Textures of Personhood: Lisa Robertson Interviewed by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

The writer on her new novel, why style is political, and the kinds of subjectivity we experience.

The Baudelaire Fractal1

Lisa Robertson is a writer who explores complex ideas, serious philosophical thinking while keeping equal pace with feeling and beauty. Her poetry and essays have been doors to possibility for my own writing. When I read The Baudelaire Fractal (Coach House Books), I knew I needed to talk to her; fortunately, our mutual friend, artist Kathy Slade, was able to put us in touch. I flew to Paris during the ongoing national strike to find a tense, chaotic city. But Robertson generously welcomed me into her life, inviting me to dinner with friends as well as to a performance of new translations. We sat down over coffee in the apartment she shares with her husband to discuss The Baudelaire Fractal, of course, but also the nineteenth century, the pleasures of reading, and the need for resistance and community in making work and in living life. 

The Baudelaire Fractal is the story of a young Canadian woman, Hazel Brown, who moves to Paris to become a writer.The prose itself enacts the meandering way in which a young writer is often formed, through mistakes, through culture, through sex. Hazel Brown searches for her artistic identity through an affective form of reading and learning, taking pleasure in each thing she does, in movement separated from progress. Things happen in the novel but none so much as the sentences themselves, they are the events; each sentence invites mediation, pause, and excitement. Early in the novel Hazel proclaims, “Reading unfolds like a game called ‘I,’ in public gardens in good weather, in a series of worn-down hotel rooms, in museums in winter, where ‘I’ is the composite figure who is going to write but hasn’t yet.” Robertson’s body of work has also explored this roving “I,” creating different voices, or even different writerly selves, for each book—favoring the multiple, polyphonic over the monolithic or absolute.

—Allison Grimaldi Donahue

 

Allison Grimaldi Donahue Part of the premise of The Baudelaire Fractal is that Hazel Brown, the protagonist, wakes up one morning to realize she has written all of Baudelaire’s works. Can you talk a bit about this idea, this notion of feeling as though you have authored someone else’s works? 

Lisa Robertson Hazel’s discovery is based on a strange reading experience I had.I was preparing to teach a class on the prose poem at the University of East Anglia, so I was up late at night rereading Paris Spleen in relation to Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau’s last text. And Montaigne. Early the following morning, I opened my copy of Baudelaire and had the totally uncanny experience that I had written the text I was reading. I can recognize this as a symptom of teaching anxiety and sleep deprivation and intense reading. Much later after I’d begun writing the novel I learned that Baudelaire had that experience himself when he was first reading Poe as a young man. So that made me feel less pathological. It’s the kind of internal readerly sensation that anybody can have. Normally, one doesn’t really talk about it because it’s a little bit off-trac

AGD It’s an embodied sense of reading. For a child, it is such an engulfing experience. You haven’t got any way to contextualize, so it becomes part of your world, your reality, it isn’t separate from life. 

LR If I think of my childhood and adolescent reading experiences, which were very personal and private, reading was deeply emotional. I spent so much time crying when I was reading as a child, and puzzling over mortal things. I was fascinated by death scenes in novels. The encyclopedia set we had in our family had excerpts from the “great novels.” I would read these obsessively. I vividly remember a passage describing the death of Emma Bovary, and she’s taken strychnine, or some poison. She’s vomiting black bile, and it’s totally lugubrious. I would lie on my back on the bed with my arms crossed on my chest, thinking, Is this what it’s like?

This marginally adult experience I recently had was not happening at the level of character, and not even at the level of persona. I didn’t have the feeling that I was Baudelaire, nor that I wanted to be him. Only that I had written his work. But the idea was so strange to me—I wrote a little email to Jean-Philippe, my husband, describing the sensation, before I headed off to class to teach the material. I think writing the amusing email fixed it in my mind.

AGD So The Baudelaire Fractal began with this email?

LR The whole project started there. I’d never had an idea for writing a novel before, though I’ve been curious about the form. I’m a poet who has always loved writing prose. Essay writing and the writing of verse have been overlapping and interchangeable activities, and the shape of the sentence has always been at the core of my writing practice. This Baudelaire idea was very funny to me, and it kept opening up more pathways of inquiry the more time I spent with it. 

It was a way to write a bildungsroman in the feminine; it opened questions of authorship, and identity; it gave me an interesting framework for reading all of Baudelaire’s work, it led me to 19th century French painting, and to the urban politics of Haussmannization in Paris. It also let me consider my own life experience as a young girl, for the first time in my published writing, which has not been particularly autobiographical.

AGD Why is important to clarify that this is not a memoir?

LR
I still think girls’ intellectual experience is not represented and honored and respected in literary or popular culture, not in the way that it absolutely needs to be. This novel uses a couple of diaries I wrote in my twenties, in order to explore a more general problem. I was interested in referring to autobiographical material in order to create a pathway and a point of return within the novel, which is itself a fictional structure, formally related to poems. Each chapter is set in a specific room, a stanza. There is a movement between my own experience in the 1980s in Paris and Baudelaire’s life there in the 1840s. I kept very detailed descriptions of rooms I lived in, in my diaries then, and I used these descriptions to make an edifice or shelter for abstract or visceral ruminations on sexuality, sentences, racialization, and class. Then I could wander outwards from the rooms, in an airier way, to encounter parks, boys, paintings, fashion, books.  I felt I could contribute some data towards the broader project of making room for girls’ intellectual life.

AGD That’s one of the reasons the book is also so relatable. The formation of a writer is so confusing and vague and then to add the girlhood aspect onto that allows us to see what one specific story of writerly development might be like.

LR Everybody’s trying to figure out how to do it. I used to read a lot of writer biographies when I was young, looking for clues. Some of my younger friends have been curious about my own youth, my own trajectory towards writing. It also seemed like the particular time frame of my girlhood was something interesting to explore now. In the 70s and 80s, we were in in a very different political economy. The culture of cities was very different. Neoliberalism and globalizing economies were just at the threshold of expansion. There were still ways to survive with some freedom in urban settings, for a greater variety of people.

AGD I’m curious about the “I” of Hazel, how it is formed but also the very notion of naming in this novel, of the subjectivity of a number of characters. It seems like subjectivity is in process, ongoing.

LR Each of us is part of a network of agreement and transmission of names. Part of the inner experience of subjectivity has to do with the tension of both accepting and querying what we’re called, whether we’re speaking of proper names or whether we’re speaking of categories that are gendered or racialized or attached to national or collective identities. There’s a tension between subjectivity and identity that is at the core of how I understand the texture of personhood. There are instances where we want to affirm and greet identity structures, and other instances where we can only survive by evading them or reconstructing them or inhabiting them against the historical grain. I am interested in that tension, in the lack of ease regarding assumption of identity, which the psychological and the social work of naming has to come to terms with.

Lisa Robertson Bw

Photo by Jean-Philippe Antoine.

AGD I would say the character of Jeanne Duval, who appears at various points in the novel, brings these ideas to the forefront. 

LR Some of the early discussion of Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, has to do with the erasure of her image from Courbet’s painting The Painter’s Studio. This was something I learned about after I began to write the novel, reading Roberto Calasso’s book Baudelaire’s Folly. He discusses Duval and includes some photographs of her ghostly outline in that painting. Several years ago, I wrote an essay about Courbet, and part of my research was to sit in the Musée d’Orsay in front of the painting looking, taking notes. I looked for two or three hours and I never saw her. She is barely a ghost in the image. I had to know to look for her.

AGD Was the continued research into Baudelaire’s life and work then part of the construction of the novel throughout? How much is it a kind of historical fiction?

LR The novel proceeds more like a rambling essay than historical fiction. My interest in his life enters the novel by means of painting. I was pointed towards the presence of Duval by a conversation with Dionne Brand. In her new book The Blue Clerk there is a section about Duval. Our conversation sensitized me to Calasso’s story of her erasure, which next took me back to the Orsay to search for her until I recognized her faint outline, behind Baudelaire. Then I learned of the existence of Manet’s portrait, which I describe in the last paragraphs of the book. Manet painted her in 1861. It’s the only representation we have of her. 

That painting is normally in Budapest and it came to Paris just as I was finishing the novel, as part of the show Black models: from Géricault to Matisse at the Orsay. It was exhibited near Manet’s Olympia, which also represents a woman of color, this time as a serving maid. The model for the Black woman in Olympia has been named now—Laure. At this exhibition, it was hung in such a way that you could turn and look from Laure, back to the portrait of Duval.

Duval is a Black woman semi-reclining, fully dressed, while Olympia is a naked white woman in the company of Laure, who is passing her a bouquet of flowers. There is a reversal in the two images. It calls into question the relation between race and gender. Manet’s image of Duval is extremely powerful. He gave the painting to Baudelaire, and it was hanging in Baudelaire’s room when he died—so he died in Duval’s company. It was very moving for me to see this work. I felt that I met her gaze. Duval is in the background of all of Baudelaire’s poems. She is the erased heart of Les Fleurs du mal. She is usually cruelly and ignorantly derided by Baudelaire’s critics and biographers. To know Baudelaire, I had to meet Duval.

AGD And you knew this was how the novel should end. With this image? 

LR It was a stroke of luck. It’s not a developmental story and I didn’t know how to bring it to a close. Then I read that this painting was coming to Paris and I decided, That’s it, this will be the end of the novel. I will go and see Jeanne. The novel finishes with this encounter. She’s leaning back, gazing out in a very removed way. There’s a feeling of nonchalance, even defiance, in her gaze.

AGD I know style is extremely important to you. We were talking about the construction of the sentence, baroque, explosive prose. But now thinking of the influence of French in your writing I wonder if you think the language itself has changed the way in which you write on the level of the sentence? 

LR Undoubtedly. And some of the French literature that I love, such as Proust, is very influenced in turn by English literary style. I’ve only been reading French for about a decade, a third of my writing life. It’s a new thing, but it intersects with my old and ongoing pursuit of baroque style in English literature. I’m interested in the movement back and forth between these cultures. They are so tied together, in spite of what our governments believe. The influence of John Ruskin on Proust’s prose style, the influence of Poe on Baudelaire, was by means of translation. Translation between languages and cultures encourages the stylistic carrying forward of a baroque energy of endless, borderless diversification.

I read strange prose in English too. Like Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I think everything you read creeps into the way sentences model themselves as you write. I was also doing some translation as I wrote, of Banville and Nadar. And Baudelaire. Just passages, some of which are included in the book. Translation as an intensified mode of reading: that certainly inflected my prose style. There wasn’t an intentional modeling at a grammatical level, but there was an intentional stylistic immersion with the hopes that there would be infection.

AGD An infection that continuously circulates, since the baroque is always moving but never actually going anywhere.

LR Exactly, it is getting more complex without actually arriving anywhere. It’s experiential. 

I’m interested in complexity and surface effect, in pleasure and gesture. The contrary of simplification or minimalization. The kinds of subjects we become, the kinds of subjectivity we can experience, are limited by the normalizing of a political economy as aesthetics. By means of stylistic norms, we internalize censorship. The notion of use value, for example, or productivity. We all experience this discursive reduction. I have tried to counter this diminishment through the purposeful development of baroque diversification as a stylistic stance, the inclusion of as much difference as possible. There are no outcomes. When I begin something, a sentence, teaching, I have no idea how it’s going to end. I’m entering a problem. I’m trying to stay with the difficulty in as many ways as possible. In this way, style is political. It defies the reduction of subjects to functions. It’s where a practice, at a stylistic level within language, can be resistant.

AGD Has writing and your development as a writer always been related to a practice of resistance? It seems like you have created a writing life filled with intergenerational friendships and collaborations, modes of living that go against the current climate.

LR We’re all always looking for models. We want to survive. I have always been stubborn, but stubbornness only goes so far, if you don’t have some sense of social reception. Interlocutors and community relationships help you to change and transform yourself and your practice and the ways that you live. The fact that I’ve survived as a writer to this point in my life is because of the openness of communities that I’m a part of. They know a lot about resistance. 

I’ve met a group of artists and writers in a nonacademic setting in Paris, at the Cheapest University. It’s a collective of artists and writers who sometimes manage to get a small budget to pursue their activities, and who sometimes have no budget and continue anyways. Sabrina Soyer, who just translated my book Debbie: An Epic into French with Claire Finch. And Rona Lorimer, Hector Uniacke, John DeWitt, Hélene Baril. They’re all committed leftists, they’re all translingual—writing in French and English at the same time, translating as radical practice—they’re all feminist, and they’re working outside of academic culture, often in relation to the visual arts. I feel a great deal of affinity with this community.

When my dog Rosa was getting very old and couldn’t come to Paris anymore, I needed a lot of help taking care of her because I have to travel a great deal. These young people came to the country and looked after my dog for me. We share books, clothes, meals, manuscripts. I’ve recently felt a collective intimacy that is parallel to ways I engaged with people in Vancouver years ago. It has to do with everyday life and sharing and helping one another and making culture outside of economic structures. Learning discursive tactics against the current regime. I’ve been in France for sixteen years. It takes a long time to find collaborators.

Allison Grimaldi Donahue is the author of On Endings (Delere Press) and Body to Mineral (Publication Studio Vancouver). Her translation of Vito Bonito’s Soffiati Via is forthcoming from Fomite Press. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Tripwire, Brooklyn Rail, The Literary Review, FlashArt and other places. She is currently translating Carla Lonzi’s Autoritratto, a work of Italian feminist auto-theoretical art history.

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