Books

Lisa Robertson's The Baudelaire Fractal is a story about reading and girlhood

The Baudelaire Fractal is a finalist for the 2020 Governor General's Literary Prize for fiction.

The Baudelaire Fractal is a finalist for the 2020 Governor General's Literary Prize for fiction

The Baudelaire Fractal is a book by Lisa Robertson. (Coach House Books, Sina Queyras)

Lisa Robertson is a poet, essayist and translator. Born in Toronto, she lived in Vancouver for many years and now resides in France. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Letters by Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and the inaugural CD Wright Award in Poetry by New York's Foundation for the Contemporary Arts.

The Baudelaire Fractal is Robertson's debut novel, in which young poet Hazel Brown realizes she has written the works of Charles Baudelaire. She shuttles between London, Vancouver, Paris and the French countryside, moving fluidly between the early 1980s and the present, from rented room to rented room, all the while considering such Baudelairian obsessions.

The Baudelaire Fractal is a finalist for the 2020 Governor General's Literary Prize for fiction.

Robertson spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her debut novel.

Girlhood and freedom

"Hazel Brown, the protagonist, is relatively naive. She hasn't studied in university. She's not from a privileged background. She hasn't grown up around literary and cultured conversations. So she's exploring and discovering these things for the first time on her own terms. 

"One of the particularities of that discovery was her freedom to make connections between different levels of culture and different kinds of cultural work. In her thinking and reflection, she can go from poetry to fashion to movies to philosophy. I wanted to write about the young girl, not as an object of sexualized gaze, but as an intellectual being in her own right.

I wanted to write about the young girl, not as an object of sexualized gaze, but as an intellectual being in her own right.

"There's an open flow of her thinking between cultural forms that are typically categorized into different levels. She has the benefit of not having learned or been trained in that kind of categorization. This gives her a special ability, really, to encounter the world on the terms of her own sensuality and her own intellectual desire."

A novel about reading

"I myself had a version of the experience that the book narrates. I was doing a temporary teaching gig when I had a residency at East Anglia University in the U.K. I was going to be teaching a class on Baudelaire and the prose, poem and various relationships of Baudelaire to other French writers. 

"In the morning, when I woke up to continue my prep, I opened the book and I had this completely bizarre experience that I had written what I was reading. Of course, I cognitively knew this was not the case, but it was a readerly sensation which stuck in my mind. 

I opened the book and I had this completely bizarre experience that I had written what I was reading.

"Later, I found out that Baudelaire had that experience when he was first reading Edgar Allan Poe. When he was a young guy, he began to read Poe and immediately had the feeling that he had written what he was reading." 

Navigating blockage, violence and difficult themes

"I wrote most of this novel in six months, which meant that I seriously had to produce every day. Some days I was so frustrated and blocked that quite frankly, I would just cry. Other days I would feel exhilarated and send off a couple thousands words I'd written to a couple of friends. 

"Speaking of Hazel Brown's inner life and some of her relationship to the feeling of intellectual blockage, some of her experience of sexual violence, were really difficult for me to confront and to find a way into. I felt convinced of the importance of representing that difficulty of a young woman in just leading a life in the city, leading a sensual life, leading an intellectual life.

I felt convinced of the importance of representing that difficulty of a young woman in just leading a life in the city, leading a sensual life, leading an intellectual life.

"I felt like I was an experienced writer going into this, but not very far into it I had to recognize that I was a radically inexperienced writer, and that this was a whole new ball of wax. I had to start from Ground Zero and figure it out, whatever it took."

Art as a space for messiness and complexity

"Any girl is already almost unimaginably complex. What you have to navigate the world as a young woman, just to get through a day, is enormous. It's very messy. 

"I wanted to make a space for that messiness and that complexity, a space where any reader could recognize their own mixtures and extremes within that, and find those mixtures necessary and sort of fertilizing for their own continued living and learning and development. 

I wanted to make a space for that messiness and that complexity, a space where any reader could recognize their own mixtures and extremes.

"It is a story about giving oneself the space to experience the world in all of its difficulty, and its aesthetic richness, and its political stupidness and density.

"Art can give us that space. If there is a message in this book, it's art giving the space for this — art meaning poetry,  reading novels, film, all of those things."

Lisa Robertson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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