I Color

The Baudelaire Fractal BY Lisa Robertson. Toronto: Coach House Books. 160 pages. $18.

The cover of The Baudelaire Fractal

“These things happened, but not as described.” So begins The Baudelaire Fractal, the vertiginous debut novel by poet, translator, essayist, and most genteel of insurgents Lisa Robertson. Like her previous books, her latest is a work of buoyant loveliness and muscular erudition, a lush thicket of thoughts that here enrich the ease and breeziness of personal narrative with the chewier textures of history, criticism, and literary theory. “Writing unfolds like a game called ‘I,’” declares the novel’s diaphanous narrator, behind whom Robertson herself lurks, and to whom she gives the name—the I color—Hazel Brown. Lovingly sported by Robertson like a bespoke jacket, Hazel Brown is a chronicler of memory and personhood, a composite held together by language, refusal, desire, pleasure, and other of life’s tensile threads.

From the middle of the French countryside, in the middle of her life, she composes the book in our hands as she pores over the diaries she kept during her lusty, voracious twenties, when she eked out a living in Paris, wishing and working to become a writer. What is this subject called girl? How does she come to fill the role of author? And who is this who under cover of the pronouns the world has imposed on her? Across these and other questions of self-possession, Robertson’s writing folds, continuously, crossing timelines so now and then stand face to face. Between them is a fertile playing space in which Robertson thinks roundly on subjects such as authorship and inheritance and the imposition of the oddball, unshakable conditions called feminine, called poet, called I.

Near the beginning of the book, Hazel Brown, now a poet in her fifties, recalls the time she was visiting Vancouver to deliver a lecture and was suddenly struck by an insight: “Alone in the hotel I awoke to the bodily recognition that I had become the author of the complete works of Baudelaire.” Not merely the magnum opuses—the poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and essays such as “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne” (1863), which praised those who, in his estimation, captured and freed the spirit of the age—but “even the unwritten texts, the notes and sketches contemplated and set aside, and also all of the correspondence, the fizzles and false starts and abandoned verses, the diaristic notes: I wrote them.” Hoping to illuminate the means by which this strange transmission has come to her, she tries on various verbs to see if they fit—received, found, seized, infected—and while each word opens a possibility for understanding, none has the answer. Alas. “My task now,” she concludes, “is to fully serve this delusion.” And with that, Baudelaire becomes Hazel Brown’s . . . forefodder? I-dandy? Ergo ego? And she becomes his . . . inherit-her? After-thought? Write-hand woman? Poor puns aside (note: all my own), part of the delight of this book is wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.

Caitlin Keogh, The Illustrator, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 96 × 72". Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York
Caitlin Keogh, The Illustrator, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 96 × 72". Courtesy the artist and Bortolami, New York

In the years before a woman becomes a writer, the rooms are never her own, and that can be a very fine thing. Decades before receiving the Baudelairian authorship, when she first moved to Paris as a young woman, Hazel Brown stayed in cheap hotels, admiring the neutrality of spaces designed for everyone and no one: “No judgment, no need, no contract, no seduction: just the free promiscuity of a disrobed mind.” She thereafter sublets teensy, humble apartments, living alongside the unremarkable belongings of people she doesn’t know—an actress (a role-player), a graphologist (a handwriting analyst). She spends her days reading in the park, filling her head with the words of others, of people she also doesn’t know, and picking up boys to kiss and fuck. She is equally enamored of sex and sentences; each, sensual and electrifying, grazes her body, at once possessing it and proving its otherness. She takes menial jobs: one at the summer house of a convalescing widow, for whom she performs all manner of household duties; later, she’s hired to mind the daughter of a wealthy couple, shuttling her from school back to their apartment, where Hazel Brown does the ironing and dusting, playing proxy for the wife and mother who recently returned to work.

“I have said that I’ve felt that it is the room that writes,” Hazel Brown recalls, “that I simply lend it my pronoun.” (Elsewhere, she muses that tables and jackets and pen nibs write too.) So many things may produce a text, so what of Charles Baudelaire? If she is the author of his oeuvre, then it stands to reason that his hands—notoriously delicate and impeccably kept, as she notes—move hers across the page as well. Throughout the novel, Robertson weaves in biographical passages about the poet: his bourgeois upbringing, and the comforts from which he never fully divested himself; the adoration and devotion he showered on his mother; the rage and loathing his stepfather, Colonel Aupick, received from him with equal force. Given limited draw from the family coffers, Baudelaire—preferring luxury to the time-honored penury of a poet’s life—lived well beyond his means, ducking debt collectors by abandoning rented room after rented room in the middle of the night, until his death in 1867 at the age of forty-six. Our narrator also meditates on the fate of Jeanne Duval, an actress of African and French heritage with whom Baudelaire was passionately in love, spending twenty-one years with her, and about whom relatively little is known.

Robertson/Brown is not flatly enamored of Baudelaire (readers may get weary and need to drop a ball once in a while when juggling a three-in-one writer-mind): “In truth I’d barely read him,” she confesses. Not to mention that a nineteenth-century Frenchman can be a downright embarrassing entanglement for a twenty-first-century woman, what with his outmoded ideas regarding gender and race: she-beast, Black Venus, witch, nymph, and angel being some of the things he called Duval. But where he falls short as subject, he is caught and recovered by Robertson as form and idea, and as a quality of attention to the world. For all but one of her novel’s chapters, she takes the title and a thin narrative filament from the prose poems in Baudelaire’s posthumously published Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen, 1869) and spins her own story. By way of example, from Baudelaire’s “Windows”: “But what does it matter what reality is outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?” For Robertson’s chapter titled “Windows,” she refracts this idea into a scene in which she remembers a boy she would spy on through the window of an apartment in the building adjacent to her hotel, “his serious typewriter mirroring my own, the image of the studious youth seated at his writing composed itself in my self-image.” As le poète maudit penned in his famous letter to the writer Arsène Houssaye about this collection: “I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally.” He likens it to an autotomic serpent: “Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone.” Little did he understand that the pieces would one day be propagated by a she-poet (as Robertson says) to grow new beasts altogether.

Kinship is another word Robertson/Brown uses to describe her synaptic relation to Baudelaire; later, she posits that it was an innate sense of hospitality, which women are generally taught to have, that left her open to welcoming this authorship. One of the most enjoyable side effects of reading The Baudelaire Fractal is how Robertson’s socking it to Harold Bloom’s fraught “poet in a poet” model—no anxiety of influence here!—bends a reader’s ear toward the voices of still more writers and artists and thinkers whose presence also produced these pages in one way or another. And she, as a reader, theirs. Some she calls out by name: Poe, Perec, Lorrain, Godard, Nietzsche, Barthes, Berger, Olson, Bonnard, Benveniste. Regarding Baudelaire’s feebly theatrical suicide attempt while at a cabaret, Hazel Brown sighs, “Oh Baudelaire, you’re pathetic, I love you,” her exhale sharing a certain air with the final line of poet Frank O’Hara’s paean to Lana Turner: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.” In the penultimate sentence of the novel—“I’m thinking about the immense, silent legend of any girl’s life”—hear the echo of an unfinished thought that Walter Benjamin jotted down, published in his luminous study The Writer of Modern Life, a radical rethinking of Baudelaire’s output, which in turn rewrote the poet’s place in literary history: “The significance of the life legend Baudelaire imagined for himself.” Robertson, with feminist wit, a dash of kink, and a generous brain, has written an urtext that tenders there can be, in fact, or in fiction, no such thing. Hers is a boon for readers and writers, now and in the future.

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor at Artforum.