Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my very favourite writers.
I love the modesty of her genius – the way she manages to condense a vast amount of research into a few perfectly placed sentences, or captures a character in a single revealing moment. There is no boasting or showing off. Her slender, potent novels are about as far away as you could imagine from all those braggy, baggy monsters which claim to be ‘the Great American novel’, or ‘the voice of our generation’, or something else ridiculously self-aggrandising. Fitzgerald gives us perfect little stories, then – suddenly – you realise they are the product of an absolutely extraordinary mind. Her unassuming genius catches you by surprise.
The Blue Flower – Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel and considered by many to be her masterpiece – is about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis. (I’m going to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never heard of him, but I suspect that reflects my ignorance rather than his lack of fame.) Fitzgerald gives us Novalis when he is still ‘Fritz von Hardenberg’, the eldest son of a big shambolic noble family which has lost all its wealth. Twenty-two-year-old Fritz falls in love with twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn.
How can anyone fall in love with a twelve-year-old girl? It’s an especially impossible question post-Jimmy Savile, of course. To make it even harder, Fitzgerald stresses the fact that Sophie is not an old twelve-year-old, in the way that Shakespeare’s Juliet seems more adult than her not-yet-fourteen years; Sophie is unmistakably a child. The first time Fritz sees her she is described as ‘a very young dark-haired girl’ – ‘very young’. She laughs childishly all the time. She is simple, unintelligent – a striking and funny contrast to intellectual Fritz:
‘But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?’
Sophie considered a little. ‘Yes, if I could have fair hair.’
Fitzgerald gives us an extract from Sophie’s diary:
Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.
Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.
What on earth does Fritz see in her? The reader is not alone in being puzzled by Fritz’s love for Sophie – none of the other characters can fathom it. Fritz’s brother Erasmus says:
‘She won’t do at all, my Fritz. She is good-natured, yes, but she is not your intellectual equal. Great Fritz, you are a philosopher, you are a poet … Fritz, Sophie is stupid!’
To which Fritz replies:
‘You mean well, Junge, I am sure you do. Your feelings are those of a brother. You think I have been taken in by a beautiful face.’
‘No, I don’t,’ Erasmus protested. ‘You are taken in, yes, but not by a beautiful face. Fritz, she is not beautiful, she is not even pretty. I say again this Sophie is empty-headed, moreover at twelve years old she has a double chin -’
But then, quite remarkably, Erasmus too falls under her spell, just as intensely as Fritz. Even their father falls for Sophie eventually.
What is it about young Sophie von Kuhn? Is it that she is an empty vessel into which they can pour all their desires, a blank canvas to be projected upon? Is it her happy innocence and joyful naivety which touches them in some way?
Or perhaps this is an extreme example to illustrate the inexplicable nature of love. No one truly understands why people fall in love, so why should everyone falling in love with this simple girl be any stranger than everyone falling in love with anyone else?
Perhaps this love is linked to the blue flower of the title. The blue flower appears in the story that Fritz reads aloud to different people at various stages of the novel:
The young man lay restlessly on his bed and remembered the stranger and his stories. ‘It was not the thought of the treasure which stirred up such unspeakable longings in me,’ he said to himself. ‘I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower. It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else. Never did I feel like this before. It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world …’
This is the opening of the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen that Novalis actually wrote. The language surrounding the blue flower is not so different to that surrounding Sophie – Fritz’s ‘heart’s heart’.
‘What is the meaning of the blue flower?’ asks Fritz again and again. The meaning of the blue flower is hard to pinpoint, which is, ironically, the whole point. The blue flower is symbolic of a vague inexpressible yearning for the infinite, a Romantic emblem of love and striving.
This sounds pretty heavy, but perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald has wrong-footed us again. In an interview she said:
Before I ever knew Novalis’ story, I was interested in the blue poppy. I wanted to trace its history, and I saw one up in Cumbria. It’s extremely difficult to grow, you know; and even then, after about the third year, it goes to pieces—it changes colour.
She sends us away from eighteenth-century Germany to twentieth-century Cumbria; away from the Romantic imagination to a gardener’s challenge. In a letter to the literary critic Frank Kermode, she sends us off to a Yorkshire novella:
I started from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘fatal flower of happiness’ at the end of The Fox, having always wondered how DHL knew it was blue …
Is this novel, which purports to be about the philosophy behind German Romanticism, actually just about a blue flower? Or is the blue flower symbolic of far more than even the German Romantics thought?
Penelope Fitzgerald has such a lightness of touch, such subtle genius that she is bloody hard to write about! ‘How does she do it?’ asks A.S. Byatt, and many other critics, in helpless wonder. I think Julian Barnes has written about her better than most (certainly better than me) in the Guardian here. But I will leave you with Fitzgerald’s own beautiful words from the opening scene of The Blue Flower. This passage illustrates her skill for condensing extensive research into a piece of poetry, and for transporting the reader, perfectly seamlessly, to a completely different but utterly relatable-to world:
Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend’s home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler’s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year.