A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Penelope Fitzgerald is an author I’ve often read about but not actually read. She’s particularly been on the radar after the coverage of her critically acclaimed biography, by Hermione Lee, that was published last year. So, when The Blue Flower was chosen for my book group last month, I was pleased to have had the nudge to actually pick up one of her books. Indeed, I had even higher hopes when I Googled it and found that it is generally accepted as amongst her best work, and Hermione Lee picked it as her Book of a Lifetime in The Independent.
The Blue Flower is a fictionalised account of the life of the 18th century German poet and philosopher Novalis, with the focus being on his curious engagement with Sophie, the daughter of the family that he was actuary for. Sophie was just 13 years old when they announced their engagement, though they never actually married because Sophie tragically died at the age of 15.
I have to confess to knowing absolutely nothing about Novalis, nor indeed about 18th century German poetry, so I went in with no preconceptions and with no prior knowledge about his life and work. My, he was an earnest chap, at least in Fitzgerald’s account. He surrounded himself with books and knowledge, attending several universities, and finally being trained up to follow in his father’s footsteps running salt mines. Poetry and philosophy, though, were his passions, often including verses in letters and telling people about Fichte. Usually whether they wanted to hear it or not.
The blue flower of the title is an elusive thing, something Novalis is almost obsessed with, and which he cannot attain. It’s tied up with ideas of beauty and enlightenment – as is Sophie. Or rather, his perception of Sophie, because for all he essentially falls in love with her at first sight, his brother is shocked by how unattractive she is.
Fitzgerald’s writing is a dream. The style was as if it were translated, with that slightly distant quality that I always think characterizes translated fiction. I think it works particularly well for this novel, with its dreamy character and his dreamy ways. To have the prose almost at arm’s length works to envelope the reader further in its world, if that’s not totally contradictory. Something that we all remarked upon in our book group was how immediately we felt we were there with the characters, even those of us (most of us) who came to the story with absolutely no prior knowledge.
One question that came up was about the decision to write a work of fiction about a real person. I think it’s an interesting question. It feels like a very deliberate move, and I’d love to know what drew Fitzgerald to him for her last novel. I’m always curious about fictionalized accounts of real people or events, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I’ve always liked the ones I’ve read in the past. This book, though, was quite different. I would never have picked it up myself; the words “18th century German poetry” would not have filled me with abject joy. I would have missed out, because I ended up really enjoying it.
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (London: Fourth Estate, 2013 edition). ISBN 9780006550198, RRP £8.99