Monday, August 07, 2006

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Blue Flower

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.


Adrian Weston said...

We need more old fashioned mittel-european novels.... a rich literary seam that gave us so much. Recently deceased writers like WG Sebald & Sybille Bedford are amongst my favourites - I guess the 'younger' novelist who fits the description is Philip Hensher. Two of his novels, Pleasured and Other Lulus, fall into that fine tradition. Sadly I think I'm in a minority for thinking like this as practically no one I know seems to feel the same way about these books.... Yours, ever unfashionable, Adrian.

Susan Hill said...

Please see my Blog for the last couple of days Adrian.. I have been writing about W.G. Sebald.
I also wrote in the Blog archive, about Joseph Roth.
Michael.. THE BLUE FLOWER is a book which you have to read several times.. not for the plot or the characters but to see how she manages to do that miraculous thing - create a whole world in every detail by omitting almost everything.. every sentence, every paragraph teems with life - with what people were wearing, eating, saying, the horses in the street, the smells from the kitchen.. like a Brueghel painting. Yet look again - she actually uses so few few words... it is this that makes her a genius.

Paul Ekert said...

As Barry Norman once said, "If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll like this sort of thing..."

It's not a great surprise that Susan would have voted for this type of book. I believe she writes in this genre and also publishes several books of that ilk...

If I had been a judge, I would probably have favoured something with a more violent edge, or something with a few more laughs. I'm not sure I would read a book with the intention of re-reading it several times.

There have been very few books that have tempted me back to do this; Tom Sharpe, Peter Pook, Larry Niven and Dave Langford are among the few that can tempt me to re-read of which The Moat in Gods Eye by Niven is perhaps the most read book in my collection...

I have myself judged short story competitions, of which there has been very little humour and no SF, finding something that I "like" is sometimes difficult, which in itself, speaks volumes on the nature of something like the Booker prize.

Anonymous said...

Paul Ekert: 'I have myself judged short story competitions, of which there has been very little humour and no SF, finding something that I "like" is sometimes difficult, which in itself, speaks volumes on the nature of something like the Booker prize.'

It may speak volumes to you; but to the rest of us it probably speaks more about your taste.

(Statutory disclaimer: No value judgments intended - one way or the other.)

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