(REVIEW) The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson


Gloria Dawson explores the refractive, highly seductive sensorium and aesthetic rapture of Lisa Robertson’s new novel, The Baudelaire Fractal (Coach House Books, 2020)


> I am deeply and highly seduced by this book, in which the narrator, Hazel Brown, a form of Lisa Robertson herself, recalls her becoming as a girl who wants to write, who does write, and along the way realises that it is true that she is the author of everything Baudelaire ever wrote. This is a strange conceit (to my mind also a very poetic jab at the whole conceit of a conceit) that provides a sort of architecture, but isn’t integral to the one-way direction of a plot. This conceit remains a conceit; a true one, but never, as in a conventional novel, a fact. The clue of this book is in the name; it’s fractal, there is no conclusion, the villain and hero is the girl, Hazel Brown, and her desires.


> My desire for perfumes is a curiosity which I have kept in check due partly to a sort of leftwing ascetism, and partly just lack of spare cash. But during the pandemic, two friends have sent me scents, and so it’s not surprising that one of the aspects of the book I experienced most strongly is the narrator’s relationship to perfume. > Sillage is the degree to which a perfume’s scent lingers in the air when worn. It is a unit of time; like a radioactive particle’s potency, it decays by its own particular degrees. I see in Robertson a refraction of Baudelaire’s prose poem, ‘Invitation to A Voyage’, where a queasy luxury is subtly undermined by the impossible identification of persons and political regimes with that luxury: ‘Those treasures, that furniture, that luxury, that order, those perfumes, those miraculous flowers, they are yourself.’ In the chapter ‘Scent-Bottle', framed partly through a bottle of Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth-Dew’, a gift from her grandmother, the narrator recalls:

Always now the thought of the perfume in its cheap fluted glass bottle with gold paper label brings me back to that shitty room, its darkness, the blue typewriter on the folding table, the bad linoleum, these traits a carapace camouflaging a small freedom that gently expanded inside me like a subtle new organ, an actual muscular organ born of my own desire for what I took to be an impossible and necessary language. Its sillage was an architecture.

Unlike Baudelaire, Robertson’s parataxis is without luxury. Even the perfume, or at least its carapace, is cheap. The scent of the clauses following that list is typical of the way in which Robertson’s sentences breathe into a form that branches whilst still following its line into a direction of freedom (a small freedom, a freedom that is/like an organ, organ developing its matter), a direction of desire. And then in five words; a proposal and also a proposition. Follow me again into a conceit. The dissipation of scent as a unit of time, imprecise but unmistakable, turns up later in the descriptions of the avoidance or impossibility of both cleanliness and its aesthetic. If the poet stinks, Hazel Brown tells us (and she did), ‘the poem must stink’ too.

Even reading the diary now I seem to detect the long sillage of acrid barks and herbs unctuously covered by vanilla, so that I am unsure whether years ago some amber drops of the viscous liquid actually penetrated the paper or whether my imagination produces this perfume as an insistent and elaborately feminine base note of reading. Nadar said of the young Baudelaire that he poured drops of musk oil from a small glass vial onto his red carpets when he entertained his friends in his baroque apartment at the Hotel Pimodan. I had entered the musky sillage. The deepening life of reading was now the transmission of an atmosphere, a physiology of pleasure and its refusal or its augmentation by the several ghost-senses that moved between the phrases of a text.

Here is a blossoming of that tight conceit — ‘Its sillage was an architecture’ — nestled and unravelling at a different point in time in the narrative; a long sillage indeed. I love Robertson’s unwavering mistrust of luxury and cleanliness, the authoritarian identification of cleanliness with moral purity which is more insistently satirized in Baudelaire. Yet despite his critique, Baudelaire, as Hazel Brown knows, was as weak to luxury as the next man or girl, and in reweaving a Baudelairean narrative, Hazel Brown as Baudelaire as Robertson can reveal her own desires and undoings. Returning to ‘The Scent Bottle’, the chapter ends in a luxurious apartment that Baudelaire may have coveted and wrought, in which the narrator is informally employed as a housemaid-childminder:

Those tight rooms first exposed me to the domesticity and decor of wealth and the erasures and contradictions it masked. Everywhere there was damage. In the rooms filled with rarity and the dullness of familial hatred and jealousy, in the now-forgotten password spoken to the armed soldiers at the school, in the prying glance of the concierge, in the horrible statues of shoeshine boys, all of these things functions of varying scales of imposed and policed positionings of superiority, I thought I could intuit the whole sadistic spectrum of the political world. It was heavy with grief. This sensation was not aesthetical; it was the enforced affect of the sex of a political economy, of masked histories of colonialism, of the ugliness of wealth.

Before we can grasp the scent of these judgements (‘the whole sadistic spectrum of the  political world... the enforced affect of the sex of a political economy’), the jagged line of Robertson’s fractal rhetoric is at work on another plane; the erotics at work in the work of following a realisation of an apprenticeship, a vocation for the matter of writing:

My dream of grace, the difficult ideal I struggled towards in sex and in paintings, my unformed language for this feeling that was trying so mawkishly to become a life, would have nothing to do with what passed for luxury. But it couldn’t be anchored by sadness either. I felt sure that beauty could only be slovenly and that love also could only be a slut.

Re-recalling moving through Paris and its political economy, and following the line of her pen from the censuring of Baudelaire’s ‘anachronous embrace of the baroque’, Hazel Shade reaches yet another conclusion-opening.

There could be no aesthetics of ambivalence in Second Empire Paris; capital’s tenure permitted sincerity only. The sincere subject was governable. But beneath the city was another city, a place where monstrosity could find its double.... this other city was even more potently a linguistic city, a gestural city, a city released from certain texts by their readers, as a sillage is the release of an alternate time signature by the perfumed body. No perfume, no syntax, no flower can be definitively policed.

Perfume can be liberation, an ‘alternate time signature’, a grace caught in fractal moments. It takes the courage of this book not to dissolve or just be mute in the apprehension of everything that you can touch and know that putting you together it undoes you. Towards the end of the book, the narrator, sometimes dis-guised as Lisa Robertson, re-reads a favourite essay, Emile Benveniste’s ‘The Notion of Rhythm in Its Linguistic Expression’. Robertson’s reflection upon what moves the writer is for me a close summary for the work of this book. It touches again on how clothes and styles, as well as perfume, can be a vital form of our thinking, being, becoming.

Form is a gestural passage that we can witness upon a garment in movement, a face in living expression, or in the mobile marks of a written character as it is traced by the pen. Rhythm, an expression of form, is time, but it is time as the improvisation that moves each limited body in play with a world. Not necessarily metrical or regular, it’s the passing shapeliness that we inhabit. It both has a history and is the history that our thinking has made.

I want to spend many hours tracing the rapture of this book, as well as its seductions. Rapture; to be seized but also to be possessed by joy; seduced: to be drawn aside but also led astray, wholly fractal, line by line into the story’s willing and willed disintegration. [With many thanks to Andy Spragg for the editorial comments, and to all the friends I talked about this book with! None of our work is ever done alone.]


The Baudelaire Fractal is now available to order via Coach House Books.


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Text & Image: Gloria Dawson Published: 30/6/20

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