Jan Zwicky writes in her Lyric Philosophy that there are two ways to make language ‘cohere’: one is by ‘a leap of synthetic imagination; a chiselling of details to fit some antecedently envisioned structure’. But ‘with a life’, she argues, ‘the syntax is the semantics, the meaning is the use’. Hazel Brown, the protagonist of Lisa Robertson’s first novel The Baudelaire Fractal, occupies herself with trying to ‘loosen the structures that govern existence’. By circulating in the ‘nervous fluid of a city’, inhabiting anonymous hotel rooms and rented flats, Hazel hopes to ‘become a style of enunciation, a strategic misunderstanding, a linguistic funnel, a wedge in language’. Robertson’s novel tells the story of Hazel writing the book we are reading; as a result, the protagonist’s life and writing are difficult to separate.
The blurb neatly defines the book’s premise: ‘One morning, the poet Hazel Brown wakes up in a strange hotel room to find that she’s written the complete works of Charles Baudelaire’. Robertson, however, doesn’t spend much time elaborating on this predicament, and doesn’t develop a historical fantasy as literally as the blurb would suggest. It’s not until about three quarters of the way into the book that Robertson seriously elaborates on this incident, writing:
What happened was this: I smashed up against a violent and completely formed recognition that entered through my sleepy hands. The poems were my poems. The words as I read them were words I knew deeply because they were my own, the way my skin was physiologically my own.
The case of mistaken authorship, rather than entailing a direct transposition of the mind of Baudelaire into a modern woman, is an incident that casts thought and imagination as bodily phenomena. By dissolving boundaries of space and time, and dissolving the boundary between one person (or thinker) and another, Robertson moves away from the artificial leaps of imagination Zwicky describes.
In this moment of waking confusion, Hazel feels no barrier between herself and the words on the page. ‘Such an admission’, Robertson writes, ‘will seem frivolous, overdetermined, baroque’. But in a broader sense this misidentification – which is not actually false – becomes the guiding principle of the book. The important caveat to this comes in a prefatory note, which declares: ‘These things happened, but not as described.’ Elsewhere the protagonist declares that she reads in order to attain this uncanny feeling; she appreciates being able to ‘feel physiologically haunted by a style’. This displacement of the self unsettles Hazel, allowing for the ‘structured liberation from the personal’ that she craves.
Confusion is valuable for Robertson because it means possibility. She spends a lot of time in the disorienting space of waking thought:
Between the puzzlement and its summary abandonment, between the folds of waking consciousness and their subsequent limitation, is a possible city. Solitude, hotels, aging, love, hormones, alcohol, illness – these drifting experiences open it a little.
For Robertson, the confusion of waking doesn’t just obscure where the waker is, and what their name is, but what kind of body they inhabit. She conveys intense boredom and frustration at waking up and having to accept ‘this particular, straitening I’ and the identity that comes with it: ‘with a tiny wincing flourish one enters the wearisome contract, sets foot to planks’. Hazel prolongs this state of indeterminacy by always being in motion. Recounting her drives ‘home from my lover’s apartment at 2 a.m., 3 a.m’ in Vancouver in 1995, she describes attaining a state of genderlessness: ‘I was a driver, not a pronoun, not a being with breasts and anguish’.
For Robertson, post-Revolution Paris represents the opposite of the fluid ‘possible city’ that exists at the moment of waking: ‘In Haussmannian urbanism, the grid in its various ideological manifestations cut through and replaced the winding entanglements of life and art and desire in the city’. Hazel, however, forges an imaginative path, coloured by ‘the collage of fantasy, pigment, quotation, and architecture that I walked through daily in my outfits and my obsessions’. She seems in this sense to have absorbed some of the freedoms of Baudelaire, the famous flâneur. And yet, Hazel’s existence within the city remains distinctly gendered, especially given the network of feminine labour that she drifts in and out of during her brief stints as a housekeeper and au pair. As a woman, Hazel is in theory more closely identifiable with Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duval, whose body, endlessly written about and painted by Baudelaire and his coterie, is both ‘the field of an aesthetic proclamation and its withdrawal’. Although troubling, this kind of contradictory position is what allows Hazel to fulfill her desire to become a ‘strategic misunderstanding’.
Clothing becomes increasingly important throughout the novel as it both represents distinctly coded femininity and allows for freedom of representation. Clothes can produce the same feeling of haunting that reading does: Hazel remarks that the tailoring of a new jacket ‘moulded a new gait, a new stance, a gestural etiquette’ for her. Since they can make her feel, move and act differently, garments ‘form a geometry of thinking’ – akin to a literary style. Vintage clothes preserve ‘the stances, gestures, and caresses of vanished passions and disciplines’, and so effectively allow her to inhabit other people’s bodies. Her ‘history of garment-love’ is ‘perverse’ because these garments individualise and depersonalise her at the same time.
In Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer describes clothing as part of the baggage that women necessarily carry around: ‘The flâneur is a poet is an agent free of purses, but a woman is not a woman without a strap over her shoulder or a clutch in her hand.’ But Hazel Brown manages to occupy both of these positions; her mission is to transform the garment from a constraint to a framework that, like a literary form, can be malleable. Boyer writes that she will one day ‘write a long, sad book called A Woman Shopping’ that would be ‘about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it.’ Robertson’s Baudelaire authorship conceit allows Hazel to sit on both sides of these paradigms and to identify with both Baudelaire and Duval.
Hazel’s awareness of her femininity troubles her reading of literary giants, and her formation of a literary identity. She wonders, ‘Who was I then, what was I when I, a girl, was their reader, the reader of the beautiful representations? Who was I if I became the describer, and how could I become this thing before perishing?’ Her only certainty is that she does not want to be fixed within the paradigms of observer-observed and reader-writer. A portrait of a defiant-looking young girl by Émile Deroy prompts her to ask: ‘how does a girl become what she is – with no knowledge, but all of her visceral autonomy?’ Hazel’s response is to borrow from and misuse tradition. Her readings of poems and paintings are openly subjective and selective; when she mentions Baudelaire she admits ‘I’d barely read him’.
Anne Boyer stresses the liberatory potential of the strategic misunderstanding:
Sometimes this kind of metaphor that is the revolutionary enchantment of ordinary objects happens by contemplating some object, environment, or infrastructure of the world and asking: WHAT IF I USE THIS WRONG. Also of language WHAT IF I USE THIS WRONG. Also of what we are supposed to believe WHAT IF I USE THIS WRONG. And also of what we are supposed to do with our bodies WHAT IF I USE THIS WRONG and also of our lives WHAT IF I USED THIS WRONG and also asking WHAT IF I TIE ONE THING TO ANOTHER, and also WHAT IF I SEPARATE THIS FROM THAT and WHAT IF I REMOVE THIS FENCING and WHAT IF WE TAKE WHAT WE NEED.
Because Robertson is concerned with enacting these small-scale misuses, it sometimes feels like we’re lacking a sense of what Hazel does or feels. But Hazel is preoccupied at the time of writing – ‘in this cottage in the middle of my life’ – with articulating minute and intricate feelings: ‘small-scale transpositions, tiny openings within the texture of the present, where choices towards a freed thinking could be possible’. The action of the book unfolds quietly, across extended meditations on literature, painting and tailoring, and the small-scale emotional ruptures Hazel experiences on her travels. When Hazel outlines her ideals for her own writing, she states: ‘My descriptions would not be about being seen’. If the novel is a portrait, it’s one that is never finished.
The Baudelaire Fractal doesn’t resemble a novel in most of its traditional senses, though the classification doesn’t really matter. Robertson bends the form to her will, and the result is captivating even as it tends towards abstraction. This book dispels over and over the ‘boring and persistent and disappointing’ moment of remembering who you are.
Julieta Caldas lives in London. She has written for The Interpreter’s House, Sabotage and the Oxford Review of Books. Her poems have appeared in Tentacular and the anthology Make Me Money & Don’t Piss Me Off (SPAM Press, 2020).