Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

He said, 'If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.'

The Blue Flower is the story of Georg Philipp Friedrich "Fritz" Freiherr von Hardenberg, better known as the German Romantic poet Novalis. Brilliant and passionate, born into Low German nobility, trained to be a Salt Mine Inspector, Hardenberg is at the center of a blossoming of German philosophy that comprises his friends Schiller and Schlegel, and the older Goethe, under whose mysterious shadow they live. Fitzgerald gives us limited insights into Hardenberg's philosophy--poetic in nature, and preoccupied with dissolving the artificial barriers between people and things. For this reason, his philosophy is found in surprising places:

Fitz covered sheet after sheet of paper with schemes for discovering new lignite beds and improving the supervision of tile-kilns and lime-kilns, with meteorological records which might help to bring the refinement of brine to a higher standard, and with notes on the legal aspect of salt manufacture. But he also saw himself as a geognost, a natural scientist, who as he put it, had come 'to an entirely new land, and dark stars.' The mining industry, it seemed to him, was not a science, but an art. Could anyone but an artist, a poet, understand the relationship between the rocks and the constellations? The mountain ranges, and the foothills with their burden of precious metals, coal and rock salt, were perhaps no more than traces of the former paths of stars and planets, who once trod the earth.

But the most surprising place is in a twelve-year old girl, Sophie von Kuhn, with whom Hardenberg falls in love, though he is ten years her senior. He calls her, half-punning, his "Philosophy," and promises to marry her at sight, though she is neither very pretty nor passably intelligent. Fitzgerald manages to do what ought to be impossible: depict Hardenberg's love for Sophie as passionate and genuine, while never suggesting that Sophie is anything but an unremarkable child:

Sophie did not possess many books. She had her hymnal, her Evangelium and a list, bound with ribbon, of all the dogs that her family had ever had, although some of them had died so long ago that she could not remember them. To this she now added the introductory chapter of the Blue Flower.

Though Sophie probably does not realize it, she is identified with the blue flower of this story, Hardenberg has written but cannot figure the meaning of. Like the flower, which obsesses the story's protagonist though he knows not why, Sophie's worth is ineffable but unquestionable. In a great moment, Hardenberg's brother Erasmus manages to track down the aloof Goethe:

Goethe went on, 'I think I know what you want to ask me. You wonder whether Fraulein von Kuhn, when she is restored to health, will be a true source of happiness to your brother. Probably you feel that there is not an equality of understanding between them. But rest assured, it is not her understanding that we love in a young girl. We love her beauty, her innocence, her trust in us, her airs and graces, her God knows what--but we don't love her for her understanding--nor, I am sure, does Hardenberg. He will be happy, at least for a certain number of years, with what she can offer him, and then he may have the incomparable blessing of children, while his poetry--'

Erasmus desperately caught the arm of the great man in mid-speech, spinning him round like flotsam in the tide. 'But that is not what I wanted to ask you!'

Goethe stopped and looked down at him... 'I was mistaken, then. You are not concerned about your brother's happiness?'

'Not about his!' cried Erasmus. 'About hers, about Sophie's about hers!'

In the second half of the novel, Sophie takes ill. As Hardenberg says, a story that begins with finding must end with searching, and what he has found in Sophie he must search for a cure to keep. Throughout her illness, Sophie keeps her cheer, embodying Hardenberg's remarkable words:

'As things are, we are the enemies of this world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this in animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, and the one cannot be measured without the other...'

I read this book because somewhere, in an article I know not where I read or when, Fitzgerald was compared to Muriel Spark, who is one of my favorite authors. To be sure, The Blue Flower reads like a Spark novel, light and clean and deceptively tidy. But Fitzgerald has strengths that Spark could never care to cultivate, like a genuine warmth toward her characters, and an unstudied air of historical expertise. I was delighted to find out, via Wikipedia, that these hilariously dull entries from Sophie's journal are historically accurate:

March 1. Today Hartenberch visited again nothing happened.
March 11. We were alone today and nothing at all happened.
March 12. Today was like yesterday nothing at all happened.
March 13. Today was repentance day and Hartenb. was here.
March 14. Today Hartenber. was still here he got a letter from his brother.

But Fitzgerald also manages to populate this slim novel with an extensive cast of sharply realized, highly individuated characters. Beyond Fritz and Sophie, I really enjoyed the cynical precociousness of Fritz's eight-year old brother, called "the Bernhard":

'I should prefer us all to be children,' said Erasmus, 'then we should have a kingdom of our own.'

'That is not at all my experience,' said the Bernhard.

When he was very young the Bernhard had believed that the six-year gap between himself and Sidonie would gradually disappear and that just as he would come to be as tall as she was, or taller, so he would grow to be the same age as she was, or older. He had been disillusioned.

In moments like this, I can see traces of Spark's crisp bluntness, but also a sense of playfulness alien to the frigid humor of her books.

Ultimately, The Blue Flower was one of those rare revelations for me, a book from an unknown author that I suspected I might like but which exceeded all of my expectations. I have expected so little from modern literature that it shocked me, too, to know that this book was written in 1995!

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