Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Its easy to forget, with the acclaim given to Hilary Mantel's "Cromwell" novels, that the British historical novel has long attempted to do more than just tell a story from the past, but to inhabit it. I've been meaning to read Penelope Fitzgerald for a while, and picking up her award-winning final novel, "The Blue Flower", today, I uncharacteristically sat down and read it in one sitting. This 1995 novel takes as its subject the early life of the German philosopher-poet "Novalis." Born Fritz Von Hardenberg, to a branch of the German nobility, Fritz is coming of age in a world that is in changing frantically. The French Revolution has taken place, and the old certainties of his class are no more - yet at the same time, young, educated men such as himself are looking askance at the old philosophies and trying to rethink the world anew.

The novel begins with him taking a young doctor friend, from Jena, where he has been studying, to his family home, which is in the midst of the thrice yearly wash day. There's a comic element to this opening scene, as we're introduced to Fritz's complex family. His father is a harsh, distant, puritan; his mother - on her way to having eleven children - a timid if fecund creature, fearful of leaving the house. They have an "angel", the Bernhard, a younger son who has the precosity of Stevie the baby from "Family Guy", and who acts as some kind of comic foil in the novel. The sensible sister, and the plodding middle child, Erasmus, are the most fully drawn of the family tableau. Fritz is both an oddity - unable to follow the path set out for him as an elder son - and yet precious nonetheless. His sense of being to the manor born, has transmogrified into him being feted for intellectual capacity, his quick brain, and his unique way of thinking. For his family - rich in land and history, but poor in actual money - his job is to get a well paid sinecure (the nobility are limited as to what work they can do themselves) and marry well. The young poet - student of Schiller, acquaintance of Goethe, friend of Schlegel - is given a job managing the region's salt mines.

Although there's always a sense of wry comedy about "The Blue Flower", we inhabit a world that is wracked with seriousness. The protocols of the time are strictly adhered to in a highly stratified society - yet one which, seen here from the inside, we only get a sense of how chaotic it is; how close to collapse as part of a rotten ancien regime. Of course, the German/Prussian estates are keeping an eye on what is happening in revolutionary France, but this is very much offstage. Fritz is more than just a proto-romantic, he brims with an optimism that his life will not repay.

Fitzgerald's novel, after a few fragmented opening scenes that have a slightly meta- quality to them, soon settles down into a more faithful tale of Fritz being apprenticed to learn his trade, and through this meets the non-aristocratic Sophie, who he falls in love with within the first fifteen minutes of seeing her. The problem is: not only is Sophie not from his class, but she is only twelve years old. This strangely (and thankfully) chaste courtship is the centre of Fitzgerald's novel. She gives us an unfinished fragment of Fritz's - a dreamlike fairytale of a man dreaming about "the Blue Flower." It is the essence of a romantic imagination; this unobtainable essence - and Sophie is a living version of this. Sidestepping her age and her innocence, Fritz's love for her is seen as somehow at one with his vision of romantic purity. But bear in mind this is a novel written in the 1990s - so that though we inhabit this strangely baroque Germany of the late 1790s, and believably so, we have to be aware of a writerly knowingness: that the story of Fritz and Sophie becomes an imagined version of his philosophy and poetry, that was published mostly after his own early death. The romantic cliche begins here in other words.

Fritz's world is drawn with aplomb; like Mantel's Tudor England; Fitzgerald's Germany hums with sounds and smells, and feels just as precarious a time: here illness and the creaking apparatus of the ancien regime are being "thought" out of existence by new medical techniques and new philosophies, yet the brute reality is that the medicine is still rudimentary, and the philosophy is idealistic and unproven. Offstage the early revolutionaries in France have been replaced by the tyrant Robespierre, who himself will be replaced by Napoleon. Fritz's father refuses to read the papers until France has come to its senses.

The book has had a strong posthumous reputation - a well-thought of biography of Fitzgerald appeared last year, the novel won awards when it was published, but it was her last book written in her late seventies. Did it come out of a lifelong obsession with subject or something more prosaic? I'm not sure. It seems an obscure topic - German romanticism - until you realise that so much of English writing was influenced by German archetypes, at least until the middle of the 20th century. In some ways, if Mantel was writing about the birth of protestant England, Fitzgerald is here hoping to rediscover the German romantics. Nazi Germany and two world wars have snuffed out - at least in Britain - the idea of a humane German sensibility - yet its there in "Howard's End" or "The Good Soldier" or even "The Wasteland" and early Nabakov. Like Adam Fould's "The Quickening Maze" a deep engagement with a tiny artistic moment gives the writer an opportunity to explore the ideas of that time both obliquely and in full view.

Yet I'm not entirely convinced, exquisite as the prose is, and as powerful as the book is at evoking a time and a place. By the time the fading Sophie is being treated for her consumption, the novel has become about its particularity, a tragic biography. It stops with the tragedy, avoiding the rest of Novalis's life. In this sense, the book seems more concerned with the formation of his romantic sensibility than being a biographical reworking. At first I felt lost in the book, knowing little of the ideas or history of the time and place, but though Fitzgerald never over explains, the book - though it feels heavily researched - is very effective in how it shares it secrets so I never felt that I had to run to Wikipedia for explanations. Yet at the same time, I finished the novel, not quite as fascinated in the subject as the author appears to be. Like Andrew Miller's "Pure" set just a few years before, we have a historical satire that is perfectly formed for its time and its place, but as enjoyable a read as it was - and like I said, I read it in a single sitting - I wasn't entirely sure why I was spending my time at this particular place and time. Whereas contemporary novels become historical novels over time; historical novels like "The Blue Flower" feel somewhat caught in their own "moment", an object to admire in a museum rather than something that lives and breathes.

Perhaps its enough to bring to life a historical figure - yet the strangeness of his life - that courtship with someone who even at the time was seen as too young to be "betrothed" to him is troublesome from a modern sensibility. Without knowing his work I can't really comment on his writing beyond that quoted in the text. Fictional biographies however "imagined" remain constrained by the historical fact. The book feels like a miniature, beautifully carved, but overly precious. The preciousness suits the subject of course - I'm reminded of Bruce Chatwin's "Utz" or even Bassani's "The Heron". These are books revelling in a privileged class or character, yet not unaware of the crumbling empire beneath.The "point" of historical fiction, beyond the obvious, and done as well as this, is surely to inhabit a moment, to take you back to a time and a place. A writer as precise as Fitzgerald clearly wants us to inhabit this place of early romanticism - rather than right a treatise on it, she gives us a novel set firmly at the moment of revelation. "The Blue Flower" is an elusive idea; but so is the romantic ideal. It is a depressed Wordsworth deep in thought turning a corner on a mountain path and seeing a view of transcendental beauty. This world, this Germany is as alien as a lunar landscape, and there is something fantastical about how she describes the earlier scenes. In this world as well, though it ruled by men, they are often hopeless, whilst the women, powerless as they might be, are the practical ones. In the vast cast of this small novel it is the sisters - Fritz's and Sophie's who take on the burden - or the spurned woman, the niece of his benefactor, who Fritz initially reads "The Blue Flower" to before finding his affections taken by Sophie. It is perhaps this tapping into real familial despairs and sacrifice, rather than the wider narrative, that gives this short novel its moral heft.


Anonymous said...

The subject of The Blue Flower is passion. Your reviewer missed the point.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I'm not convinced.

Jimmy said...

Thank you Adrian. I found your review to be the most satisfying amongst the dozen or so I've read from newspapers, literary websites etc. Your interpretation of the Bernhard was compelling.