Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary career, which I’ve touched on before, is a marvel. She wrote her first novel, The Golden Child (my review here), to entertain her husband during his final illness. She published it in 1977, the year after he died, when she was sixty years old. By the time she published her ninth and final novel, The Blue Flower, in 1995, she had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize four times, winning the whole thing once in 1979 for Offshore (my review here). When it was published, The Blue Flower was received with rapturous reviews, mostly, and ended up at the top of many “best of the year” lists. It was and is considered her masterpiece. Strangely for this Booker darling, when the 1995 Booker Prize shortlist was announced, The Blue Flower was nowhere to be found. It instead went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award, the first year that prize was open to non-U.S. writers.
As much as I admire Fitzgerald (she is one of my Pantheon authors), I’m not terribly surprised The Blue Flower failed to strike that year’s Booker Prize judges. Though the oversight is often maligned (see this article from The Guardian), this short historical novel about a few years in the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg, before he became known as the poet Novalis, is a strange book that doesn’t wear its strengths and virtues ostentatiously.
Like all nine of Fitzgerald’s novels, it is concise, and, in its concision, rather oddly shaped. The book itself is just over 200 generously typeset pages, in my edition, and it is made up of 55 short chapters. That suggests breeziness, but it is actually quite dense and filled with elisions that force a slower pace. Fitzgerald also slows the pace by defying conventional rhythm within her paragraphs and sentences. My experience with all of Fitzgerald’s novels has been one of rewiring my brain to function on her wavelength. As an example, let’s look at the first sentence:
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday.
We probably have the usual questions about the narrative that we expect to be answered: Who is Jacob Dietmahler? Who is his friend? Is Dietmahler a fool at all? But Fitzgerald’s choices may force us to reread the strange sentence. What is with that double negative? Why is there a definitive article before “washday”? The answers to these questions may not reveal themselves in the narrative itself; rather, they are part of the historical, linguistic structure. This is a book about a German poet, set a few centuries in the past. It takes a little work to settle into these stylistic idiosyncrasies, but it does pay off as the narrative itself starts to feel present, as if the characters are living their lives right in front of us and not across the ages. Yes, it usually takes me some time to warm up to Fitzgerald’s style and to the work itself, but it has always been worthwhile. It was no different with The Blue Flower.
The book begins when Fritz returns home from university . . . on the washday. It’s a great, bustling scene, with undergarments flying out the windows. Fritz is not yet the poet, but we can see he’s young and his mind is racing with concepts he will explore in the years to come. Fitzgerald does not weigh the story down by detailing these concepts; like most things, they are suggested, on the fringe of the day-to-day, ghosts that haunt the hours and the pages.
In November 1794, when Fritz was twenty-two and working for August Just, he met the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn. Despite the age difference, Fritz unabashedly fell in love with Sophie . . . or with something about Sophie. No one really knew why. His friends and family (and maybe even hers) thought she was an unimpressive youth. There was nothing striking about her beauty or her intellect. So what was it?
To me, the inability to fully articulate — or even comprehend in the abstract — the forces at work in love and family is the central mystery of The Blue Flower. Indeed, the title itself comes from an unfinished book Novalis worked on for years, never quite figuring out his central metaphor other than that it represented something you search for even though it cannot be found.
The brief vignettes that make up The Blue Flower often show this mystery at work in characters other than Fritz and Sophie. Fritz’s family and friends come alive due to Fitzgerald’s mysterious skill. We see them wonder about Fritz’s love for Sophie while they must also be wondering about their love for him and for each other.
Amid these eternal mysteries are the harsher realities of human existence. It’s historical fact and no secret that, not long after they became engaged, Sophie died, just a few days after turning fifteen. Fritz was to become Novalis soon, but that life was also close to its end. It fits with everything we know about the Romantic period, where love, as a raw elemental force, dies young and, in spite of this, because of this, comes to represent something eternal.
It’s mysterious, and the book holds this mystery beautifully by being quite mysterious in and of itself, even if it takes a bit of time and work to find the pleasure in searching for something that cannot be found.