The Courage to Not Disappear: Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal

by Kasia van Schaik

Born in South Africa, Kasia van Schaik is a writer, editor, and critic living in Montreal. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Sea Burial Laws According to Country (Desert Pets Press 2018), and her writing has appeared in Canadian and international publications such as Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, CBC Books, This Magazine, Prism International, and The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology. Find her at @kasiajuno.

The Baudelaire Fractal
Lisa Robertson
Coach House Press
2020, 160 pp., $22.95


“First, I knew nothing, then I believed anything, now I doubt everything.”—Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal.


In a hotel room, in late middle life, the poet Hazel Brown wakes up to find that she has written the entire works of Charles Baudelaire. With this mysterious premise, the acclaimed Canadian poet and essayist Lisa Robertson invites the reader into her extraordinary new novel The Baudelaire Fractal, a work that blurs the line between art criticism, poetry, memoir, fiction, and manifesto. The ensuing journey follows a similarly elusive, intensely absorbing path through the latitudes and constraints of the life and self-education of poet Hazel Brown, whose biography bears the contours of Lisa Robertson’s own.

With the fragmentary, associative and prowling structure of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight, Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, W. B. Sebald’s ficto-histories, and even Agnes Varda’s auto-ethnographic documentaries, the novel proceeds in the tradition of what Ross Chambers calls “loiterature”—writing that roams, artfully digresses, moving freely between the literary work and the world (in this case the two concepts are fundamentally blurred). This world is framed by interiors, rented rooms, libraries, museums, brief encounters with strangers (both in books and in Paris streets) and, above all, stunning—at times breathtaking—sentences. It is within these interiors, both physical and syntactical, that the poet seeks to find a habitable space for female intellectual growth and experience.

This is why Hazel seeks to become a ‘describer’ rather than a ‘reader of beautiful representations’; to become an artist and not a muse—as was the fate of Baudelaire’s Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval, whose voice is erased by history.

“These things happened, but not as described,” claims the book’s epigraph; yet this line is more than a coy disclaimer positioning the narrative as fiction rather than memoir. The notion of a novel in which description is privileged over fact bears a deeper resonance in a narrative about the development of a female artist, as it explicitly foregrounds the protagonist’s position as active observer and describer over what could potentially be a more passive role as a vessel or filter for experience. The skill of being able to describe the world, we learn, holds a powerful promise for Hazel Brown, who sees description as “a second life, a way of being in the world…it enlarged the possible” and even creates it. This is why Hazel seeks to become a “describer” rather than a “reader of beautiful representations”; to become an artist and not a muse—as was the fate of Baudelaire’s Haitian-born mistress Jeanne Duval, whose voice is erased by history. Foregrounding the central concerns of the novel, Hazel proclaims:

Who was I if I became the describer, how could I become this thing before perishing? Would I then even recognize myself? Because I saw the perishing everywhere. Daily I read it…. anyone without a language for desire perishers. Any girl-thing.

This novel, then, is the outcome of an education in description, in language-making, and in the female artist’s self-recognition.

Hazel describes this process of self-education as a way of understanding the world through the sentence—those that have come before and those that are still to be written: “Reading unfolds like a game called ‘I,’ in public gardens in good weather, in a series of worn-down hotel rooms, in museums in winter, where ‘I’ is the composite figure who is going to write but hasn’t yet.” The poet wanders through public gardens and museums, invites men up the vertiginous corridors to her hotel bed, spends hours reading, admiring extravagant mannequins in thrift store windows, mapping the intimate histories of the poets and artists that inhabited these streets before her—in particular, the 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire and the actress and dancer Jeanne Duval.

In a recent interview in Bomb, Lisa Robertson explains the history behind the novel’s intriguing and surrealistic premise:

Hazel’s discovery is based on a strange reading experience I had. I was preparing to teach a class at the University of East Anglia, on the prose poem, so I was up late at night rereading Paris Spleen in relation to Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau’s last text. And Montaigne. Early the following morning, I opened my copy of Baudelaire and had the totally uncanny experience that I had written the text I was reading. I can recognize this as a symptom of teaching anxiety and sleep deprivation and intense reading. Much later after I’d begun writing the novel I learned that Baudelaire had that experience himself when he was first reading Poe as a young man.

Robertson’s strange reading experience makes visible the fractal-like procession of literary inheritance and influence. She firmly places the female poet within the lineage of male writers, while underscoring the anxiety-fuelled, uncanniness of the experience. Gustave Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” But, as the feminist critic Julia Kristeva reminds us, “today many women imagine, ‘Flaubert, c’est moi.’” We see a similar reversal in Robertson’s novel, except Hazel finds she is both responsible for Baudelaire’s oeuvre and alienated from it, speaking to the predicament faced by many women writers, who are both influenced by and marginalized from the traditional western canon.

Her excavations reveal the persistent female constraints and, as Robertson has acknowledged, intentionally contribute to the broader project of making room for women and girls’ intellectual life.

Robertson returns to this sense of the uncanny on many different registers in her exploration of the architecture of the city, of the book, of the sentence. Thus, from its roots in the ordinary, the story of a young Canadian woman, Hazel Brown, moving to 1980s Paris and becoming a writer becomes a journey of epic dimensions, moving across history, genre, geography, and narrative time. Her excavations reveal the persistent female constraints and, as Robertson has acknowledged, intentionally contribute to the broader project of making room for women and girls’ intellectual life.

By calling into question the ramifications of genre, by dismantling the novel structure and reimagining what counts as narrative and plot, The Baudelaire Fractal echoes Virginia Woolf’s wry assertion that “Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.”

Certainly, one “unsolved problem” facing the female poet is her precarious relationship to autonomy and public space. Though Hazel seeks to perform the role of loiterer or dandy—to campishly embody a typical Baudelairean stance—her efforts are persistently compromised. Indeed, in Paris, Hazel meets with some of the same challenges that Jean Rhys’s female loiterers faced decades earlier—particularly sexual aggression, solicitations for casual prostitution, violent objectification, and a gamut of other obstacles that incriminate and punish the female body in public male-privileged spaces. She describes an incident that escalates into violence:

In one of those rooms, I once exploded in anger at some rote insult. He threw down my book; I slapped his face. Next I felt the banal boy’s full weight behind the thumbs crushing down long on my trachea, his weight on my chest. This is a sure way to halt speech. With the flint-hard thought that I was experiencing my death, and a spark of surprise at the terminal simplicity of the fact, I spiralled into black. Nothing. Then new times floats up—my dull shock at the fact of my aliveness—the boy having meanwhile vacated the little scene of my body.

After returning to consciousness, with engorged eyes and a collar of bruises, Hazel leaves the room and ejects herself into the night. She does not allow this assault to thwart her education. Indeed, this is part of her education; she turns it into a strategy for unlearning the restrictions and conventional expectations of her gender and preserving what she calls her “inner piece of flint…the girl.” Years later in middle life, as she shifts through the memories and records of her girlhood, Hazel notes: “I pondered in my diary whether one could ever become an image for oneself, an image to live from, or at least to write from….it would be the self-given permission to not disappear to oneself. When I recognize afresh the courage it takes for any girl to not disappear to herself I am still shocked.”

The Baudelaire Fractal presents itself in various genres and forms: as a palimpsestic portrait of a city across time, an archive of everyday ambitions and disturbances, a bildungsroman

The novel is divided into ten sections, each named after the titles of Baudelaire’s prose poems: “The port,” “Windows,” “Scent Bottle,” “twilight,” “What is real?” Their titles read like a series of clues or a poem, describing containers and thresholds—containers for the sea, sunlight, liquid vapours, sugar, people, scent—and thresholds for the changing states of the day, the body, or the threshold between narrative and life (which is real?). These shapes reflect the politics and form of the narrative itself, what it contains, what it refuses to contain, the thresholds on which it loiters. Thus, The Baudelaire Fractal presents itself in various genres and forms: as a palimpsestic portrait of a city across time, an archive of everyday ambitions and disturbances, a bildungsroman (the prototypical narrative of individual development in society); it is a menstrual stain, a spill of strange perfume; it is a succession of fortuitous garments left in bare hotels.

Toward the end of the novel, the poet recalls a trip to England for the launch of her first book in which she armours herself in a newly thrifted, exceedingly dapper “Baudelairean jacket.” En route to the event hosted by a group of intellectuals and writers whom she describes as sharing “a scorn for capital” and an “appreciation for difficult syntax,” Hazel Brown visits a Joseph Beuys installation, The Pack, at the Tate with a friend.

[A] fleet of wooden dogsleds tumbles outwards, bearing grease-farded grey felt cargoes, fanning from the opened rear doors of a Volkswagen van, and as we rehearsed our reservations about Beuys’s shamanic proclivities, barely conscious of my gesture, I reached for the pink silk pouf to clean my glasses. From the breast pocket of the Baudelairean jacket, following the small flourish of the pink square, escaped a stream of small moths. Softly they fluttered over the dogsleds with their rolls of felt.

I am mesmerized by this image of the escaped stream of small moths fluttering over the still life of the Beuys exhibition. If Robertson’s novel offers a feminist intervention, it is in this form—this subtle release of living female genius into the heavily-protected archive of male art. This is how the novel’s activism functions as a whole, infiltrating the Parisian museums and libraries—bastions of Western art—in a manner that is supple, inventive, and productively corrosive, metabolizing the old in order to make space for the new.

After shocking her hosts—the scorners of capital and lovers difficult syntax—with her “living” jacket at the book launch reception, Hazel Brown decides to abandon the jacket in a hotel room armoire, declaring, “This is how I lost both the poems and the jacket of Baudelaire, and in doing so made my only installation work.”

Whether or not we read the novel a feminist response to the traditionally male generic convention of the Bildungsroman or Kunstleroman, this is the moment when Hazel Brown discards her Baudelaire jacket and enters the world as an artist in her own right.

It is rare to receive such an intellectually rigorous, expansive, aesthetically distinctive, and utterly enrapturing book.

The novel ends with Hazel in another museum, this time standing before Edouard Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Duval, gifted to Baudelaire and installed above his hospital bed as he lay dying. Clothed in “an architectural cloud” of white cotton, Jeanne Duval “withdraws from the gaze; she doesn’t offer herself to an interpretation.” Rather than the muse, Jeanne is depicted as a philosopher:

She has often been called ugly but her autonomy is the very core of beauty […] I recognize the future girl in her refusal, her gravitas. She is irreducible to the visible, and she is irreducible to the invisible. She is relaxed in her displeasure. She is totally modern.

Centuries fall away in Hazel’s encounter with Jeanne. It is here that we witness Hazel’s development as a poet, as through the power of her description, Jeanne is made animate, autonomous, present. Hazel, too, recognizes the importance of this act female connectivity in the novel’s closing lines: “I’m thinking about the immense silent legend of any girl’s life. She’s leaning back, observing.”

It is rare to receive such an intellectually rigorous, expansive, aesthetically distinctive, and utterly enrapturing book. Like poetry or criticism, Robertson’s fractals require prolonged engagement, rigour, rereading and an attention to syntax rather than plot. As Lisa Robertson said recently at a book launch, it’s a novel in which “nothing happens”—except everything does.

The Baudelaire Fractal is a book readers—certainly this reader—will continue returning to for its hypnotic narrative architecture, its portrayal of female ambition and courage, and its inner flint of artistic permission.




Born in South Africa, Kasia van Schaik is a writer, editor, and critic living in Montreal. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Sea Burial Laws According to Country (Desert Pets Press 2018), and her writing has appeared in Canadian and international publications such as Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, CBC Books, This Magazine, Prism International, and The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology. Find her at @kasiajuno.

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