Haunted by a Style

Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal

Coach House Books, 208pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781552453902

reviewed by Martin Schauss

Some way into Lisa Roberton’s first ‘novel’, Hazel Brown attends a party. She recalls how it was ‘one of those parties in a large and elegant Haussmannian flat on the Right Bank.’ We’re in Paris, the flat’s occupant is a young American and her guests, too, are young Americans, ‘from Columbia and NYU and dressed down.’ Hazel Brown recognises a Haussmann building but hasn’t heard of Columbia or dressing down, and we believe her. Hers is a literary knowledge.

Hazel Brown is the novel’s autobiographical I, a stand-in for the poet Lisa Robertson, and the ‘eldest daughter of a disappearing class, penniless neophyte stunned by the glamour of literature.’ Aged seventeen she leaves home to ‘seek a new way to live,’ some years later working odd jobs in Paris via London and a British passport, in the days when that was still possible. There, the city’s Baudelairean lure grows into a type of identification with the misfits’ poet (as Walter Benjamin called him). Years pass and Hazel Brown awakes in a Vancouver hotel to find that she has become, Pierre Menard-style, ‘the author of the complete works of Baudelaire.’ It is a delusion no stranger than a young girl in 1984 becoming a poet, her task now ‘to fully serve this delusion.’

‘Delusion needs an architecture’: in The Baudelaire Fractal that architecture consists of Haussmann’s boulevards and apartments, of hotel rooms, cafés, but also paintings, sex, clothes, and poetry. Baudelaire wrote at a time when Paris was ripped up and rebuilt under Haussmann’s supervision and Napoleonic imperialism, when, in Marshall Berman’s words, ‘the work of its modernization was going on alongside [Baudelaire] and over his head and under his feet.’ Hazel makes a quick exit from the party, noting ‘the mood of knowingness and understatement, as generalized as a decor, did not interest me much.’ This brush with campus autofiction (Robertson never completed her degree, left university to become an independent bookseller, but would return to academia as poet-in-residence and visiting lecturer) also indicates the difference between Robertson’s memoirist novel and the autofictional genre.

At the party, Hazel Brown arranges no direct or reported dialogue for the reader, no names of guests or hints about their identity, and no cultural analysis of expat psychology. Like Baudelaire’s Parisian poems, Robertson’s story is shrouded in the ephemeral, in ‘rhythms, perfumes, glimmers’, as his poem ‘Hymn to Beauty’ has it. She cares less about the discourse of identity and subjectivity than about how a city, a building, a street, a jacket, a relationship can become a style, a life form with its own grammar, written, painted, haunting; ‘I can feel physiologically haunted by a style,’ Hazel says. The Baudelaire Fractal is a study in style, its categories, patterns and repetitions, and like Jean Rhys’s protagonist in Good Morning, Midnight, Robertson’s flâneuse looks for it in Paris’s shop windows and dank hotel rooms, in French books and middling brasseries.

On her way home from the party, Hazel Brown passes the Pont Neuf. It’s a clear October night and the bridge has been wrapped up by Christo and Jeanne-Claude ‘in a pale, softly glistening textile.’ Underneath its artistic garment, the bridge becomes flesh, spiritual and mysterious, but also sensual, mortal; a typical Baudelairean inversion. In Robertson’s novel, as in Benjamin’s writing on the poet, Baudelaire’s modern allegorical symbolism materialises primarily through fashion and urban architecture. Hazel Brown spends as much time breaking down the pleasure of sporting a cheaply-acquired faux-Thierry Mugler suit as she does the many films, photos, and paintings that interrupt her fractal narrative and lend it a persistent ekphrastic effect. The suit’s obvious ‘lack of authenticity’ allows Hazel to wear it with some freedom and fluidity, to rearrange her femininity, rather than becoming intoxicated with the newness of her purchase. ‘Garments can translate a city,’ she says, ‘map a previously unimagined mode of freedom or consent.’

The erotic charge – or ‘erotic comedy’ – connecting fashion and city, living body and inorganic world, secretly speaks to a kind of death, Baudelaire’s image of the corpse. But Hazel doesn’t dwell on this old interpretation, the allegory of commodity capitalism, and instead finds recluse in the eroticism of language, the ‘sexuality of sentences.’ Jackets and coats accompany her on her travels and movements over the years, informing her readings, her thinking and writing. Robertson is best known for her book-length poems, but The Baudelaire Fractal, by virtue of its prose form and erotic voyages, more readily recalls her essays on urban walks and public spaces, collected in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. ‘Every culture is the terrible gush of its splendid outward forms,’ Robertson declares in one essay, and continues: ‘The most pleasing civic object would be erotic hope.’

At a flea market at Bastille, Hazel Brown buys another jacket and, with it, attends a house party in Sheffield. The jacket, ‘a tailored black mid-nineteenth-century gentleman’s’ frock coat, exudes strong Baudelaire energy. From its silk pouf ‘a stream of small moths’ escapes. The jacket is alive. At the party, Hazel flings it over an armchair along with everyone’s coats. When she looks for it later, she remembers the moths: ‘I dissolved in laughter. When I explained my situation, my hosts recoiled. Like most poets I knew, they were great collectors of vintage tailoring and old cashmere and beautifully worn carpets and now I had in all likelihood infected their house. The more they recoiled, the louder I laughed. Nothing could be as ridiculous as this. I laughed till I wept. I would not be asked back.’ The mild satire of the episode thwarts the cliché, moths, sign of the ephemeral:

L’éphémère ébloui vole vers toi, chandelle,
Crépite, flambe et dit: Bénissons ce flambeau!
L’amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle
A l’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle!
Crepitates, flames and says: ‘Blessed be this flambeau!’
The panting lover bending o’er his fair one
Looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb

The ephemeral presence, the ghost in Robertson’s book, is not Baudelaire but Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s first and, according to Théodore de Banville, only love, his ‘Black Venus’, the main cipher for the poet’s treatment of race and class (and the limits of that treatment), who remains unnamed, or answers to various sobriquets, throughout much of his correspondence, whose image, peering over the poet’s shoulder, Gustave Courbet would efface from his painting The Artist’s Studio, possibly at Baudelaire’s behest.

Hazel Brown records the uncertainty surrounding the details of Duval’s biography by way of an extended series of perhapses: ‘Was she fifteen when she met Baudelaire? Some say so. Perhaps she was one quarter black, it was said, with all the obscenity of such measuring. Her identification papers were lost in a fire.’ ‘Perhaps she had syphilis; so perhaps did Baudelaire.’ And so on. Despite the historical third person, it is among the book’s most intimate passages, making space in the present for the kind of spectral, palimpsestic voice that lurks everywhere in Robertson’s poetics.
Martin Schauss is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Dublin and an editor at Review 31.