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The Blue Flower Paperback – April 15, 1997
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Penelope Fitzgerald wrote her first novel 20 years ago, at the age of 59. Since then, she's written eight more, three of which have been short-listed for England's prestigious Booker Prize, and one of which, Offshore, won. Now she's back with her tenth and best book so far, The Blue Flower. This is the story of Friedrich von Hardenberg--Fritz, to his intimates--a young man of the late 18th century who is destined to become one of Germany's great romantic poets. In just over 200 pages, Fitzgerald creates a complete world of family, friends and lovers, but also an exhilarating evocation of the romantic era in all its political turmoil, intellectual voracity, and moral ambiguity. A profound exploration of genius, The Blue Flower is also a charming, wry, and witty look at domestic life. Fritz's family--his eccentric father and high-strung mother; his loving sister, Sidonie; and brothers Erasmus, Karl, and the preternaturally intelligent baby of the family, referred to always as the Bernhard--are limned in deft, sure strokes, and it is in his interactions with them that the ephemeral quality of genius becomes most tangible. Even his unlikely love affair with young Sophie von Kühn makes perfect sense as Penelope Fitzgerald imagines it.
The Blue Flower is a magical book--funny, sad, and deeply moving. In Fritz Fitzgerald has discovered a perfect character through whom to explore the meaning of love, poetry, life, and loss. In The Blue Flower readers will find a work of fine prose, fierce intelligence, and perceptive characterization.
From Library Journal
Fitzgerald never repeats herself, and her latest novel, named Book of the Year by 19 British newspapers in 1995, is her most original book yet. Here she reconstructs the life of 18th-century German romantic poet Novalis, focusing on his boisterous family, his struggle to articulate his longings, and, most tellingly, his passion for 12-year-old Sophie, a simple child he intends to marry despite the furious reservations of family and friends. Fitzgerald doesn't make it entirely clear what draws Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis's real name) to little Sophie?but that is precisely the point. Throughout, he is carried aloft by an inchoate desire for something beyond that is summed up in his little story of the blue flower: "I have no craving to be rich, but I long to see the blue flower....I can imagine and think about nothing else." As a counterpoint to her protagonist's beautifully captured romanticism, Fitzgerald successfully evokes the sights, sound, and smells?and the constant sorrows?of domestic life in 18th-century Germany. A little treasure; highly recommended.?Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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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.