) and Smith shrewdly points out that with Sarrazin’s literary hero Anne (= Albertine) always waiting and hoping for Julien’s return, effectively he had cracked open her resistant heart, just as she the fugitive had agonisingly cracked her ankle. Furthermore, Smith has no problem in touchingly explaining her Sarrazin worship by comparing her hero’s vain adoration of Julien, with Smith’s own painful attachment to the controversial and gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) who died prematurely of AIDS.
Like Denton Welch, the crippled fugitive is obliged to seek hospital surgery in her desperation, and in her case with an obligatory faked identity. Meanwhile Welch’s autobiographical masterpiece, A Voice Through A Cloud (1950) is about his nightmarish time in hospital after being knocked off his bike and crushed by a negligent motorist. His subsequent rough and ready treatment at the hands of pre-war Home Counties doctors and nurses almost beggars belief.
‘Suddenly without any warning she [the radiographer] gave my body a sharp little jerk which sent such agony through me that I screamed out in distraction. Sweat broke out all over me; I lay there wondering what the woman would do to me next. She had me there alone, I could do nothing but beg her not to jerk me again.
The woman after the first shock of my scream said: “Oh, I never pinched you! Fancy making all that fuss! I never pinched you.”
At the opposite extreme of the social scale to Sarrazin, Denton Welch was born of wealthy parents (he had an American mother) and was raised in China. His manners as a child were uppish and rather melancholy, and once aged 7 he turned to his Mum and said that, ‘a flea would despise the amount of lemonade I’ve got, Mother.’ His Shanghai background appears in his debut autobiographical work, Maiden Voyage (1947) which was praised by the eccentric literary figure Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) and influential John Lehmann (1907-1987) publisher and 50s editor of London Magazine. Educated at snooty Repton, Welch went on to Goldsmith’s College, London to train as an artist, at which he showed precocious talent. Unfortunately, the accident to his vertebrae ultimately led to spinal TB, which resulted in his tragic death and unfulfilled promise at the age of 33.
As well as the unfinished A Voice Through a Cloud, Welch also wrote In Youth Is Pleasure (1948) a sensuous account of adolescence, and the stories Brave and Cruel (1944) of which waspish and suave Touchett’s Party above is an impressive example. Welch’s work is intense, finely wrought, and brilliant, when it comes to the description of the most nuanced inner sensations, especially those of the helpless invalid who fears quite rightly for his imminent mortality.
‘I gazed around me at the high white bed, the beetroot-pink curtains, the new-lit fire just scenting the air with smoke; but what held my attention was the shaggy Indian carpet. It was unexpectedly white with coarse flowers and leaves twining over it – perhaps the ugliest thing in the ugly room. But it was not ugliness that I was dwelling on as I stared at it; I was hugging to myself the feeling of having a room of my own again.’
A Voice Through A Cloud
To that extent, he is a far subtler writer than Sarrazin, though the latter certainly redeems herself by her pungent and abrasive candour, her true and often awful story which we know is thus, because she tells us exactly what she has experienced in the finely evoked rawness of her flawless memory. Incredibly, another and better known enfant terrible, the notorious US writer William Burroughs (1914-1997) author of the 50s novels Naked Lunch, Queer and Junkie, and a stylist of another colour with his random cut and paste collage, claimed Denton Welch as his principal influence. This patently fails to register in terms of the Englishman’s precise yet decorous prose, nor in his vividly idiosyncratic insights, and I would say that saturnine Burroughs was cheerfully flattering himself to that extent.
PS.In case you feel a little less well read than you thought you were, be assured that I had never even heard of Albertine Sarrazin until December 2016. It was a festive gift from a remarkable Englishwoman called Jan, who is one of those rare people who know how to choose not just suitable, but perfectly and uncannily appropriate gifts for her friends and family. My love and thanks to you, the one and only Jan from good old Suffolk (for it was in a Bury St Edmunds record shop in 1974 that I first discovered the glorious jazz and salsa singer Flora Purim).