Back in May, Susan Hill wrote a piece on her blog about being a judge of the Orange prize, ten years ago. She was far from happy with the experience, and came to the conclusion that the wrong book won.
Susan's choice was The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, which she described as a novel of genius. The other judges, however, 'thought it was a thin little historical novel by a middle class middlebrow writer.'
Well, what to do but to read the thing and make up one's own mind?
First, a little background. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) came from a distinguished family: her uncle was Ronald Knox, mentioned here only a few days ago. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford (Margaret Thatcher's old college, as you doubtless recall).
Unusually, Penelope Fitzgerald published nothing until she was sixty, and even then it wasn't a novel; her first novel came two years later. And another two years after that she won the Booker with Offshore. The Blue Flower was her final novel; it appeared in 1995.
The first signs in relation to The Blue Flower are promising. The book is not thick: about 225 pages. And, unusually, there is a Contents list, which reveals that we have 55 chapters. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that the average chapter cannot be long, and this is an aspect of narrative technique which I warmly recommend to anyone foolish enough to be planning a novel of their own.
An Author's Note at the beginning tells us that the novel is based on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), a man who is referred to in the book mainly as Fritz, but who later became famous under the name pen-name Novalis. Famous for what? Well, he was a poet and philosopher. He was particularly interested, it seems, in the connection between poetry and science.
In The Blue Flower, the focus of interest is not so much on Fritz's encyclopaedic knowledge, or on his poetry, but on his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn. He fell in love with her and became engaged to her when she was no more than twelve. She died a mere two years later, in 1797, having endured, among other things, an operation without anaesthetic.
The following year, Fritz became engaged to another young woman. He was also making good progress in his career, having recently been appointed a Magistrate. He wrote to Friedrich Schlegel to say that a very interesting life appeared to await him. 'Still,' he added, 'I would rather be dead.'
It is this sad and affecting story which is the subject matter of The Blue Flower. The story is told mainly through the omniscient viewpoint, which is not my favourite for the good and simple reason that, in my judgement, it is seldom the most effective viewpoint, in terms of involving the reader. But for the most part it works well enough.
The families of Fritz and Sophie are large and complicated, and at times I found it hard to keep track of who is who; but we return frequently to the principal characters in the story, which keeps us interested.
The book provides an interesting and instructive portrait of the impoverished German nobility at the end of the eighteenth century. The style in which the story is told is pleasingly spare and simple, without any fancy flourishes; in short, the book achieves its effects with an economy of words which is increasingly rare these days, and which is always to be encouraged whenever it is encountered. (The Orange judges, you will recall, thought it thin and middlebrow; such are the penalties for writing stuff that people can readily understand.)
The ending, I'm afraid, is frightening and appalling and somewhat depressing. But then, that's life -- or it was at the end of the eighteenth century.
And what, you may be wondering, of the Blue Flower? What's that all about?
I had no idea, so I resorted to Authority. And Authority tells us that die Blaue Blume is a central symbol of Romanticism. It stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable.
It was Fritz/Novalis who first used this flower as a symbol, in his unfinished novel of formation, entitled Heinrich von Ofterdingen. After contemplating a meeting with a stranger, the young Heinrich von Ofterdingen dreams about blue flowers, which call to him and absorb his attention.
I enjoyed The Blue Flower. It has a pleasing, dream-like quality about it; and it belongs, as I see it, in an old-fashioned mittel-European tradition, which is, perhaps, the best embodiment of civilisation. I'm not sure that I would urge you to rush out and buy a copy, but if you stumble across one on the books table at the church fete, priced at 75p, you could do far worse.
As for a work of genius? I leave that to others. I find 'genius' an overworked term, and of doubtful definition, but with the practice of using it as a shorthand way of recommending a book I have no problem.