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Review - "The Baudelaire Fractal" by Lisa Robertson

Simon Collings

Lisa Robertson, The Baudelaire Fractal, Coach House Books, £12.25

In 1984, a 23-year-old Hazel Brown, a Canadian, arrives in Paris with the ambition to become a poet. She rents small rooms in cheap hotels, takes menial jobs, and has fleeting, unsatisfying affairs. Brown describes herself as ‘haunted by the problematic ratios of sex and art, of anger and sadness’, equations, she says, looking back on her life, ‘she has never solved’.

Brown is the same age as her creator, Lisa Robertson, and like Robertson lives in France. They share other biographical data, and interests, the boundary between autobiography and artifice repeatedly put into question. ‘These things happened, but not as described,’ Robertson says in an epigraph.

This ‘doubling’ of Robertson and Brown is mirrored in the experience Brown describes of reading the notebooks of her younger self:

          I reread to live doubly… It is not possible that I was that girl, splintered,

          imploded, swirled, leaking, yet I hold here in my unmanicured hands her
          junky documents. Under their influence I learn afresh the nobility of
          infidelity and artifice. Writing this now, or rather augmenting, for that
          is the action the doubleness incites, I feel a faintly obscene devotion to
          my own ridiculousness, as if I were a perverted naturalist describing a
          curious form of invasive vegetation. To everything I read in the diaries
          I now give the name novel…

Baudelaire, as the book’s title indicates, is an important influence on Brown (and of course Robertson), though not always a conscious one. He represents a set of cultural values through and against which Brown comes to define herself as a contemporary female writer. Baudelaire’s belief in the ‘necessary relationship of art to urban modernity,’ his assertion that Beauty must be both ‘absolute and quotidian’, as well as his apparent scorn for women and contempt for the bourgeoisie, frame Brown’s own response to the world. Her youthful attempts at documenting the city, her dandyism, her experiments with casual sex, are all instances of the French poet’s cultural shadow.

Baudelaire’s centrality for Brown is dramatised when, shortly before she begins writing the book, she wakes in a hotel room in Vancouver to find that she ‘had become the author of the complete works of Baudelaire’, not only the published texts, but his letters, notes, fizzles, even the ‘unwritten texts’. This is not a purely intellectual experience, but embodied recognition. Elsewhere in the novel Brown says: ‘The feeling of having an inner life, animated by a cold-hot point of identification called ‘I’ is a linguistic collaboration. We speak only through others’ mouths.’ Her work is Baudelaire’s, augmented, in fractal form.

A second important figure in the ‘novel’ is the French linguist Emile Benveniste. Toward the end of his life, Benveniste was assembling notes for a book on Baudelaire’s poetic language. The work, commissioned by Roland Barthes, was never completed. A stroke left Benveniste incapacitated in his final years, and all that survives of the project is a collection of fragmentary thoughts. In 2013, Roberston (with Avra Spector) published a translation of some of these texts, with an introductory essay, in the journal Lana Turner.

Robertson and her co-author describe how Benveniste expanded the Saussurian concept of the ‘sign’ by introducing the dimension of ‘semantics’ to explain the ‘figural modes, polyvocal enunciations, and reflexive or second-order languages’ which characterise actual speech. ‘Poetics,’ they write, summarising Benveniste, ‘rather than being a subset of language, needs to be recognised as fundamental to an understanding of the dynamics of meaning in language.’ Discussion of Benveniste’s thoughts on language, and how ‘meaning’ circulates in a social context, also features in Robertson’s ‘Untitled Essay’, published in Nilling (2012).

Towards the end of The Baudelaire Fractal, Brown describes her pleasure in rereading an essay by Benveniste, ‘The notion of rhythm in its linguistic expression’.

           He frees rhythm from nature understood as an external, environmental

           limit and introduces me once again to the human abundance of form.
           But for Benveniste, following the atomist philosophers, form is not a
           limit either. 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.

With a suitable change of pronouns, this passage might equally be applied to Robertson’s exquisite ‘novel’, its form an exploration of the ‘passing shapeliness we inhabit’. You can listen to Robertson reading from her book here:

copyright © Simon Collings, 2020

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