Sarrazin, Albertine (1937–1967)

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Sarrazin, Albertine (1937–1967)

French writer whose work was based upon her experiences as a criminal and prison inmate. Pronunciation: Al-bear-TEEN Sarah-ZAN. Name variations: Albertine Damien; Anne-Marie R. Born in Algiers, French North Africa, on September 17, 1937; died of cardiac arrest during surgery on July 10, 1967, in Montpellier, France; married Julien (Jules) Sarrazin (a fellow criminal), on February 7, 1959.

Adopted by a couple in Algiers (1939); moved from Algeria to France, raped by member of her adopted family (1947); incarcerated in reform school (1952); escaped from reform school, rearrested following robbery of a dress store (1953); her adopted family revoked her adoption (1956); escaped from prison, met Julien Sarrazin (1957); freed following several additional terms in prison (1960); injured in automobile accident (1961); new series of crimes and imprisonments (1961–65); her first novels accepted for publication, settled in Montpellier (1965); received Four Jury Prize for La Cavale (1966); film version of L'Astragale appeared (1967).

Major works:

(novels) La Cavale (The Runaway, 1965), L'Astragale (Astragal, 1965), La Traversière (The Crossing, 1966); (diaries and other prose works) Journal de Prison 1959 (Prison Journal 1959, 1972), Le Passe-peine, 1949–1967 (Doing Time, 1949–1967, 1976).

In her short writing career, Albertine Sarrazin became a noted figure on the French literary scene. Basing her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, upon her eventful and tragic life as a criminal and prison inmate, she received a large measure of popular and critical acclaim in the mid-1960s. Two of Sarrazin's three novels were bestsellers, and her writing received a second surge of critical interest after her death with the rise of feminist concerns as well as renewed interest in prison conditions due to a series of riots in the 1970s. Her voluminous correspondence and her diaries were published posthumously, and her Journal de Prison 1959 continues to be read widely along with her novels.

Some early critics viewed the quality of her work with some skepticism. Henri Peyre, for example, lauded her "fine sense of comedy" and her "genuine talent as a stylist," but he attributed much of her success to the skill with which her first two books were publicized. In more recent years, Elissa Gelfand , the most prominent scholarly student of Sarrazin's writing, has interpreted her work from a different perspective, that of "socio-literary feminist criticism." Gelfand gives Sarrazin credit for being a significant feminist writer. She sees Sarrazin, in her prison journal but even more so in her novels, as an important example of a woman rejecting the socially imposed identity of a deviant. Instead, Sarrazin insists on her identity "as a writer, not as a criminal." According to Gelfand, Sarrazin, while not a feminist herself, sharply criticizes conventional social standards, thus mirroring a rising feminist consciousness that was rejecting conventional gender and other categories by the 1960s. Other feminist critics such as Gloria Steinem have been less enthusiastic about Sarrazin, chastising her for a lack of political concerns and for her frequently supercilious descriptions of other women.

Sarrazin's writing is inseparable from her experiences during her brief lifetime. Notes Margaret Crosland : "It was the intensity of this restricted life [in prison] which developed her obsessive need to write." Her books described her years in prison, which dominated her world from the early 1950s until 1964 and which constituted nearly one third of her abbreviated lifetime. They dealt as well with the periods she spent immersed in criminal activity. Moreover, some of her writing also examined her thoughts about her role as a writer as she was producing her various works.

Perhaps the most rewarding quality in her writing is her irrepressible optimism.

—Margaret Crosland

Sarrazin's writing diverged from the experimental forms prominent in France at the time and featured in the work of such innovative authors as Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras . Instead, her accounts of prison life and criminal activity were traditional narratives. As Gelfand has pointed out, Sarrazin was less interested in the routines of prison life—although she described them in substantial detail—than she was in her personal growth and development within this harsh framework. A number of prominent French women who were imprisoned, starting with Manon Phlipon (Madame Roland ) during the French Revolution, have recorded their experiences. But Sarrazin turned such writing in a new direction by transforming her experiences into fiction. It was, in Gelfand's words, a "sharp turn toward a new literary orientation in prison writing."

Sarrazin's combination of detachment and defiance was also notable. In contradiction of the general public's frequent presumption that confinement in a women's prison means immersion in lesbian relationships, she repeatedly asserted her continuing heterosexual desires. She refused to concede that sexual desire is diminished by being placed behind bars. Instead, she insisted on her continuing attraction to Julien Sarrazin. She rejected the prison custom in which all women were addressed by their maiden names. Even before her marriage to Julien she referred to herself as "La Sarrazine." While her work was repeatedly confiscated or even lost by the individuals in charge of her various places of confinement, she continued to write clandestinely. Even when it came to reflecting on her life as a criminal, Sarrazin insisted on her autonomy. It was not society or even her scarred childhood that pushed her into activities outside the law. "I chose elsewhere, i.e., outside the realm of sanctioned activity," she wrote, "because I have a taste for risk."

The future writer was born in Algiers in French North Africa on September 17, 1937. She was apparently the illegitimate child of a teenage Spanish mother who deposited the baby at the local Welfare Office. It is possible that an Arab was her father. Officials at the Welfare Office gave her the name Albertine Damien. Her subsequent life was shaped in large measure by her adoption, at the age of two, by a French army doctor serving in North Africa and his wife. Various sources identify the elderly couple's family name only by the letter "R." They renamed the child Anne-Marie, and in her obviously autobiographical literary works, Sarrazin used a variant of this new name (Annick or Anick) to designate herself as the narrator.

The adoption was not a happy one. In 1947, after the family returned from Algeria to settle in Aix-en-Provence in southern France, Albertine was sexually assaulted by an adult male relative. Meanwhile, although she proved to be a notably talented student, her relations with her adopted parents deteriorated. Two harsh consequences followed. Her family moved to end their formal relationship with her by annulling the adoption. Meanwhile, in November 1952, her father placed her in a reform school, the Refuge of the Good Shepherd in Marseilles.

Sarrazin escaped in less than a year, using the opportunity offered by a trip outside the school to take her examination to graduate from secondary school. Ironically, before fleeing she took and passed the examination at the exceptionally young age of 16. She made her way to Paris where she reunited with Emilienne, a girl from the school with whom she had established a homosexual relationship. Albertine supported herself by working as a prostitute, but she and Emilienne made an unsuccessful venture into armed robbery. They were quickly arrested, and Sarrazin received a seven-year jail sentence.

The curious combination of a young girl who was a criminal, a gifted student, and a budding literary talent manifested itself during this period. In prison at Fresnes, then in the reformatory at Doullens in Picardy in northeastern France, Sarrazin began to write both poetry and prose. The prose took the form of notes that were later published in her prison journal. Meanwhile, she continued to study for the state examination required for entry into study at the university level. This period also brought her into contact with a new and positive influence. At Doullens, she had regular meetings with Dr. Christiane Gogois-Myquel , a psychiatrist who came to appreciate the young woman's literary gifts and encouraged her to go on writing. Sarrazin later dedicated her first book, La Cavale, to Gogois-Myquel, whom she referred to cryptically as "my one-sixteenth of a mother."

In April 1957, after four years of incarceration, Sarrazin escaped from the reform school at Doullens. During the breakout, she suffered a broken ankle, but she was saved from recapture by Julien Sarrazin, a truck driver passing by the prison who gave her a lift in his vehicle. This fortuitous meeting led to a relationship that lasted for the remainder of the young woman's life. Julien himself was a veteran criminal, and the two of them now joined their efforts to live as burglars. They were arrested in September 1958, and over the next two years each served a stretch in prison. On February 7, 1959, they were married during an interlude when Julien was temporarily free but Albertine was still confined. She was permitted to leave the prison escorted by guards in order to take part in the wedding ceremony. Both before and after the marriage, Albertine had written lengthy letters to Julien. These constituted an important part of her literary legacy.

A final set of troubles with the law came in the early 1960s. Both Albertine and Julien were arrested in 1961 for burglary, and she served a two-year sentence. Then, in 1964, by which time she was working as a journalist in Alès in southern France, she was taken into custody for petty theft: she had stolen gourmet food and whisky to prepare a coming-home party for her husband. Albertine was now given a prison term—her last—that she completed in August 1965. After her release, she and Julien moved to the remote Cevennes region of central France. Two years later, with her literary career well launched, she and her husband bought a house in the countryside outside the southern city of Montpellier.

The year in which Albertine finished her final prison term (1965) was the same one in which her first two novels, La Cavale and L'Astragale, appeared. They were published by the firm of Jean-Jacques Pauvert, which Gogois-Myquel had first contacted on Sarrazin's behalf several years before. Both drew upon her experiences of incarceration and the emotions of being released from prison. A third novel, La Traversière, appeared a year later.

Sarrazin wrote La Cavale secretly in prison in 1961 and 1962; her work on L'Astragale was the product of a period of freedom in the spring and summer of 1964. The novels depend largely upon conventional literary techniques, but French critics were immediately impressed by the colorful nature of her personal experiences and the vivid, confident way she had transformed them into fiction. She quickly became an important public personality as her books reached the bestseller list and she was invited to make appearances on television. La Cavale was entered in several prize competitions, winning the Prize des Quatres Jurys in Tunisia in the spring of 1966.

La Cavale takes its narrator through a year and a half of incarceration during the late 1950s in three separate prisons: Amiens, Soissons, and Compiegne. The title comes from the French prison slang word for an escape. The narrator, Annick Damien, is clearly speaking in the author's own voice. She presents a profane, cynical, and knowing view of prison life. From the first page, Annick makes it clear she is a veteran of numerous lock-ups, wise to the ways of such institutions, and always comparing the institution in which she finds herself to the ones she has known in the past. Accepting with equanimity the cast of characters she encounters in prison—fellow inmates and guards—she records in the same measured tone the minor kindnesses and bizarre behaviors she endures. "In the old days, I screamed, I broke things," she says, in the face of a prison that held her securely. Now, however, "I don't scream any more: It is I who watch the prison, I study the old contraption." She manages to detach herself from any close relationship with her fellow prisoners, dealing with them extensively only when it comes to such matters as trading in food and cigarettes. The twin obsessions in her thoughts are the deadening details of the prison routine, living in an all-female society, and her ongoing and imaginative plans for escape.

The only variations to enter the life described in La Cavale come with occasional court appearances in which she has a rendezvous with "Zizi," her lover and partner in crime. A notable event in the book comes when she is temporarily released in order to marry him in a nine-minute ceremony at the local mayor's office. The reader is struck by "Annick's" obvious intelligence and storytelling ability, and by the sordid circumstances of confinement into which she has repeatedly allowed her behavior to place her. Writes Sarrazin: "Excessive delicacy is as out of place here as the cultivation of sweet potatoes."

The favorable critical reception La Cavale received in France was matched by its popularity with the reading public. In less than a decade, 500,000 copies of the book had been sold in Sarrazin's native country. Elsewhere, the book's reception was less enthusiastic. Critics from the American literary community, like Steinem and John Updike, found the book—almost 500 pages long—to be largely a rambling and self-indulgent exercise.

L'Astragale, although written later, is set in an earlier stage of Sarrazin's life. Less than half as long as La Cavale, it describes the young author's escape from prison in 1957 and her first year with her future husband. Its title comes from the ankle bone that Sarrazin broke jumping from a 30-foot wall in order to get out from behind bars. The first scene places the author at the base of the wall from which she has just plunged, after which she crawls away from the scene of her incarceration. Picked up by the truck driver whom she will later marry, she expresses her joy in unmitigated terms: "A new century begins." After 16 months of freedom, in which she supports herself part of the time by working as a Parisian prostitute, she finds herself once again in the hands of the police and on her way back to prison. The book gave Sarrazin her greatest public acclaim, selling almost a million copies. A film version appeared in 1967.

Both books were translated into English and appeared in the United States within a year. Sarrazin's third novel, La Traversière, was likewise autobiographical and dealt mainly with her experiences leading to the publication of La Cavale. The only work Sarrazin wrote while living outside a prison environment, the book begins with a bitter and bleak depiction of her adopted family with her overbearing adopted father and his self-effacing wife. It continues with an account of her life after leaving prison, including her droll description of work as a journalist for a provincial newspaper. It appeared in 1966 in French, but it has never been translated into English.

The book is marked by the young author's uncertainty about the possibility of future literary success. It was, in fact, initially rejected by Sarrazin's publisher, and it received a notably harsh response from formerly friendly members of the French literary community. Wrote novelist Hervé Bazin: "Her tool fell from her hands just at the moment when it had become perfectly honed." A critic in the Times Literary Supplement (January 1967) expressed discontent in a more muted fashion. Noting Sarrazin's "genuine imaginative talent," the critic asked, "when will she give us a real novel?"

Sarrazin had scarcely any time to relish her literary achievements. Although extensive surgery corrected her broken ankle, she soon experienced a new physical problem in the form of a diseased kidney. On July 10, 1967, during an operation to correct this malady, she died suddenly at the age of 30. Her husband claimed that her death was the result of medical malpractice. He sued and won a substantial settlement which he devoted to the task of publishing all of her remaining writing.

The works that appeared after Sarrazin's death were the products of her first years as a writer. They were diaries and collections of letters, and they drew much of their inspiration from her troubled childhood and her years behind bars. The first was her Journal de Prison 1959, which was published in 1972. It was followed four years later by a more extensive collection, Le Passe-peine, 1949–1967. The latter work included a description of her precarious life in Paris in 1953 when she survived by working as a prostitute as well as her subsequent incarceration in Fresnes prison.

The brevity of Sarrazin's life and the relatively small body of work she produced is sobering. Nonetheless, notes Gelfand, even though "she did not have the time to mature fully," her work "gives sure form to her inchoate life experience" and it does so with "impressive literary sophistication and originality."


Brosman, Catharine Savage, ed. French Novelists since 1960. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989.

Crosland, Margaret. Women of Iron and Velvet and the Books They Wrote in France. London: Constable, 1976.

Gelfand, Elissa D. Imagination in Confinement: Women's Writing from French Prisons. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.

——. "Imprisoned Women: Toward a Socio-Literary Feminist Analysis," in Yale French Studies. Vol. 62, 1981, pp. 185–203.

Peyre, Henri. French Novelists of Today. NY: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Sarrazin, Albertine. Astragal. Translated by Patsy South-gate. NY: Grove Press, 1967.

——. The Runaway. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. NY: Grove Press, 1967.

Sartori, Eva Martin, and Dorothy Wynne Zimmerman, eds. French Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

Gelfand, Elissa D. "Albertine Sarrazin: A Control Case of Femininity in Form," in The French Review. Vol. 51, no. 2. December 1977, pp. 245–251.

——. "Women Prison Authors in France: Twice Criminal," in Modern Language Studies. Vol. 11, no. 1, 1980–81, pp. 57–63.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California