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.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Travelling Broadens the Mind but Narrows the Space

I have just got back from a week in wonderful Barcelona. Two weeks before I was in Munich, and I've managed to get to Amsterdam, Brussels, London (twice), Milan and Bordeaux since the start of September, all with work. Its been hectic, hard work, effective, fun, exhausting... and I find myself contemplating "how can I live here?" "should I learn French/Spanish/Catalan?" and "lets come back on holiday next time" and again, and again.

It's why I like returning to places I've been before at least - that they are not just one off memories - sometimes reduced from a sense of place to a series of interchangeable images of airports, conference centres and hotels. "The Grand Tour" that you find in "Portrait of a Lady", "Daniel Deronda", "Tender is the Night", "The Good Soldier"  - even "Mr. Norris Changes Trains" - makes me equate this European movement with literature, with art, and rightly so - and even if I know little about a history of the place I might know something of its literature. Outside of the "Airport novel" (a genre that doesn't seem to exist anymore - perhaps the cheap flights of Ryanair and Easyjet have killed it off) you don't seem to get that much of this sense of (European) place in contemporary fiction. One of the reasons is that contemporary characters rarely have the predefined roles that previous characters do. There's an even more overt internationalisation as well where hyphenate authors see themselves jetsetting between place - Seoul to New York, rather than Paris to Brussels.

So though I'm writing something about place and movement - after all, the last few years have given be plenty of places to set my work, I've come back from this latest stint puzzled and bemused - I think the space I've allowed myself to write has narrowed a little too much. Its become the "airport lounge" itself. Its what I wrote about in my poem "Impressions between Places" in Bare Fiction magazine, and its the world described in the very funny Venice part of Geoff Dyer's "Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanesi" where, with the crowds at the Venice bienalle, him and others move this way and that on a rumour of risotto being served to offset all the booze.

I'm surprised someone hasn't written more about this - a kind of "literature for airports" to steal from Brian Eno - its our postmodern place after all; the mega-airport as the one late 20th century building style of note: yet such is the nature of these places, these Schiphols, these Charles de Gaulles, that they will never be preserved like old railway stations, but ever shifting spaces, like something out of Minecraft. They are Ballardian of course, and yet we lack a Ballard now to describe the post 9/11 version with our shoes being removed, our disorientating funnelling through security with transparent bags with lotions and medicines on show, our printed boarding passes and digital check ins.

So, with the Autumn tour completed successfully, I look forward to a month of other chimeras - the cheery facade of contemporary Christmas capitalism which is surely as relentless as thing as the airport flow.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What you don't know, right?

To be entirely truthful my least favourite literary aphorism is "kill your darlings" to which I usually say, "mine are packed off and in a witness protection programme in Utah."

But my second least favourite bit of advice is "write what you know." That should be clear from anyone who's read the Henry James essay which this blog is titled after. His point was that a good writer could observe without being, that a little distance is sometimes useful, and that the imagination is boundless. Yet the "write what you know" trope still persists, is even more prevalent than ever I think, in a literary culture that is at time celebrity focused, public, and solipsistic.

So write what you know...except. The short stories I've had published this autumn are respectively about a female food journalist in Afghanistan, a male gigolo having an affair with the Russian president, and a paranoid lighthouse keeper on his last day in the job. I hope it goes without saying that these are entirely works of the imagination. As  a writer I have veered between the confessional and the imagined to some considerable degree, and in general I don't think it matters that much - the idea is the thing, and the writing, and you need to create a believability or else the story will fall flat. And, yes, however far from your own life and experience the story is, there will be a little bit of genuine experience that slips in. To give one example - in "Dear Papa", the Afghan set story in "Fugue" - the woman narrating the story in a letter back to her father talks about going to a little Afghan Restaurant on Islington High Street as Clinton sent the bombers into Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was me in that restaurant, and I'm pretty sure it was Islington High Street, and yes, there was a story on the news about Afghanistan being bombed. Yet the rest of the story is imagined - I've never been to Afghanistan, I've never been a female food writer etc.

The other side of it is that when you write a first person narrative, people inevitably assume its you - at least to start with - so when narrating as a woman, this literary cross-dressing has to be flagged in some way, possibly to the detriment of the story - or when writing about things such as sex or family it should go without saying that this is not a story about my sex life, or my family. If we all inevitably take things from our own experience and throw them into the melting pot it obviously can confuse the issue but if being a "professional" in my approach to writing means anything it is that I do don another persona when I'm writing, and wedge a stick in the door to keep my other self ("the real me") from entering unexpected.

And this is what non-writers perhaps never get - that writing about the real stuff of one's life is much, much harder than making things up. We're living it, not reflecting it. How to describe that heartbreaking love affair? How to get over that family fall-out? How to understand that stupid bit of drunken revelry? They can all feed into your fiction - and will do - but unless that's your schtick I don't think its a clear unfiltered journey.

The other thing, and here's a secret, is that when we make things up and set things in Afghanistan or outer space or in 18th century France or on a desert island or in Swindon or any of those other places we've never actually been - that's when we feel more comfortable at slipping in a bit of truth. Though to be fair, I don't think I'd write about Swindon without going there - I like the veracity of place so that even a small detail can add benefit to your story - I'd have probably chosen Luton or Slough or Kettering, places I have been at least once. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Pace in a Story

The British short story is a strange kind of animal. Whereas you might think of a story as some kind of mongrel, pulling bits from elsewhere - fable, poem, novel - we have an obsession in Britain that is akin to the various categories you find at Crufts. On the one hand our "best in show" winning the BBC Short story award or the Sunday Times prize can often be an otter hound or similarly oversized dog, our magazines - and quite a few of our open entry prizes - inside that only a bichon frisé might apply, with 2000 or 2500 word limits as standards.

The American short story on the other hand doesn't think of a short story as a particular breed of little literary dog, it understands that it is a genre in itself which though sometimes tiny, is more often quite long. 

I'm writing a story at the moment and its definitely a story - not a novel or anything so grand. Yet there are a cast of six or seven characters, a definite setting, a complex time sequencing that includes flashbacks to tell the story. I've written 2000 words this morning without pausing and I realise the story will be lucky to come in under 6000. In other words, I'm again writing something that's pretty unpublishable or unplaceable - though as its a ghost/horror story "after a fashion" it might have a life. 

Yet I'm not writing it at some length out of some misguided belief that very short stories are always wrong - like the bichon frisé they can be fine if a little precious - but because this is the length that the story wants to be. It has its own pace, and its own need for a certain accumulating of detail to enable the ghostly bit of the story to creep up on the reader. Its not always the case, but for once, as soon as I'd had the idea ffor this one, I knew exactly how it should be told. Of course, when I get to the end I may have made a pig's ear of it, but for now at least, it feels I'm writing something with a little bit of heft, and moreover, which will reward the reader for the time it takes to read. That its 3 times as long as a 2000 word story shouldn't be in any way a bad thing.

Of course, writers know this, even if publishers and editors and judges don't.  I can understand competitions not to want to have stories of only 5000 words + yet the prestigious BBC Short Story Award seems to be geared (given the length of the radio slot allotted to the shortlisted stories) to prefer the longer story - yet here's the rub, the only authors who will regularly get longer stories published are the already well known - those with book deals. 

The last longer story I wrote sits stubbornly in my unpublished pile - and yes, I can see that it might have some of the characteristics of a scene from a novel, with its unhurriedness, its sense of place, person and detail, yet its exactly the length and pace that it should be.  I have no answer, and as a writer I'm abundantly clear that I should see a short story as being "without chaff", so I think my tendency has been to write shorter over the years (and yes, those three stories I talked about coming out this autumn are all sub 3000 words), but when you begin writing something and the pace is so obviously write for what you want to write, its hard to think about cutting it down to size - yet harder still, once you've finished it, to see it unloved and unread. 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dead Lines and Post Scripts

It was Halloween last night, and that seems to also be the deadline for quite a number of competitions and submission periods. So in my spare time this week I've been sending this and that off. The Siren anthology launch for "Fugue" at the London Review Bookshop went well by all accounts last week, though I had to cancel at the last minute because of a late running hospital appointment. Life and art not synchronising too well at the moment unfortunately.

At least with email submissions - and increasingly the use of the Submittable software platform - its a bit easier than it used to be. I no longer need a pile of stamps and SAEs and regular trips to the post office. So not much more posting of scripts these days, at least. The Post Script to the Fugue launch is that they sold quite a few copies on the night and it will be on sale at the bookshop as well as from and other online retailers.

I was looking through my short story list and if you go back far enough, I've written around 130 - but thats in twenty years - so what's that, an average of 5 or 6 a year? Not all of them are great of course, but I guess I'd find enough for a collection or two in that pile.  For if the short story is in ascendant its because lots of people are writing them, maybe more than reading them. There's still a bit of a tendency for the well crafted character story - the ongoing British fascination with the New Yorker perhaps - yet I'm always more drawn to the Borgesian end of things rather than the dirty realist end.

Special FX at the Royal Exchange is a free Friday night event - an hour of pre-show performances - music, comedy,and last night the short fiction readings of "Bad Language." Four readers, including novelists Emma Jane Unsworth and Alison Moore, both of whom are featured in "Curious Tales" - a limited edition illustrated Christmas ghost story book available to pre-order now.  Perfect Christmas present! We weren't quite gathered around a roaring fire, but it felt suitably spooky, despite the unseasonal warm weather. Emma will also be in Manchester the week after next for Chaos to Order - a week's cultural residency at the Central Library curated by the band Everything Everything.

Regular events continue in Manchester even as the seasonal specials gear up - and this afternoon at 5pm there's a Peter Barlow's Cigarette reading at Waterstones with four excellent poets (and wine.) Then the next Other Room takes place on 27th November at the Castle. I'm away this week for a few days but hoping I get back in time (and with energy) to see 2 Finnish poets reading at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday - from a new Arc book "Six Finnish Poets." Given my obsession with Finland I will certainly be getting this.

A busy Autumn means I haven't had much chance to get to see much art even though there are two major shows currently on in Manchester, the Sensory War at Manchester Art Gallery, and the cross-city Asian Triennial. However, I did very much enjoy the opening of an exhibition dedicated to artist as "collector" - (Dis) order: a compulsion to collect. From a George Perec list of his year's eating as you come in through the door to an exemplary selection of Ian Hamilton Finlay miniatures its a suitable neat and probing show, with Torsten Lauschman's brilliant assemblage of obsolescent technology "Piecework Orchestra" an undoubted highlight. 

Musically, a highlight has to be some of the talks at this years Lounder Than Words festival, especially keen on hearing Marcus O'Dair from his new book on my hero Robert Wyatt.(See this short piece I wrote on him way back in 2007).