Penelope Fitzgerald [1916-2000] has become the exemplum of a writer I want to admire more than I can.
Who cares? you might say. Well, I wrote about The Blue Flower back in 1995 [see below]. I knew the novels and very little about their author except that her previous novel, The Gate of Angels, had been universally hurrahed. I liked the work and felt that probably I would like the author of such work, but also that there was something lacking in it.
The Blue Flower –about the life of romantic poet and philosopher Novalis at the difficult moment of his idealisation of 12 year old Sophie von Kuhn, his ‘true Philosophy’- was the perfect vehicle to address that lack and I responded to it accordingly. Everyone else loved and admired it greatly. Of course, they could be wrong or merely reflect an established taste that I don’t share. In any case, so what?
Well since then Fitzgerald has taken centre stage beside and in place of her work. This would not make much difference to me except that in a famous instance an earlier novel and eventual winner of the Booker in 1979, Offshore, was poo-pooed by judges and programme-makers as womanly stuff of the side-plate. Even PF’s publisher was famously condescending towards her work.
If I’d known more about her biography or been old enough to have heard the lit chat at the time, I would have critiqued The Blue Flower more cautiously. I wrote with sincere, albeit slightly sceptical, admiration and meant it when I tried to indicate that her writing was as good as post-war Anglo-Saxon writing gets. I admired her for attempting to take on the terrain of Idealist abyss, just didn’t think she’d pulled it off.
That old male literary establishment was and is repulsive with its pathetic boyish sneering. An establishment is always invisible to itself and takes a no less complacent form nowadays, cohering without much thought around a very settled idea of what a novel is. However, it no longer defines it as an exclusively male preserve. Indeed, so long as it’s a roast potato they really don’t mind at all who cooks it.
My inadvertent association with vegetative incuriosity has always troubled me. Fitzgerald has, it seems to me rightly, emerged as a substantial figure. On top of her very well received selected letters [So I Have Thought of You Ed. T. Dooley 2008] she’ll soon be the subject of a weighty biographical work by Hermione Lee -joining Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton [see below]. I admire the steely humility that seems definitive of her character and her work and as I say, want to like the latter more.
So when Julian Barnes wrote one of those long-for-Britain short ‘essays’ [see below] devoted to a critical celebration of Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower specifically, it seemed the perfect trigger to return to the book/s. JB described Spring as a favourite, as “the best fiction” -under a headline lauding the best novelist of her time- “because the absentee author has the confidence to presume that the reader might be as subtle and intelligent as she is”. I was convinced by his compelling version of a widely held view and that I’d missed it, was too young previously, in every case wrong.
And yet. But. Actually, as good as the novel is in many particulars, for me it failed again in the same ways I thought it did on first reading. While JB and Co speak of subtly invested research [“It is the art of using fact and detail … in such a compact, exact, dynamic and resonant way … that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts”] and magical conjuring of place, I read something that delivers the exact opposite.
JB celebrates this lightness of touch by saying her books “feel like novels which just happen to be set in history” unintentionally highlighting the problem. For me The Beginning of Spring never leaves home. It does precisely feel like a tale of English folk ‘which just happens to be set in history’ in this case pre-revolutionary Moscow.
What it never does for me is leave the well-rounded all-too-believable English characters, rendered as they are against a Russian town/landscape confined by night and a tight locale, and arrive in an other place, time, people. Perhaps that is impossible, but her research and affection for her foreign subject never springs to life. Jerkily, Moscow ‘just happens to be’ there; summer never comes.
The Beginning of Spring could, with obvious changes of costume and detail, take place anywhere with these same characters and concerns. Many find no fault in this but I can see the stage, its wings and the back of the set. I don’t believe for a moment, especially in the streets and nocturnal river bank, that these people are anywhere further from home than White City or Shepperton Studios.
From here is where I constructed my little argument about The Blue Flower, whose central absence is bridged/avoided by religious faith but otherwise an inexactly formed abyss. PF prefaces her novel with a line from Novalis: ‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history’, which implies ellipsis as well as transformation. It’s tough to achieve; a properly elliptical work of fiction is a very rare thing. But if this novel were a plane the fact is that, if it can be said to get off the ground, it doesn’t go far or anywhere unexpected.
I’ll read Hermione Lee’s biography with intense interest and affection for someone I’ve admire as a writer. The British book world is stiff with identikit product, panicked publishers spinning around the same little circuit and incurious about anything beyond it. Penelope Fitzgerald -in her lateness, her humility, its steel and, frankly, her hardships- is a goddess in comparison. She demonstrates perfectly that the media conglomerate/publisher should publish the writer, rather than the writer perform for/ask permission of the media conglomerate/publisher.
Necessity doesn’t usually appear with rounded edges or in a voice with so little insistence. Penelope Fitzgerald’s is a writing from necessity, which is why I wish I could love it more and will be re-reading various novels of hers for quite some time. I can’t think of a bigger compliment to pay a writer of fiction even if I do still want, need and hope for more.
‘How Did She Do It?’ Julian Barnes on Penelope Fitzgerald The Guardian July 2008 here.
‘From the Margins’ Hermione Lee on Penelope Fitzgerald The Guardian April 2010 here.
THE BLUE FLOWER
Penelope Fitzgerald FLAMINGO £4.99
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are pools of prosaic Englishness into which she drops improbable pebbles. The resulting clouds elevate her finely crafted books above the cul-de-sac of much English writing. Yet they remain novels of the possible, quietly mimetic and defined by subtleties, so that The Blue Flower is itself a large stone dropped into her work.
A young Georg Lukacs proclaimed the German writer Novalis (1772-1801) -“The Poet of the Blue Flower”- as the symbol of Romanticism. Fitzgerald has written a kind of fictional biography of this intense young graduate, born Fritz von Hardenberg, centred on his tortured worship of the 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn. The novel ends just before her death at 115, and Fritz’s adoption of the name Novalis: “clearer of new land”. To demonstrate that this is not wholly uncharted territory for her, Fitzgerald introduces the poet to us surrounded by his family’ s damp underwear.
This work is a significant departure. Previously, for example, Fitzgerald has dropped Lolita into an English village and had fun with its ripples. In her last and most complex novel, The Gate of Angels, the angelic figure of Daisy, whose sick-bed sighting engenders devotion in a young scientist called Fred, anticipates this new book. Nevertheless, then it was still all tangled bicycles, muted language and blushing seriousness.
The boldness of The Blue Flower lies in Fitzgerald taking on German cultural forms. It is not merely that Novalis, as poet and philosopher, barely exists in English, but that this fantastically rich period of late-18th century German culture is so removed from British experience. Fitzgerald is compelled to people her book with key figures–Fichte, Goethe and Schlegel–as well as to pepper its dialogue with maxims from Idealist and early Romantic philosophy. Much conversation about “beautiful souls” and “moral grace” is also needed.
Fitzgerald’s boldness pays off: this is her best novel by some way, and a very solid achievement. Sympathetic research and tight plotting recreate Germany in the 1790s as we follow the ascetic Fritz from his family’s faded nobility through his studies and apprenticeship to the Salt Mine Directorate. Fitzgerald is a scene-setter and her evocation of the cold, of dining, clothes and manners is powerful. It concentrates impressively during a tragically doomed engagement party.
But, having embarked on “this road of the impossible”, she left “that most dangerous of possessions”, language, behind. Central to the book is Sophie’s unrepresentable symbolism, which Fitzgerald conveys in prose that is pedestrian and halting. It reveals that her avoidance of the impossible in Fritz’s experience is an avoidance of engagement with language. This is symptomatic of English writing, and ultimately prevents this fine book from becoming an exceptional one.
Mannes-Abbott, Guy, Angelic voices.., Vol. 8, New Statesman & Society, 01-01-1995, pp 38.