If ever there is a book to persevere with, to have patience with, and to go back and re-read again, it is The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. When I bought it, I didn’t realize it was the last novel by the Booker prize winner; published five years before her death in 2000 aged 83. For someone about to read it, it can seem a trifle intimidating. Set in 18th century Germany, Fitzgerald tells her imagining of the teenage story of real German poet and philosopher Fritz von Hardenberg, later called Novalis. He is a young man so self-contained, so absorbed in his thoughts, that I wondered where the drama would arise. But it does, because he falls in love.
The Blue Flower is a short novel, 223 pages. The chapters are concise [mostly only two or three pages each] and this encouraged me to ‘just read another’ and so, gradually, almost without realizing, I fell into the story. Fitzgerald recreates this particular time in German history with a delicacy that, despite the language and sometimes confusing names, makes the people become real.
It is 1794 and Fritz, an idealistic and passionate student of philosophy and writer of poems, stays with some family friends and meets their youngest daughter, Sophie von Kühn. Love is instant for Fritz and, despite a little bemusement on the part of Sophie, and astonishment by his siblings and friends, he proves himself constant.
It is the sort of novel that, when you are reading it you ‘get’ it but afterwards, when trying to describe it to someone else, you struggle to grasp it. I still do not really understand the meaning of the blue flower. But although the deeper meaning may elude me, there are passages I love. Particularly the opening chapter when a guest arrives at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse; it is washday, the annual occasion for washing personal and household linen, and his arrival effects an introduction to the household. This starts a juxtaposition which runs throughout the novel, of the ordinary everyday mundanity of life alongside Fritz’s poetic sensibilities. He calls twelve-year old Sophie his Philosophy, his guardian spirit. Knowing he must wait for her, he trains as an official in the salt mines and Fitzgerald treats us to some of the practicalities and science of this industry.
This is not a lazy read. Be prepared to invest something into it yourself. Fitzgerald does not put it all onto the page, she expects the reader to think, to research, to work it out, as she did when writing. If each book is the visible bit of an iceberg above the waterline, with the research submerged, The Blue Flower is the snowball on top of the iceberg.
‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald [UK: Fourth Estate]
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