Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Hanns and Rudolf

August 12, 2015

You’ll be pleased to hear that life at Emilybooks has improved since the last post-disastrous-holiday post. Much time has been spent making the most of Britain’s lovely sights and cooler climes. While the husband was away at a stag weekend, Vita and I summoned a few pals for a trip to Eastbourne for fish and chips on the beach and a squizz at the Towner Gallery, where there’s an excellent William Gear exhibition – you can read Rachel Cooke’s intriguing review of it in the Observer here. (We were all ready to fight any menacing seagulls who so much looked at Vita.) Another weekend, Vita resided with her doting grandparents while the husband and I disappeared off to a wedding in Scotland, and nearly reeled ourselves sick (at least I think it was the reeling, I suppose it could have been the whisky), and then, last week, another doting grandparent took us all off to a sunny spot in Gloucestershire, where we had a glorious time, not least when we attempted to inspire Vita to live up to her name by looking around the beautiful gardens at Highgrove. I had to restrain her from tugging the heads off the flowers, which I take to be a sign of great promise.

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas HardingIt was on the train up to Scotland, luxuriating in the heaven of not having to entertain a baby for the four and a half hour journey, that I read most of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding. This book did terribly well when it was published a couple of years ago and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, in part because he has a new book coming out this autumn.

Thomas Harding traces the stories of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who fled Berlin for London in the 1930s, and Rudolf Höss, who became the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Harding explains why he was so drawn to the story:

In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews – and I am one – were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereotype until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me. This is a Jew-fighting-back story

Although a great deal of the book is taken up with a trajectory with which we are familiar – Aryan German from humble beginnings flourishes under the Nazi regime and acquires a great deal of wealth as he persecutes the Jews versus rich Jew managing to escape to London just in time even though this means losing most of his money and having to start again – Harding continues the story and shows what happens when the tables turn. Hanns Alexander joins the British Army and then works for the War Crimes Investigation Team; Rudolf Höss flees Auschwitz, separates from his family and goes into hiding while his family suffers acute poverty. Before long, Hanns is tasked with finding Rudolf, so we see the hunter become the hunted and vice versa. As Harding says, we see the Jew fighting back … and winning.

Hanns and Rudolf is exciting. Harding tells his story using alternate chapters – one focussing on Hanns, the next on Rudolf – and it is fascinating, sickening and gripping in equal measure to watch their lives spin out in such different directions while being pulled along by the knowledge that they will come together at the climax. It is, as it says in the puffs on the cover, ‘a thriller’.

Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s a true story; the true story of a terrible episode in our history. Hanns and Rudolf is not a novel based on, or inspired by, real events, it is the raw truth itself. Throughout his book, Harding reminds us of his tale’s truth – the prose is thick with facts, heavily illustrated with photographs, and there are many notes detailing his research at the back – but he tells it with a keen eye for the tale itself. He presents the facts in thriller form, and thereby renders history as story.

This certainly makes Hanns and Rudolf a good read. The problem is I think that, morally, this story ought to be a terrible read: a grim heavy book that makes you feel the full horror of the six million Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust. Perhaps Harding has hit on something when he talks about how rare it is to find a ‘Jew-fighting-back’ story rather than a Jew as victim story, and no doubt it is this which lends the narrative this element of a thriller, earning cover puffs from John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. Also quoted on the cover is Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, saying the book ‘deserves a wide readership even among those who think they are bored with the Holocaust’. I think it is not OK to give being ‘bored with the Holocaust’ as an option, but perhaps there is something in this … If people really are bored with the Holocaust as presented in appropriately grim heavy books, then maybe this is why this book – a thriller – did so well. It is a very troubling idea to get one’s head around.

Even more troubling is the extent to which Harding’s storytelling prowess makes the reader empathise with one of his main characters. Rudolf.

Take this, for instance. Rudolf has just met Himmler, who’s told him it is time to implement ‘the Final Solution of the Jewish question’ at Auschwitz and that millions of people will be sent there to be killed:

Rudolf returned to Upper Silesia with mission in hand, but no clear idea how to achieve its objective. He knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using Phenol injections, and shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but, from his time overseeing the executions in Sachsenhausen, Rudolf learned that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads – resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates – and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree.

Part of the solution was found two months later when Rudolf’s thirty-nine-year-old deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules – used at the time to exterminate the camp’s vermin – into a small cell in Block II holding a group of Russian prisoners. After waiting only a few minutes, he had observed that all the prisoners had died. There were two problems, he said. First, only a few prisoners could be killed at a time; and second, they had to carry the bodies out by wheelbarrow, which caused shock and anxiety among the other prisoners. Rudolf suggested that if they used the old crematorium on the other side of the block buildings, and adjacent to the villa where he lived, they would be able to kill more prisoners. There would also be an on-site solution to the problem of disposing of the bodies.

Reading this as I type it makes me feel sick. Here is Rudolf coldly discussing the most efficient means of implementing systematic mass murder. It is hard to admit to this, but when I read this terrible passage in the course of reading the book, part of me felt: how is Rudolf going to find a solution to this problem that Himmler’s set him? And, therefore, part of me felt: clever Rudolf for working it out. This is a terrible thing to say; I hasten to add that it is all the more terrible for me to say as a Jew, whose great-grandfather was killed in the camps. But such is the power of Harding’s storytelling, that in following Rudolf’s story, I couldn’t help but see his perspective, and feel partly on his side in spite of myself. I was similarly conflicted when Hanns got closer and closer to finding Rudolf in hiding: part of me instinctively sympathised with the underdog and wanted Rudolf to find a means of escape.

I never thought I would find myself seeing the world through a Nazi’s eyes, certainly not the Kommandant of Auschwitz, and yet I did. As Harding detailed the atrocities Rudolf committed, presenting them in the way that Rudolf would have seen them, it was a real effort to force myself out of Rudolf’s head.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of the book and of Harding’s writing, but I hate to think of other people reading the book and feeling a similar empathy towards Rudolf.

In his author’s note, Harding says:

By calling Hanns and Rudolf by their first names I do not mean to equate them. Indeed, it is important to me that there be no moral equivalence. Yet both of these men were, self-evidently, human beings, and as such, if I am to tell their tales, I should begin with their first names. If this offends, and I understand why it might, I ask for your forgiveness.

Here is the real knot of the book: Rudolf is a human being, and Harding enables us to see this. And this is what is so deeply uncomfortable about the book – in encouraging us to see things from Rudolf’s perspective, you can glimpse how the atrocities happened, how it isn’t completely inconceivable for a human to oversee the genocide of his fellow humans.

There is much more to say about Hanns and Rudolf, but I shall restrict myself to just a couple more points.

Firstly, it was fascinating the way that Harding showed the significance of Rudolf’s capture and testimony. During the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis were on the brink of being found not guilty because in spite of the evidence of the genocide taking place, the men denied their knowledge of it. Soon after Rudolf was arrested, he was called as a witness and confessed that at Auschwitz:

At least two and half million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease making a total dead of about three million.

He admitted that he ‘personally supervised executions’ and gave further details of the deaths. The following day, Hans Frank, head of the government in occupied Poland, took the stand and for the first time confessed to his role in the atrocities. When asked, ‘Did you ever participate in the destruction of the Jews?’, he replied:

I say Yes. And the reason I say yes is because I have been burdened by guilt for the five months of this trial, and particularly burdened by the statement made by Rudolf Höss.

Rudolf’s testimony was key to getting the other Nazi war criminals to admit to their guilt – in capturing him, Hanns captured many others too.

And the final point to note is that Harding informs us that when so many Nazi war criminals were held in Nuremberg for the trials, ‘the Americans had instructed a panel of psychologists to conduct extensive interviews and tests with the defendants.’ Harding tells us who interviewed Rudolf: Gustave Gilbert ‘a New Yorker born to Jewish-Austrian immigrants’, and Major Leon Goldensohn, ‘a Jew who had been born and raised in New York’.

It makes me wonder, who were the other American psychologists, and what proportion of them were Jewish? Isn’t it extraordinary – and quite ironic – to think of a bunch of Jewish New Yorker shrinks interviewing this haul of Nazi war criminals? Please could someone write a book about this!

Hanns and Rudolf

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Reunion

January 19, 2015

reunionThe slight disaster of The Children’s Book left me wanting to read something entirely opposite. I happened across Reunion by Fred Uhlman when doing some Christmas shopping in Persephone Books. It was on their table of books they wish they’d published – always a terrific selection – and caught my eye.

So when I found myself home alone one evening – well I say ‘alone’, but I was of course with little Vita, who was being unusually peaceful and falling asleep on me – I decided to pick it up. In stark contrast to The Children’s Book, Reunion is wonderfully slim at barely 80 pages of large type. Scarcely an hour had passed before I’d finished it. And it was completely brilliant. It was just what I needed as a corrective to the long drawn out anti-climax of AS Byatt.

The genius of Reunion is that it poses as rather an obvious and tragic book, about a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany … but actually it’s about the much more universal theme of friendship. It just so happens that this friendship takes place in Nazi Germany. Unlike The Children’s Book, here history is in the background with the lives and emotions of the characters at the fore; here the tragedy is not the Holocaust, but the severing of a bond between two adolescents.

Hans is enamoured with aristocratic Konradin Graf von Hohenfels from the moment he sees him:

I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

He has a schoolboy crush, with its all-encompassing power. He suffers the agony of feeling inadequate and unnoticeable against this handsome, grand young man:

What could I, son of a Jewish doctor, grandson and great-grandson of a Rabbi, and of a line of small merchants and cattle dealers, offer this golden-haired boy whose very name filled me with such awe?

Hans is determined to befriend him, and shows off one gym lesson, succeeding in attracting his attention. Next he courts his curiosity:

A few days later, I came to school with a few Greek coins – I had been collecting coins since I was twelve. I brought a Corinthian silver drachma, an owl of Pallas Athene, a head of Alexander the Great, and as soon as he approached his place, I pretended to be studying them through a magnifying glass.

Gosh it’s so painful to read! How well Uhlman captures that awkward teenage time when you’re trying so hard to impress someone while pretending to be casual and uninterested. Then, three days later, when going home from school:

I saw Hohenfels in front of me and he seemed to hesitate and to be waiting for somebody. I slowed down – I was afraid of overtaking him – but I had to go on, for it would have looked ridiculous not to and he might have misunderstood my hesitation. When I had almost reached him he turned and smiled at me. Then, with a strangely gauche and still hesitant movement, he shook my trembling hand. ‘Hello, Hans,’ he said, and suddenly I realised to my joy and relief and amazement that he was as shy and as much in need of a friend as I.

I can’t remember much of what Konradin said to me that day or what I said to him. All I know is that we walked up and down for an hour, like two young lovers, still nervous, still afraid of each other; but somehow I knew that this was only a beginning and that from now on my life would no longer be empty and dull but full of hope and richness for us both.

It is so brilliantly rendered! That feeling of astonished relief when you realise that your idol is actually not so different from yourself, that they even seem to want to befriend you. Then that curiously blissful, exciting awkwardness of getting to know each other, the tentative first steps towards closeness.

The two boys strike up an intense, naïve friendship, where they are ‘inseparable’ and passionately debate matters like the existence of God, Post-Impressionist art and the theatre. They survive being horribly embarrassed by their parents … and then perhaps I shouldn’t say what happens next as this is where the plot thickens and twists and turns and it gets very good and moving indeed.

It’s an unexpected book. I opened it thinking I’d get one thing and found quite another. And even the brilliantly understated context, which could all be so obvious, was unexpected. For instance, it would have been easy to pile on the clichés and make Hans’ family extremely Jewish, but instead they are entirely assimilated, every bit as German as they are Jewish. His father is proud of his uniform from the First World War. His mother:

used to give money to the Jews for the assistance of Jewish children in Poland, and to the Christians for the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Reunion reminded me how something so slim can be so powerful. That hour’s reading made a far greater impression on me than the previous two months’ slog. I felt that Uhlman could easily have written much much more, filled pages with moments of their friendship, details of their home life and school days, but he chose to be concise. He says just enough for the reader to glimpse the most important elements of a scene and thereby get it, rather than filling in every last distracting detail. I suppose he’s not unlike the great Penelope Fitzgerald in this respect. So I shall be concise too and just say, next time you find yourself with an hour to spare, you should pick it up.

Red Love

March 17, 2014

It was the day after my sixth birthday and I was at school, when the lesson was interrupted and we were all ushered into another classroom to watch television. I remember feeling quietly proud: I assumed it was probably thanks to my birthday that we’d been awarded this extraordinary treat. We were all squeezed into the room with several other classes, and I sat cross-legged on the floor, envious of the bigger girls who swung their legs from the tables above. The television was one of those school ones – grey, very big and raised up high on a trolley so it could be wheeled around.

We had been gathered to watch the fall of the Berlin Wall, on 9th November 1989. I remember thinking how colourful the wall was, with so many words brightly painted on it, and I was confused by the mixture of smiling and crying faces that loomed large on the screen. We were told that we were witnessing a really important moment of history. It was the first time anyone had told me that history was still happening, that what happened today – on my second day of being six – would be learned about in the future, just as we were busy learning about how Henry VIII got through so many wives.

Red LoveRed Love by Maxim Leo is a family memoir about growing up behind the Wall. Published in paperback just last week, I noticed it as an uncanny sequel to Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself. Having spent a week in Bielenberg’s vivid conjuring of Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s, it seemed strangely perfect to pick up a book that picked up exactly where she left off. Red Love is every bit as powerful and thought-provoking as Bielenberg’s memoir. Maxim Leo’s true stories also seem like the stuff of fiction. And, like the best fiction, they raise more questions than they answer.

Leo traces his family’s connection with the GDR back to his grandparents. His mother’s father Gerhard fled Germany as a child in the thirties. Gerhard’s father was a Jewish lawyer, who had made an enemy of Goebbels in the 1920s, when he proved that Goebbels’ club foot had been present since birth and was not, as Goebbels claimed, a result of French military torture. Once the War caught up with France, Gerhard became a fighter for the resistance, bravely undertaking secret operations and fighting with communist partisans. There are several lucky escapes, and these passages are as tense and gripping as the best action-packed war films. Leo shows how Gerhard’s fierce fighting for freedom then translated itself into fervent belief in the GDR. When fourteen-year-old Leo challenges his grandfather about the Wall, he is told

He was glad there was a wall to keep criminals like that away from him.

Criminals like what? Criminals like the Nazis Gerhard fought against during the War. Nazis like Leo’s other grandfather, Werner.

When Werner was newly married and had found a first flat, he is determined to put a swastika flag in the window. He comes back with the biggest flag he can find, and wants to fly one from his parent-in-law’s apartment too, for which he buys flagpoles. And yet twenty years later, he was fervently flying red flags for the GDR.

My two grandfathers never met. I don’t know if they’d have had anything to say to each other if they had met. Still, they built the same state, they were in the same Party, perhaps they even believed in the same things at some point. And yet they would probably have remained strange to one another because their careers were so different, because fate had guided them in very different directions very early on.

How is it that two men who had such different stories could end up in the same place, both believing so strongly in the same thing?

I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again … From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream.

Through his compelling and fascinating family memoir, Leo offers some answers, and asks many more questions. He explores how the GDR came into being, why its founding fathers – from such diverse backgrounds – believed so strongly in it, how the dream soured, and the intimate, complicated relationship everyone had with it. As his father Wolf says, ‘The GDR was always there in bed with us.’

Both Maxim Leo and his father have moments when they contemplate crossing the border, fleeing to the West, but both turn away from ‘alien freedom’ to return to ‘the prison that is my home’. Images of borders and barriers return again and again in the book, as though the Wall is reflected in each person’s psyche. Leo writes of how Wolf, an artist, liked to brush against the state, push them to see how far he could go in his work. The Stasi, however, saw that Wolf wasn’t really dangerous, saw that he was in fact a potential asset. There is an eerie passage in the book when they try to recruit him:

Plainly they had seen something in Wolf that he himself did not want to see … He had that need to do something, to commit himself, not always just to be against, but also to be for something.

This complicated push-pull relationship in which you are both for and against something which both supports and restrains you is echoed in a passage when Leo was in hospital as a child. He remembers being in a room with barred windows; his parents were only allowed to visit once a week:

Wolf came more often, he climbed up the bars and waved at me from outside …

The bars are a means of separation but they are also something to climb up, to cling on to. So the Wall and its echoes – the many barriers which populate the book –  act as supports, holding up the GDR and its inhabitants, as well as fencing them in.

No wonder that when the Wall came down, and freedom flooded in, something was also lost. There was no longer something to define yourself for or against, no barrier and no support.

Red Love is a fascinating study of home and family, showing the strength of these bonds, and how they push as well as pull. While Leo keeps enough cool distance to yield a historian’s insight on the past, the pages remain astir with a nostalgic love for the communist state and what it set out to achieve. It’s a unique balance, leaving one aware of the many faults and travesties of the Stasi state, and yet feeling a sadness that the dream turned into such a nightmare. It can certainly see now why those faces I stared at on the television as a six-year-old were crying as well as smiling.

The Past is Myself

March 10, 2014

The Past is Myself is such an astonishing, thought-provoking, light-shedding, vitally important memoir that I feel I ought to have read it years ago. Why aren’t we given it at school? The Second World War is taught to death, and here is a book which gives a unique, fascinating and nuanced viewpoint. It ought to be a classic that we have all read, can all talk about, and yet it has only just found its way into my life.

Well, better late than never.

Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel Bielenberg was a bright young Anglo-Irish aristocrat, niece of press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but went to Hamburg to train as a soprano. There, she fell in love with Peter Bielenberg, a handsome young German lawyer, who cut a fine figure on the dancefloor. They married in 1934 and settled in Germany, where they remained during the Second World War. What a time to be British, living in Germany! The Past is Myself is her account of these years.

Although, of course, Christabel Bielenberg was no longer British. On marrying Peter, she had swapped her British passport, ‘with its jovial lion and unicorn’, for a German one, ‘a nondescript brown booklet with a disdainful-looking eagle’. She can’t possibly write as a gung-ho patriotic Brit, because she has married a German, has become one and raises her sons in Germany. She has as many German friends, as she does British. She can hardly cheer on the Allies, when sheltering from an air raid on Berlin, which wreaks destruction on the city and destroys the homes of her friends.

Yet there are aspects of Bielenberg that are unmistakably British. She reflects, on the way to visiting her husband, who has been arrested and is in a concentration camp, that she doesn’t have a plan:

Although I had lived so long in Germany, where everything from a picnic to a coup d’etat had to be planned down to the smallest detail, I knew that I had remained an incurable compromiser, inclined to plunge into a situation, flap around, see what was cooking, hope for the best and, as often as not, with God’s help, come up smiling.

Bielenberg is caught between two warring nationalities; it gives her a rare perspective and yields a brilliant memoir.

On her excellent Desert Island Discs (which you can listen to here), Bielenberg says she wrote the book out of a feeling of duty, because she felt that very few people in England knew there was another Germany, that not everyone went mad for Hitler. It is fascinating – and of course very important – to learn about this other Germany, which opposed the regime.

She shows the many shades of resistance, and of Naziism. There are outright revolutionaries like Adam Von Trott, a great friend of the Bielenbergs’, who was hanged after trying to assassinate Hitler. Then there are also the quiet inhabitants of the Black Forest village, where she spends the later war years with her children. Kerner Sepp is the village clerk and cobbler, who types dilligently away under a portrait of Hitler, but when the secret police order him to put Bielenberg under house arrest, he informs her exactly what they said:

Anyway he told us that if we told you anything except that bit about house arrest we would be shot. The poor Lower Baker got a bad fright when he said that, but we talked it over after he left and decided it was none of his business who we told. Stupid lowlander! Anyway, that’s the way it is, and just don’t tell anyone we have told you, and if you want to go to Furtwangen or any place to do some shopping, just let us know.

Bielenberg is sympathetic towards the Germans; she understands how difficult it is to live under such an oppressive regime while maintaining any feeling of integrity. She also has an outsider’s curiosity about them. An old friend of her husband’s is a Nazi, but when her husband is arrested, this Nazi does what he can to protect him. Bielenberg wonders:

How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his regime? Would it have been that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery? That awareness of belonging somewhere, which in England just came naturally, but I believed among Germans to be a rare, almost unique phenomenon?

Bielenberg is often on the verge of discovering a penetrating truth, but then declines to pursue it. She suffixes these thoughts above with:

Never mind, I gave up. I was suddenly very tired.

There is a perennial feeling of exhaustion, which prevents her from probing too far. One particularly harrowing moment is in a train carriage, empty other than for an SS officer. She finds herself unable to avoid having a conversation with him, in which he confesses the horrors of his work:

Do you know what it means – to kill Jews, men, women and children as they stand in a semi-circle around the machine-guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad – so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my younger brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me “Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?”

The SS officer continues, but Bielenberg confesses:

During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep.

While Bielenberg edges close to the full dark horror of what was going on in Germany at the time, the full extent of it is too much. She is too exhausted to investigate, discover or really understand. This is certainly frustrating, especially given our subsequent knowledge of the horrors. It shows the limitations of such a personal account, written without hindsight, but also points to some answers. How could the Germans claim not have known what was going on? Perhaps the answer is here: The horror was too much to bear.

Bielenberg shows how much strength and guile it took to survive under the Nazis, so what could she possibly do when told about how awful it was to exterminate Jews? It isn’t so much a case of turning a blind eye, as being physically incapable of seeing it without going mad.

There are moments that break through the exhaustion. She gives shelter to two Jews for a short while, even though a good friend warns her not to, given that she is already under suspicion. She feels acute hatred for a Nazi officer who slaps a prisoner:

I was shaking again, but this was different, this was cold deadly hatred such as I never hope to have for any human being in my life again. I hated her, every living bit of her, and the fact that she was a woman made this hatred if possible more intense, for I think it was mixed with impotent rage and deepest humiliation that I belonged to her sex.

But these small gestures of defiance are useless, and worse still is the knowledge that they are useless.

The Past is Myself is a memoir of survival, and suggests that it would have been impossible to survive without seeking refuge in the oblivion of exhaustion. It would have been too much to see that those Jews who left her house after sheltering there for a few days were then not only caught, but exterminated. Bielenberg shows why it was not just tempting, but essential to turn away from such awful truths.

Instead, she relishes the tiny moments which make life more bearable: a rare cup of real coffee, a feast of eggs and bacon, the relief and solidarity of discovering her neighbours aren’t Nazis, the lifeline of listening to the BBC – an offence punishable by death. Tiny pleasures which are blown out of all proportion, for they are all there is to weigh against the horrors of informers, and of friends being hanged. The knowledge of the Holocaust would have tipped the scales too far.

I urge everyone to read this book. It is available either as a rather ugly giant paperback, in which it is paired with her second volume of memoir, second-hand as an out-of-print paperback, or as this very beautiful purple, pocket-sized Slightly Foxed hardback. The latter is little dear, but this is one of those books you will want to re-read and pass on to others, so worth investing in a smart edition.

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

The Blue Flower

February 25, 2013

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:

January 8

Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.

January 9

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.