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The Beginning of Spring Paperback – Bargain Price, September 3, 1998
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In March 1913, Frank Reid's wife abruptly leaves him and Moscow for her native England. Naturally, she takes their daughters and son with her. The children, however, only make it as far as the train station--and even after returning home remain unaffected by their brief exile. "They ought either to be quieter or more noisy than before," their father thinks, "and it was disconcerting that they seemed to be exactly the same." Frank's routines, however, drift into disorder as he tries desperately to take charge of life at home and work. Even his printing plant is suddenly confronted by the specters of modernization and utter instability.
In Penelope Fitzgerald's fiction, affection and remorse are all too often allied, and desire and design seem never to meet. Frank wants little more than a quiet, confident life--something for which he is deeply unsuited, and which Russia certainly will not go out of her way to provide. The Beginning of Spring is filled with echoes of past wrongs and whispers of the revolution to come, even if the author evokes these with abrupt comic brio. (In one disturbance, "A great many shots had hit people for whom they were not intended.") As ever, Fitzgerald makes us care for--and want to know ever more about--her characters, even the minor players. Her two-page description of Frank's chief type compositor, for instance, is a miracle of precision and humor, sympathy and mystery. And the accountant Selwyn Crane--a Tolstoy devotée, self-published poet, and expert at making others feel guilty--is a sublime creation. His appetite for do-gooding is insatiable. After one fit of apparent altriusm, "Selwyn subsided. Now that he saw everything was going well, his mind was turning to his next charitable enterprise. With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune." As she evokes her household of tears and laughter, Fitzgerald's prose is as witty as ever, rendering the past present and the modern timeless. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
Booker Prize-winner Fitzgerald ( Offshore ; Innocence ) reveals here the depth of a distinct and imaginative talent to amuse. Set in Moscow in the spring of 1913, the story concerns an English household that has fallen apart with the unexpected flight of Nellie Reid, a good and proper wife and heretofore devoted mother of three young children. (Fitzgerald is especially good at very droll children.) Nellie's husband, Frank, must carry on with his family and printing business while holding out hope for her return. A mysterious young woman from the countryside--she may be a dryad--is engaged to care for the children, and the plot, such as it is, takes many unexpected turns. But one doesn't read Fitzgerald for plot structure so much as for her sheer powers of invention: her novel raises more questions than it means to answer. Rich in subtle characterizations, wit and wonderfully textured prose, Fitzgerald's seventh novel succeeds in evoking the very essence of life one long-ago spring at 22 Lipka Street.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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For a historical novel, The Blue Flower is vanishingly slim. It has 55 brief chapters--essentially vignettes of a few pages each--concluding with an incredibly spare and moving afterword. The German I found off-putting at first, but it’s mostly people’s names, nicknames, and place names and adds a lovely antique shade to the prose. (If audio is your speed and German is not, I definitely recommend the audiobook read by Derek Perkins—he gives marvelous voice to the ensemble cast and dispatches the German with utmost fluency!)
So what is The Blue Flower? Better to start with what it’s not: it isn't, first of all, anything like an 18th-century Lolita story, although it’s hard not to make that link. Surely Fitzgerald wrote with this knowledge, although we don’t see her dropping any hints to that effect: the story feels deeply rooted in its time period. While the poet and philosopher Fritz von Hardenberg is attracted to young Sophie von Kuhn's looks, the way he describes her to others and speaks to her directly makes it clear that he’s primarily attracted to his self-created idea of the girl.
Fritz calls Sophie “my heart’s heart.” For me, the “heart’s heart” of The Blue Flower lies in how it imagines the lives of two very different families, and in the questions its asks about the fragility of childhood and youth. Childhood and young adulthood in The Blue Flower look all the more fleeting and strange given how uncertain it was at that time for a person to survive to any great age.
Social expectations for young women and girls also weave into the novel's reflections on youth: Fritz’s family and friends are startled and even shocked at his attachment to a twelve-year old girl, but since she is expected to marry at sixteen, how much (or how little) time has she left for childish things anyway? Does she become genuinely attached to him, and if so, in what ways? In the case of Fritz’s close friend Karoline Just, what happens if you are only in your twenties, yet feel that life has passed you by?
But I don’t mean to make the book sound like a puzzle to be labored over. While some have experienced this as a dry or demanding read, or felt that Fitzgerald is overly harsh to her characters, the families’ emotions struck me as powerful and deeply felt. I think I will continue living with this book, again and again.
Ultimately, the book is about that ideal, or about the notion of reaching towards a romantic ideal, the blue flower, the distant horizon. But the Blue Flower of the title is only mentioned two or three times, in a quotation from the opening of Novalis' unfinished novel HEINRICH VON OFTERDINGEN. Fitzgerald knows that to establish the horizon, one first has to map the ground at one's feet. (This is especially true of Novalis, whose romanticism was not an escape from the real world, but a belief that everything in it -- human beings, animals, plants, even the rocks -- might communicate with one another on an equal footing.) Much of the book is concerned with daily life and domestic details, but its first impression can be disorientating. Fitzgerald writes in a clean but curious style that seems at times like an awkward translation from German (the definite article before some people's names, for instance, or the use of "maiden" instead of "girl"); oblique references to Kant and other thinkers of the day are tossed in but never explained. The reader is plunged into life in full spate, a busy repetitive life where the details of daily routine serve as ballast to flights of intellectual enquiry. But the strangeness wears off, the writing simplifies, and the book's ultimate effect is to give the stamp of absolute authenticity to everything that the author describes.
This is not a conventional love-story, or indeed a conventional novel in any sense, although it is filled with memorable people. Ideas are sketched in with a few deft strokes, then left suspended. The author assumes that readers have either a good knowledge of the political and intellectual history of those watershed times, or that they can pursue these things on their own. She does not use the novel as a means of explaining history, let alone an aesthetic, but attempts a much more daring task: making you experience it at first hand -- even without quite knowing what you are experiencing. Perhaps a bit disappointing at first, this turns out to be a depth-charge of a book that stirs the mind long after the ripples of reading it have disappeared.