The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue FlowerAin’t it just the way, in a week where I’ve proclaimed my scepticism about historical fiction over at Vulpes Libris, that I’ve also written about two historical novels that I’ve really liked? The True Heart fell within my ‘safety zone’ of post-1800, but The Blue Flower (1995) doesn’t – although it is the 1790s, so it’s hardly a million miles away.

I think I have chiefly heard people talk about The Blue Flower in the context of being upset that it didn’t win the Booker – and it’s certainly considered Penelope Fitzgerald’s best novel, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure I’d place it above others that I’ve loved by her (The Bookshop and At Freddie’s are both fantastic), but I did really like it.

The main character was a real person, though not one I’d heard of. He is Friedrich von Hardenberg, famed later under the pseudonym Novalis, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he was ‘a practitioner of German Romanticism’ as well as occupied as ‘prose writer, poet, mystic, philosopher, civil engineer, mineralogist’. Exhausting, no?

We don’t see any of that in The Blue Flower, though he certainly speaks like a philosopher (he is a kind, thoughtful, and eloquent character). Instead, we see him as a man in his early 20s, a student of history, philosophy, and law at various universities, who has fallen in love with 12-year-old Sophie. Fitzgerald’s strength is that this is no Lolita. There is nothing unpleasant on the page. He does not sexualise her – rather, he idealises her, and is more than happy to wait the four years until she can marry him.

The blue flower of the title comes in a story that Fritz tells Sophie (and others), about a young man who longs to see the blue flower. What does it mean? Fitzgerald isn’t vouchsafing it to us, though we may come up with theories. Karoline Just – a close friend of Fritz’s, clearly in love with him, though Fritz cannot see this – can only rule out options for what the blue flower symbolises.

She said “The young man has to go away from his home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is, and as far as I can see he is already happy in home.”

It is not the key to the novel’s comprehension or anything like that – but it is representative of the way Fitzgerald frame s a story. We come at it sideways and unexpected angles, hearing mundane conversations that hint towards a whole, waiting for Fritz to confide in his father about the engagement.

What makes Fitzgerald’s novels so great is undoubtedly her style. Whatever she’s writing about, she has a wonderful wryness. I have realised that one of my favourite authorial techniques is that slight detachment – the shared awareness with the reader that the scene shown is, perhaps, slightly absurd. She laughs gently at her creations, while watching them as though from Olympus…

“Sophie, listen to me. I am going to tell you what I felt, when I first saw you standing by the window. When we catch sight of certain human figures and faces… especially certain eyes, expressions, movements – when we hear certain words, when we read certain passages, thoughts take on the meaning of laws… a view of life true to itself, without any self-estrangement. And the self is set free, for the moment, from the constant pressure of change… Do you understand me?”

Sophie nodded. “Yes, I do. I have heard of that before. Some people are born again and again into this world.”

Fritz persevered. “I did not quite mean that. 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.”

Sophie is an enigma. To others, she is an average 12-year-old. Not particularly interesting or imaginative – even, perhaps, a little stridently silly. To Fritz, she is ‘my philosophy’. And Fitzgerald balances the two brilliantly, so that we never think Fritz an idiot, yet we never think Sophie truly has any hidden depths. Fitzgerald has, I suppose, shown us the subjectivity of love – even in so bizarre and uncomfortable a situation.

My favourite character, incidently, is Sophie’s sister Mandelsloh. She has a delightfully biting wit, and an acerbic awareness of her own shortcomings. Here’s a quick instance of why I like her, in conversation with Fritz (who speaks first):

“Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.”

“But it would not make Sophgen into a competent house-keeper,” said the Mandelsloh.

It’s an unusual, exciting, glittering novel. It should be disturbing and it isn’t (which creates its own questions); it is Fitzgerald showing what an excellent writer she is. Is it her best novel? Possibly, but I don’t think it much hurts where you start reading her.

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I’ve finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I’ve finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn’t really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I’ve read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl’s self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man…

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn’t make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But… then it wasn’t.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she’s married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

“That’s not it at all,” he said, “I’ve left out the main thing.  I haven’t told you the main thing.”The main thing was Nathalie’s warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn’t even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn’t it?  (Er, no.)  I’m afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It’s not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

“Could you love a man who was so rotten?””You don’t choose the people you love.””For an intellectual, you’re not afraid of platitudes.””I’m only too afraid of them,” she murmured, “they’re nearly always true.”
But, still.  Total dud for me, I’m afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it’s my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I’ll give her another go – because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I’m still not seeing any connections.  It’s The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom’s conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work – and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be ‘the most human letter in the alphabet’, and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it’s a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I’m also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard – quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):

I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I’d really like – and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn’t it really work for me?  Well, it’s rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism – (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)

The pseudonym ‘P’ has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates ‘paradigm’, a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  ‘The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power’ (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text ‘which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself’ (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons’ own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for ‘pater’.  ‘Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for “father”, throughout his life until “pater” died in 1946’ (The Dramatic Personae).
– but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn’t feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) – but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn’t enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me – have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once – but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it – it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.