Talking to Lisa Robertson: Poet, Essayist, and Novelist

My short list of the best writers in Canadian history would have to include Lisa Robertson, whose most recent book is her debut novel, The Baudelaire Fractal (Coach House Books).

I talked to Robertson about her novel, writing poetry, and writing in general. You can read my review of The Baudelaire Fractal below, and also find my thoughts on my favourite Robertson book, The Weather, here.

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Review of The Baudelaire Fractal

For her debut novel, celebrated poet and essayist Lisa Robertson offers a dense and plotless dive into the character of Hazel Brown, who wakes in middle age in a strange hotel to discover that somehow, whatever it might mean, she has become the author of the complete works of the famous French poet Charles Baudelaire. 

Hazel has not become Baudelaire, but rather feels as if she has somehow attained an impossible level of authorship over the works of that long-dead writer, after having already embarked on her own writing career.

“Such an admission will seem frivolous, overdetermined, baroque. But I will venture this: it is no more singular [… than] to have become a poet, me, a girl, in 1984.”

Although her new identity as the author of the works of Baudelaire is in many ways meaningless and irrelevant, as Hazel writes, “My task now is to fully serve this delusion.”

The novel (and partial memoir) uses the strange premise as a vehicle for Robertson to explore, what it means for a woman to live a life in art when the culture labours to erase your own work (much as Baudelaire’s mistress, the philosopher Jeanne Duval, was erased from a painting by Manet, possibly at Baudelaire’s request). 

Along these lines, when considering another painting, by Émile Deroy, of a “nameless, adamant street-singer,” Hazel/Robertson considers that

“The removal of her name is an historical choice, so ubiquitous that it seems natural. There is no nameless girl. There is no girl outside language. The girl is not an animal who goes aesthetically into the ground, as many of the philosophers would have it. The girl is an alarm.”

Most of the novel consists of dense, poetic statements that jump airily from subject to subject. She moves smoothly from essayistic examination of painting or poems toward casually sharing of some anecdote from her youth as a domestic servant travelling through Europe while beginning to write.

Although Hazel puts a great deal of emphasis on her body and on sex, what’s most remarkable about the book is the degree to which bodies seem removed from the story.

The men she encounters have mostly been erased (like Duval from the painting) and only discernable through nods to their absence. Other women are likewise barely present, and Hazel herself is hard to track in time or geography, spending most of the novel in books or in her head.

Robertson has somewhat approximated a bygone genre, the dense existential meditation concerned with the disconnected obsessions of its narrator and only barely with plot, in the mold of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground or Baudelaire’s own Fanfarlo. To this end, Robertson affects an excessive style, which is the novel’s true delight.

The style works best at its most extreme:

“I perhaps oozed, rather than thought. What united and separated things? An imperceptible membrane, stretchy, spangled, gauzelike, of total vitality, which included laziness. A crystalline gel. An alphabet. Laziness in fact was my main form of vitality. It was my portal to the truth of artifice. Artifice was to become my calling.”

Robertson, one of Canada’s best and most innovative authors, thus cleaves close to Baudelaire’s own dictum: “Always be a poet, even in prose.” 

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