Lisa Robertson’s first novel

Like a child watching a magic show, one opens a new book by Lisa Robertson with the delicious anticipation of being pleasantly deceived. So the news that the poet and essayist had published her first novel filled me with furtive excitement. The Baudelaire Fractal would be a novel, I figured, in the same way that Robertson’s 2001 poetry book, The Weather, was about weather: elliptically, with a nervous, fluid energy.

In that collection, the author describes her purpose as “to advance into / the sense of the weather, the lesson of / the weather.” What constitutes the sense of the weather? Take this passage from one of her extended prose poems:

The fresher breeze rustles the oak; our treachery is beautiful. Pop groups say love phonemes. We suddenly transform to the person. The hills fling down shadow; we fling down shadow. The horizon is awkward; we fling down shadow. The horizon melts away; this was the dictation. The ice cracks with a din; very frustrating.

If you’re struggling to understand the meaning here, take my advice: Don’t worry about it. Instead, consider the form, its jaggedness, the flickering coherence of images and half-rhymes (fresher breeze/treachery, -dictation/frustrating). The poem moves forward in a contrapuntal nod, the sentences broken in two. Robertson’s boundless tracts of text are weather: a movement of colours, moods, and textures coalescing and dispersing. The weather permeates our small talk and pop songs, our beliefs and apprehension of the future; we move through it as we move through architecture. These are not verses of bucolic reverie. The poetic line has been fractured, the horizon melts away.

In comparison, the writing in The Baudelaire Fractal is slower, geared toward detailed descriptions of mutable ideas and images. The sentences are baroquely layered, with nested clauses unfurling down the page like the folds of a satin gown:

Everything I was raised to be, all the docility instilled in me, the little punishments and constraints of girlhood, the intense violence and violations of adolescence, the roughly incised, undying shame of female maturity and fungibility, everything about my past and my ordained place in the world, which I tried to escape by constructing an autonomous world within the shoddy, inadequate confines of my room, my diary, my knowledge, all these things continued to live in me in the form of grave spiritual contradiction.

My point here about Robertson’s writing, which comprises eight poetry collections and several volumes of non-fiction, is that it very much expresses itself through its form, and its form is neither consistent nor conventional. (In the metatextual intemperance of having just finished a Robertson book, I can’t help lingering on the fugitive echoes of that last adjective, its harbouring of covenant, convent, coven.)

I was surprised, therefore, to find that The Baudelaire Fractal does have some formal trappings of a novel. We have a narrator, Hazel Brown, and a premise: Hazel wakes up one day to find that she has authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire.

While it makes for interesting back-cover copy, the Brown-as-Baudelaire angle is oversold. This is not like the 2019 Beatles-based parallel-universe film Yesterday; regrettably, our protagonist doesn’t recite Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal to thousands of delighted, oblivious fans. Rather, Hazel, now a middle-aged poet in rural France (where Robertson herself lives), revisits her bohemian twenties in 1980s Paris, a time spent living in cramped chambres de bonne, making out beside water fountains, and marching her eccentric thrift-store outfits through the galleries and boulevards of the city Baudelaire called home. These events constitute the novel’s action, of which there is not much.

Nor is there really a plot. The book progresses instead through a sort of purposeful meandering. In twenty-page sections that read like lyric essays, there are reflections on the stultifying and contradictory expectations placed on women, resulting in what Hazel calls the “implausibility of girlhood”; erudite and occasionally tiresome disquisitions about the “erotics” of everything from cities to furniture; and richly textured descriptions of rooms and any other surfaces that interest our narrator, a modern she-dandy in the mould of the book’s namesake.

The book’s scenes are not story developments so much as occasions for Hazel to examine her perceptual scaffolding. This narrative approach is both granular and sweeping in a way that is almost impossible to describe. One section begins with Hazel sipping beer and reading the Times Literary Supplement in a café. She’s wearing a sharp new teal-green suit. She doesn’t witness an incident, she isn’t approached by an intriguing stranger, and yet, like a compelling picture, the still image transforms. The outfit and the magazine, Hazel tells us, are “fictional,” meant to assist her “in an unnamed metamorphosis” to become “that other thing, which here I will call for the sake of brevity a poet.” This fictional garment is a “mystic portal,” one that she had tried to take to poetry, solitude being another, before she started writing it. In hindsight, she doesn’t scorn herself as a poser; this artifice was a necessary part of her metamorphosis: “The distinction between inner and outer worlds was becoming permeable and -supple, like a fabric.” Dressing the part is a metaphysical assertion, as is the act of reading. The “gentle gestures” of her fingers along the book’s spine, her foot moving slightly as she turns a page, bring Hazel “to the quiet certitude of this body, my odd body, as an image for thinking, an image for my own free use.”

Despite its sheen of bohemian idealism, Hazel’s life is not entirely charmed. She is renting shabby rooms not out of aimlessness but as a refusal of the servitude and docility forced upon women. “A girl in her hotel is free,” Hazel tells us, and “by free I mean that nothing is meant for her.” Ironically, she finances her modest freedom by working for bourgeois Parisian families. To avoid domestic life, Hazel cooks, babysits, dusts, polishes, irons, and sews. Nevertheless, she does this on her terms, for her own benefit, and, to alleviate this fundamental contradiction, she half-asses most of the work.

By most standards, The Baudelaire Fractal is dripping with pretension. When Hazel attends a soirée at the grand apartment of a chic young graduate studying under the post-structuralist Julia Kristeva, I couldn’t imagine a party I’d like to go to less. This is, after all, a book about appearances, about the joy, indispensability, and, yes, “erotics” of artifice. If long digressions about the history of tailoring don’t suit you, you are free to read something else. (I for one was delighted to learn about the theory that “the lapel is a gentleman’s expression of vulva-envy.”) But know that there is a gorgeousness and freedom in this novel that you won’t find elsewhere.