Lisa Robertson is a Canadian-born writer best known for her work as a lyric poet, essayist and feminist philosopher whose methodology employs texture and density as alchemical forces for thinking. Previous publications include Nilling (2012), a collection of prose essays on, among other things, noise, pornography and melancholy, and The Men (2006), a lyric poem which makes the ubiquity of men in art into a sensual, painterly muse. Her work often pushes into those spaces that are intangible, abstract and otherwise peripheral to language’s habitual explanatory reach.
Sometime in 2018, a twitter user called La Jeune Fille appeared online, accompanied by a photo avatar of a young-ish Charles Baudelaire. Tight-lipped, dressed prettily, in velvet collared smock and bow. Lisa Robertson used this platform to share extracts from her first novel, The Baudelaire Fractal, quickly gathering a cult following. Robertson’s work inspires readerly devotion.
The protagonist of The Baudelaire Fractal, Hazel Brown, wakes up in an unremarkable hotel room to discover that she has inherited authorship of the entirety of Baudelaire’s written work. ‘Reader, I become him’, Hazel tells us, echoing one of the most quoted lines from any 19th novel—Reader, I married him—before clarifying that, ‘No, I did not become him; I became what he wrote.’ This is the premise, delightfully surreal, which allows Robertson to explore a number of questions about subjectivity, literature and history. Like Jane Eyre, Baudelaire Fractal is a kind of female bildungsroman, an intimate first-person narrative and coming-of-age story.
Baudelaire Fractal calls itself a novel—Robertson has explicitly stated that this is not a memoir—and in doing so, it becomes one: ‘To everything I read in the diaries I now give the name novel, I give the name knock-off. Yet I am completely disgusted by literature. That’s why this is erotic comedy.’ Robertson is interested in disrupting diachronic understandings of literary lineage. To cite the influence of female authored ‘romance’ novels of the 19th century is already to acknowledge those lines that drag even further backwards, the sentimental male novelists of the 18th century who made such a show about their own fine feelings. In the opening chapter, Hazel tells us, ‘I’m as feminine as Rousseau’.
Baudelaire Fractal is divided into eleven chapters alternating between Hazel Brown’s time living in Paris in the 1980s, and Baudelaire’s own time there in the mid-1800s. Charles Baudelaire is the dandiacal poet who himself felt out-of-time and was fanatical about tailoring, perfume, paintings, décor and make-up.
While Paris enacted the project of capital and urban renovation, Baudelaire’s anachronistic commitment to Baroque sensibilities and to Beauty struck his contemporaries as obscenity. Baudelaire perceived himself as wretchedly feminine. He saw, in himself, too much of her, The Girl. Hazel, meanwhile, leaves the domestic servitude of her life in Canada to become a writer. This is an apprenticeship in reading. She learns about desire as she learns about philosophy and poetry—cruising the park for boys to kiss, anonymously fucking, living in one cramped room after another, living with irreverence, melancholy and rage. How does the reader get over the trauma of her own girlhood, her exclusion as the desiring subject? How can she, a reader in pursuit of beauty, evade being relegated to the realm of girl-thing? ‘The man-poets scorned what they desired; their sadistic money was such that the object scorned was endowed with the shimmer of sex.’ How does she, despite all this, begin to write? The 19th century offers up the perfect ghostly topology through which to pose such questions. The novel quickly opens outwards like an ornate puzzle.
In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin invoked Baudelaire as the archetypal observer of urban experience, a figure who could illuminate the 19th century project of modernity for the present time. Baudelaire Fractal, too, imagines Baudelaire’s writing and life as a gesture of resistance to the systemic forces of capital. However, Robertson’s novel is also an attempt to represent the ‘antithetical nature of the feminine concept’ as the fabric of this intellectual lineage. Those dandiacal styles that defy and evade determination by power and influence are put into taut dialogue with the question of who gets to be seen, and by whom? Of Benjamin’s longing for the bourgeois house, carefully shrouded in furniture slipcovers, Hazel-the-maid perceives his desire to keep female domestic labour invisible.
In Baudelaire Fractal, ‘Girlhood is itself a baroque condition.’ Observer, philosopher, flaneur, she too is committed to indolence and to fripperies. Hazel declares, ‘I’ll be a feminine man whose decadent joy resists all appropriation’, and in doing so, becomes one. The novel enacts a tentatively optimistic reclamation of the anonymity of Girlhood and the particular kind of shelter that it afforded the poet, unseen by money. Just as Baroque sensibilities, geographies and temporalities provided Baudelaire with strategies of aesthetic disobedience in the age of metric regulation, there is freedom at the raggedy peripheries of feminine experience. Fractals are those shapes and the surfaces that cannot be represented by standard geometry, or its governing laws. ‘These are the lines that compel us to linger near fountains, to kiss strangers, to place an ornate pleasure at the secret core of our language’. As with Robertson’s other essays and poetry, one cannot unpick the work without damaging that which inheres precisely and only in that ‘ornate pleasure’, in the detail of the novel’s lacework structure.
Baudelaire Fractal maintains a dialogue with theory that contains both bravado and joyful disobedience, citing critical texts that range from Karl Marx’s Capital to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phemenology. Baroque furnishings and draperies, perfumes and paintings provide the methodology as well as the surfaces and shapes on which to think around feminist theory and philosophy. Hazel discusses the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving, Melencolia. The notoriously enigmatic work features a slumped female figure thought to be a personification of melancholia, surrounded by symbols and tools. We are entreated to return to this image and to see, perhaps for the first time, the intricately frilled clasp of the purse that rests at her feet, tucked into the folds of her dress. The importance of the presence and function of this fabric purse, both as symbology and as composition, has gone overlooked by centuries of serious (predominantly male) art critics. The writing on art, and perhaps most particularly on tailoring, is relentlessly thrilling. Baudelaire Fractal thinks philosophy through the pull and swerve of tailored fabric, the staggered release of notes in a perfume, the ‘mute mineral affinity’ between the pigment of a painting and the body’s own composite materiality. Garments become an historical portal for the desires and gestures of bodies that have long since disappeared. Hazel Brown’s own intellectual journey emerges as a history of jackets worn, lost and found with the novel ending in a meditation on the only extant portrait of Baudelaire’s Haitian-born muse and lover, the actress Jeanne Duval. She was, said Baudelaire, ‘in her way’, also a philosopher.
The overall effect is an augmented complexity, unrelated to progress, expansion or growth, in our understanding of artistic lineage, history and subjectivity itself. Readers are offered, ‘the structured liberation from the personal’; new lines of desire to explore, new possibilities for revision and recombination of stylistic inflection. For Robertson, the transformative power of literature is not located in our encounter with sincerity or reality, but in the queer passage of artifice through the body in the act of reading, an ‘unacknowledged intimacy of linguistics’. The effect is an expansive, sometimes erotic, experience of synchronicity. Recognition isn’t just Baudelaire looking in a mirror in 1840 and seeing his shameful femininity, it is the dandiacal she-poet looking back, discovering that she, too, has privileged access to his decadent room, albeit via the back stair.
Nell Osborne co-runs No Matter, a reading and commission series based in Manchester. She is completing PhD research on ideas of violence, intimacy and feminist theory in British experimental writing from 1960s and 70s at The University of Manchester.