Friday, September 26, 2008

Searching for the Blue Flower

A few weeks ago there was a Guardian article interviewing a judge from each year of the Booker Prize, and three of the forty people interviewed said something to the effect of "In 1995 Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower should've won the prize, but it wasn't even nominated, what a shame." I decided that a book with this many passionate defenders was worth a read, and found a used copy at Green Apple Books that weekend. (Green Apple Books: the nearest thing to Powell's that I've been able to find in S.F. And walking distance from where I live!)

The Blue Flower is a biographical novel set in 1790s Saxony, centered on Friedrich "Fritz" von Hardenberg, who achieved minor fame as the Romantic poet Novalis before dying at the age of 28. Fritz studies philosophy at the lively University of Jena, begins writing poetry and fiction, is forced by his father to earn a living as an Inspector of Salt Mines, and--most unusually--falls in love with Sophie von Kühn, a child of 12. To Fritz, who lives with the Romantic feeling of immanent transcendence always upon him, Sophie is his "dear Philosophy" and "spirit's guide"; to everyone else, she is an amiable but unremarkable child whose mind will never be a match for Fritz's.

All of this story, and some additional plot-threads, get packed into 50-some vignettes comprising just 220 pages. Fitzgerald has a wry sense of humor, a talent she gives to several of her characters, so a "punch line" caps off most of these episodes. I liked the way that Fitzgerald grounds the story in the details of real life: she understands that a whole novel about a young genius who sees mystical connections between all branches of knowledge and lives in a world of ideals would quickly grow tiresome. So she acknowledges that even while philosophers work in their ivory towers, the washing must get done, the family finances must be kept in order, and illnesses must be treated according to the best 18th-century techniques (which to a modern reader seem quite gruesome). Thank God for this common-sense attitude, because I really could not have taken another novel of lofty ponderousness right after reading Divisadero. But it does have the effect of making the supporting characters of The Blue Flower more vividly drawn than the ostensible hero, Fritz. It is hard to make a character who lives so much in his head, and whose head is filled with such idiosyncratic ideas, come alive on the page, especially when he is surrounded by down-to-earth folks.

Penelope Fitzgerald has been compared to Jane Austen and that feels valid, and not just because The Blue Flower takes place at around the same time that Austen was writing her novels. Both women have a similar sense of humor, are skilled at delineating characters, and are interested in family relationships and marriage. Most of the characters in The Blue Flower belong to a few families, following Austen's dictum of writing about "3 or 4 families in a country village." As I noted before, these authors are also unlikely to get lofty or abstract; they'd rather write about the intricacies of everyday social customs. For instance, Fitzgerald points out (to the modern reader's surprise) that Sophie's age isn't the real obstacle to her marriage with Fritz--under the law, she can marry when she turns 14. Instead, the problem is that Fritz belongs to the lower nobility while Sophie is merely bourgeois, so his father disapproves of the match--despite the fact that Sophie's family is wealthy and the von Hardenbergs are impoverished. Furthermore, if Fritz eloped with Sophie, he wouldn't be able to support her, because most professions--copy clerk, night wachman--are closed to members of the nobility. Can't you see Austen enjoying writing about this situation?

The subject matter of The Blue Flower also reminded me a little of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia in the way it portrays young people whose fascination with German idealistic philosophy conflicts with their experience of life as full of frustrated love and untimely death.

There is a lot to admire about Fitzgerald's writing, especially the economy of it: she packs so much detail into a slim volume, but the effort doesn't show. Her skill is quiet rather than flashy, which may explain why this novel was overlooked for the Booker. Indeed, while I certainly recommend The Blue Flower, I wouldn't go as far as to rave about it in the way that those three judges quoted in that article do. While I don't know if it's the best novel never to have been nominated for the Booker, it may well be the best-ever historical novel about German Romanticism, as well as a worthy addition to the bio-novel genre.

P.S.: As I mentioned, Fritz von Hardenberg wrote under the name of Novalis, and when I took a college course on Fairy Tales, I had to read his short fable "Hyacinth and Roseblossom." Rereading it after reading The Blue Flower, I can see how it might have been influenced by his love for Sophie von Kühn...

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