Sometimes the spaces between the lines, and the words unsaid, are as important as what’s on the page.
Writing about another Penelope Fitzgerald book, The Beginning of Spring, the great novelist Penelope Lively wonders that the author manages ‘an amazing re-creation’ of Moscow in 1913, despite having visited Russia ‘once, briefly, and obviously not in 1913’. Details of furnishings, practices, attitudes and behaviour are evoked, ‘making it an exemplary instance of fiction where careful research is the hidden seven-eighths of the iceberg. It is also elliptical, elusive’.
It’s hard to improve on Lively’s writing: every word of that description applies to The Blue Flower. The setting is rural Germany in the late 18th century. Fritz von Hardenburg wants to marry Sophie, who is 12. Fritz will become the true-life poet and philosopher whose nom de plume is Novalis (no, me neither).
From this unpromising material, Fitzgerald allows you to actually feel what life was like, without going into endless descriptions of mud. That ‘seven-eighths’ quotient is a large part of the novel’s strength.
So, the family’s money, what there is of it, comes from salt; breakfast is freshly-baked white rolls, with coffee from earthenware pots; travel is slow (‘Fritz walked the thirty-two miles back to Weissenfels’); the house’s laundry is done once a year: clothes ‘fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken flight’.
These are scenes from a life – or several lives, in fact. Fritz’s brother sees action in the army, friends and relatives regularly drop dead from a host of illnesses. This is just how it is. The book is divided into 55 short chapters – plus an Afterword, which brings the whole dreamy, romantic tale into harsh focus.
It is also very funny. The Hardenburgs’ youngest child, called by everyone The Bernhard, is surprisingly well-informed, for a six-year old, about the ongoing French Revolution: ‘”They will cut off his head, you will see,” he says wisely from under the table.’
At another point, he is plucked safely from a river and carried home. ‘The Bernhard, aloft, revived a little. “Can I wave at the people?”‘
Elliptical, elusive, the novel flits easily between places and times and viewpoints. Fitzgerald may be a genius.