Acclaimed poet Lisa Robertson’s debut novel is a difficult book. But that should be expected, seeing as Robertson’s poetry is also famously difficult. Her work – conceptual, fixated on questions of form and linguistic subjectivity, the contextual instability of pronouns – is challenging in the best sort of way: it demands reader engagement. Ostensibly a bildungsroman, The Baudelaire Fractal examines the early Paris years of Hazel Brown, a respected Canadian poet who bears a striking resemblance to Robertson.
The author employs a Borgesian sleight-of-hand to frame her story. Echoing Borges’s character Pierre Menard, who reproduces, word-for-word and to stunning postmodern effect, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Robertson’s middle-aged Hazel awakes in a Vancouver hotel room to discover that she has “become the author of the complete works of Baudelaire. Even the unwritten texts, the notes and the 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.”
It is, admittedly, a fantastical place to begin: Hazel herself calls it “frivolous, overdetermined, Baroque” even. But she is quick to add that “it is no more singular for me to discover I have written the complete works of Baudelaire than it was for me to have become a poet, me, a girl, in 1984.” In other words, it is just the sort of conceit that Robertson requires to explore the novel’s central theme: the lack of equality for female thought, expression, and experience in literature.
Baudelaire offers Robertson the perfect conduit through which to examine the legitimacy of the feminine experience. His obsessions with sensuality and beauty, his dandyism and immersion in bohemian Paris, are echoed in flashback by the young Hazel Brown, who makes it very clear from the get-go that “I did not want to admire life, I did not want to skim it; I wanted to swim in it.”
Plot for Robertson is very much a metaphysical thing, and here it focuses on Hazel’s somewhat amorphous search for her own first principles of being, knowing, and identity. Meandering as it may be, and studded by Robertson’s stylistic flourishes – a Robertson sentence can roll and tumble across the page, accruing wonderfully unexpected meanings along the way – Hazel’s Paris sojourn is captivating. The sense of discovery is so palpable, so immediate, that one is happy to wander along with her as long as she’ll have us. Like a flaneur, the plot drifts through parks and cafés and museums and bedrooms, expounds upon art and fashion and photography and beauty – all the Baudelairian predilections. Interspersed throughout are telling incidents from Baudelaire’s own life, chiefly those dealing with his two-decade long relationship with the actress Jeanne Duval.
The narrative intrusions of mid-life Hazel – that mystical receiver of the Baudelairian authorship, who wants only to “make a story out of the total implausibility of girlhood” – do, at times, feel forced, as if they are there only to remind us of the book’s overall intent. That’s not to say they don’t offer up some very funny scenes of the poetic life. The incursions do at times afford Robertson room to expound upon the act of writing itself, to speak of its power to legitimize that which has been delegitimized.
As Hazel is at pains to point out, authorship does not denote authority. Rather, her understanding of the word’s etymology is that it comes from the medieval Latin: “auctore – to augment.”
This augmentation, this adding to, creates the space necessary to shed some light on “language’s dark work,” allowing the augmenter to include “the displaced parts, because they are pleasurable, because they are moody, lazy, slutty, mannered, frivolous, unprincipled, because they are necessary, because they are monstrous, because they are angry, because history needs them without knowing it yet, because without them, the world gets grindingly thinner and more cruel.”
The displaced parts of literary history are, namely, women. Like Duval, so intensely exoticized by Baudelaire “that Les Fleurs du mal seems to be composed of her hair, and skin, and scent.” And yet, because she was part Black, because she was an actress, because either Baudelaire or the critic Champfleury did not think her significant enough, she was erased from Courbet’s painting, L’Atelier du peintre, where she should be standing behind the poet, head “tilted downward to the right, as if she’s reading over Baudelaire’s shoulder.”
Ironically, it is time – along with “a chemical process of degradation” – that frees “Jeanne’s present but absent form behind the poet” in the painting, much as middle-aged Hazel, sitting under a flowering linden tree revisiting her old journals, frees her younger self. And perhaps that’s what Robertson, with this demanding, erudite, and quite remarkable novel, is telling us is required to return those who have been expunged from the pages of literature: time and effort. Which prompts the question: was the mystical transference of Baudelairian authorship even needed? The answer is probably not. But then again, maybe that’s the point.