Isaac Nowell

In search of Jeanne Duval: The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson, reviewed

The painted-over figure of Baudelaire’s muse eventually emerging from Courbet’s great canvas provides one of many haunting images in this complex novel

Detail of Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Artist’s Studio’ showing Charles Baudelaire reading and ghostly figure of Jeanne Duval to the left of his head. [Getty Images]

The shared etymology of the words ‘text’, ‘textile’ and ‘texture’ – from the Latin verb textere, ‘to weave’ – has long been a fertile subject, its thread running through the work of theorists such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze (from whom one of the epigraphs for this book is taken) and others. But this now critical commonplace provides a helpful entry point to the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s sometimes evasive first novel The Baudelaire Fractal, a work obsessed with textiles, tailoring, intertextuality and the woven physicality of language. The word ‘novel’ seems only really appropriate in its adjectival sense.

‘When I said I enjoy looking back through history, I meant my search history.’

It tells the story of Hazel Brown, a woman who wakes one morning, following her delivery of a lecture on ‘wandering, tailoring, idleness and doubt,’ in a hotel in Vancouver, to ‘the bodily recognition that I had become the author of the complete works of Baudelaire’. Or ‘perhaps it is more precise to say that all at once, unbidden, I received Baudelairean authorship, or that I found it within myself’. Now in middle age, she sets about her task: ‘to re-enter, by means of sentences, the course of my early apprenticeship… to make a story about the total implausibility of girlhood’.

The plot has a whiff of magical realism, via Borges, but really it evades genre or lineage, just as Jeanne Duval – Baudelaire’s muse, and one of the two women with whom the narrator is interested – ‘doesn’t offer herself to an interpretation’. And Duval does provide something of a cipher for the novel; it is less about Baudelaire than about his representation of his female subject, or about the absence at the heart of those representations, as in Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Artist’s Studio’, in which Duval was painted beside the poet, then painted over, before, ‘many years later, as if in a mystic material refusal of this obliteration,’ she became visible again.

The narrator, too, insists on her presence in the male world of 19th-century poetry, where even culture is ‘owned’.

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