Friday, April 11, 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

In The Blue Flower, winner of the Booker Prize for 1995, Penelope Fitzgerald starts with the known fragments of a 17th Century German poet's life, and from them creates a full picture of a passionate young man, equal parts dreamer, philosopher and man of the world. Fritz von Hardenberg (eventually known as Novalis) "in a quarter hour" falls in love with a vapid twelve-year-old girl, baffling his friends and family, breaking the heart of the woman in whom he confides, who is his mind's twin.
We meet von Hardenberg's strict religious family, among them his world-renouncing father, self-effacing mother, clever and perceptive sister, wild danger-loving little brother. His fiance's family, the von Kuhns, are coarse but joyous, unconstrained, generous. Fritz's beloved Sophie, simple-minded and flighty, grows on the reader as tuberculosis erodes her health but not her urge to laugh, to dance. Her older sister, the canny and practical Frau Leutnant Mandelsloh, managing the huge von Kuhn household while her husband is away in the military, tempers instinctive kindness with unrestrained honesty.

The book's structure makes for easy entry: most chapters are only a few pages, providing vignettes which like pointillism create a complete picture. And these moments range from a discourse on the annual wash-day, to the poet's telling of the story he has begun: a young man longs for a blue flower. "It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else... It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers?" When his listeners wonder how the story concludes, he asks them to tell him. He cannot imagine the end - indeed, our poet never completed the story - but Fitzgerald tantalizes us with her sympathetic rendering. Sophie is like the flower: captivating, fragile, unique, the light she gives off piercing directly to the heart.

The men and women we meet in this slim book offer many examples of relationships: Herr von Hardenberg and his subservient wife; the boisterous Herr von Kuhn and his relaxed and cheerful wife; young Sophie who comes to accept Fritz's attentions without ever really understanding him; Fritz's friend Karoline who understands him quite well but can say nothing when he declares that Sophie is "my heart's heart" and tells Karoline, "I see there is one thing, the most important of all, unfortunately, that you don't grasp, the nature of desire between a man and a woman." The irony of this line stings the reader: Karoline grasps far better than Fritz, the nature of desire. He imagines Sophie reciprocates his passion, though despite agreeing to marry him she never feels it. Karoline, on the other hand, so loves Fritz that she endures his oblivious rejection, remaining his friend and confidante, even going along with his pretense that she has a man waiting for her, and the four of them will be happy together.

Near the end the poet speculates: "As things are, we are enemies of the 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 is 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, so that one cannot be measured without the other. I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement."

In telling this story from so deep inside its characters, Fitzgerald gives the poet's philosophy vitality and urgency, creating within the reader a place in which the truth of these observations will resonate long after we have closed the book.