"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 7, 2011

"The Blue Flower" by Penelope Fitzgerald (Book review)

The Blue Flower is based on the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg ("Fritz"), who later became famous as the poet Novalis (1772-1801). It covers the 1790s when he was a student of history, philosophy and law, and also when he started his professional career in the Salt Mine Directorate. In this period Fritz meets Sophie von Kuhn. Although she is only twelve, he falls in love with her and they become engaged (the wedding has to wait, her parents demand, until she is fifteen). But she dies before that time of tuberculosis, having endured a terrible operation without anesthetic. Novalis, and many of his contemporaries, would die of the same illness before reaching thirty.

The novel is written in a very spare style, and divided into 55 short chapters. Perhaps thanks to this conciseness, thanks to omitting so much, it eminently manages to evoke a lively image of the late 18th century in Germany, both the material life and the way people thought. It also addresses the question of "what is genius?" The book is told from an omniscient viewpoint and the perspective keeps switching among a large number of characters (if only, because families were large in that period!), so strong concentration is demanded from the reader.

The "blue flower," by the way, is a central symbol of German Romanticism. It stands for love and the metaphysical striving for the infinite.

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) only started writing, after a professional life, when she was past sixty and she has accumulated a small but fine oeuvre, admired by critics - she won the Booker Prize with OffshoreThe Blue Flower was her final novel; it appeared in 1995.
A very clever and intelligent novel that in small but intricately carved vignettes breathes vigorous new life into history. The motto of the book is a dictum by Novalis, "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."
I read The Blue Flower as a Mariner paperback.