on 30 December 2009
I read somewhere that this book was singled out by many on Booker Prize panels as one that got away. It shouldn't have.
The story is a fictionalized account of the romantic poet Novalis's (Friedrich von Hardenberg) early life. Set in Goethe's time, Friedrich is on the move between towns and opinions, a string of temporary moments which eventually hang together to delineate a young life. By this means he constructs a view of the world. It is also a quite beautiful love story. I wont give anything away, but suffice to say that knowing it is based on true lives increase its poignancy.
The sense of place and the realisation of her characters are extraordinary in that it's done by sleight of hand - it's magic. A few sentences and we have a complete sense about a person. Fitzgerald's economy must leave even the most experienced writers envious.
The writing is good, but it's the kind of writing which takes a while to seep in. She assembles words together, as one might gather clouds: suddenly one sees shape or rhythm, or senses hope and despair. Then they are gone again. But her workings seem invisible - the reader just goes along for the ride. Only when I put the book down, did I see how invisibly she had got me there.
Penelope Fitzgerald is a magician - not in a fantastical way, not by way of extraordinary imagination either, but by her arms-length directing and by the dainty writing which conjures out of old German soil a breathing geography and its people. Highly recommended.
on 6 October 2009
How does she do it? asks A S Byatt in her review of this delightful work. Well, I for one don't know. Somehow Penelope Fitzgerald managed to take simple stories and deliver them so elegantly and intelligently, and with such unpretentious facility, that the reader becomes enchanted and captivated. These are the qualities of a modern day Jane Austen. In this concise historical novel she fictionalises the early life of the brilliant Friedrich von Hardenberg - before he becomes the renowned German Romantic poet/philosopher Novalis - and his inexplicable love for a rather silly twelve year old girl. It is a tale of deep and sincere love somehow portrayed without any sex scenes, without even a single kiss or description of physical contact. What novelist today could achieve that?
Unlike the novels of A S Byatt, for example, where the historical details are voluminous, in the Blue Flower they are present but unobtrusive and the reader effortlessly finds him/herself transported to eighteenth-century Saxony. This novel was selected as the `Book of the Year' more often that any other in 1995, including by A S Byatt herself and Doris Lessing; praise indeed. Sadly, Penelope Fitzgerald died in 2000, five years after its publication. I can safely recommend this book to anyone, whether they are literary minded or prefer populist works.
on 6 July 2009
This has been my first Fitzgerald novel and the story's topic intrigued me more than anything else. Novalis, Friedrich von Hardenberg's pen name, under which he became famous for his poetic and philosophical work at the end of the eighteenth century, has been a household name since high school. Yet, I knew little about the man himself or the early German Romantic writers and thinkers at that time. With THE BLUE FLOWER Fitzgerald has made an important contribution to the literature on Novalis by creating a vivid portrait of the young von Hardenberg as he lived through a decisive period of his personal life which also saw him imagine "the blue flower" that became the central symbol of Romanticism from then on. *)
Central to the novel as well as to the man himself was his dramatic falling in love, at the age of twenty two with a twelve year old girl, Sophie von Kühn. Von Hardenberg, was already then a brilliant student of many subjects ranging from mathematics to biology, from literature and philosophy. Sophie, on the other hand, was a precocious child, "of ordinary looks", without interest or promise in any of these fields. The unlikely match between the two, in terms of age difference, personalities and social status is expertly described by Fitzgerald and the different modes of the young man's romantic obsession evoked. Livening the intimate and detailed, yet detached observations of the omniscient narrator with frequent lively dialog between the young hero and different close family members and other associates on all sides connected to either of the young lovers, the author also conveys a realistic sense their wider social circles.
Based on extensive research into von Hardenberg and his close family, using his writing, pertinent correspondence and diaries, official and private documents, Fitzgerald has not only realistically recreated his young adult years against a difficult family background, but also supplied us with glimpses into a politically and intellectually fascinating period of German (Prussian) history. At cultural centres such as Jena, young von Hardenberg encountered no lesser than Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel and other literary and philosophical greats of the time.
Fitzgerald makes THE BLUE FLOWER and interesting and intriguing book to read, in particular for readers with familiarity of the wider contexts, both in terms of philosophy and social politics or willing to explore these themes further. As a stand alone novel, without the reader's knowledge of the time, it is not totally successful in my opinion. To derive full satisfaction the many insinuations and oblique references would have to be either better developed into the background, or the novel completely built as fiction without any intention to veracity and authenticity. [Friederike Knabe]
*) Novalis died at the age of 29 in 1801.
on 20 April 2014
This was our Book Group choice this month and it took me several attempts to get started properly. It seemed dull, and nothing much happened... but the writing is good, and I started to 'get' the subtle humour laced throughout the observations of late 18th century life in Germany.... and then I engaged with the characters and finally enjoyed it, and want to re-read it to pick up on bits I might have missed in my grudging early reading. So don't expect a quick and easy read just because it's short. It isn't that kind of book. It needs concentration, and a small knowledge of the german language is handy too. I now see why people love it, and feel glad that I was pushed into reading it!
on 19 January 2014
I read this short novel because I heard two people praising it in the last week. It is a regular on book club lists and The Observer said it is in the top ten of historical novels. But I found it dull and pointless. My taste runs to action and purpose rather than the slow life and lovely descriptions. I don't say that I am right at all - but that we all have different tastes. This is partly about what love means to some of us - as shown in the way that German poet Friedrich von Hardenberg (who died aged 29 in 1801) fell in love with a 12-year old when he was 22. The book is based very closely on the details of real life and real people. Actually, I didn't ever take to that over tale of young love, Romeo and Juliet. Portrayals of love are rather sickly to me if there is not much else in the story. In this story, there are other elements - a visit of Goethe, for instance, to the 12-year old (then 14) and descriptions of how people in Saxony, where The Blue Flower is set, reacted to the French Revolution. Actually, looking at other Amazon reviews, this book does provoke a range of reaction. So, it probably depends on your personality and particular taste whether you will enjoy it or not.
A wonderful fictionalized account of the youth and the first love of Friedrich von Hardenburg (the visionary poet Novalis). Fitzgerald brings the world of late 18th-century Germany wonderfully to life. She even manages to capture (without sounding mannered or ponderous) a distinctly Germanic turn of speech in the dialogue. The characters are wonderfully vivid and often endearing - Fritz, with his visions and idealistic view of life, his stern father, finally moved to tear by Sophie's illness, the lively Erasmus, practical Sidonie caring for her much less practical family, the burly Von Rockenthien, Sophie's stepfather, Sophie's tough older sister Friederike and of course Sophie herself, gentle, loving, childlike. Fitzgerald cleverly leaves it up to us to work out whether Sophie really DOES have the special qualities that Fritz believes she has, or whether she is, as another character describes her, just a 'hearty Saxon girl'. The book is immaculately historically researched, without becoming weighed down in excessive detail so that we feel we're being lectured (as per some of the novels of A.S. Byatt). The story is by turns witty and very funny, poignant and ultimately a very moving tragedy - but one that, as great tragedies are meant to, doesn't just leave one feeling miserable. I've read the book several times, and every time discover something new and good in it. A wonderful read.
on 26 January 2001
Not the type of book I would normally read, I picked up Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower rather reluctantly, since it was recommended by my local book club. The cover blurb mentioned the book's central theme, the relationship between the late 18th century German poet and philosopher Hardenburg and 12 year old Sophie von Kuhn, his 'true philosophy' who captured his heart and became his fiancee. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book. However, Fitzgerald's flowing prose and excellent portrayal of the mood and social mores of the times when the book is set soon had me entranced and involved in the story. I was fascinated by the way the suprememly intelligent but very naive Hardenburg falls completely under the spell of the adolescent and not-very-bright Sophie. But as the story unfolded and Sophie's illness touched other people, I too found myself falling under the spell of this young girl. This tale, of course, is based on real lives, and Fitzgerald's afterword rounds the book off nicely. Having read The Blue Flower, I am now keen to read more of Fitzgerald's work, as she has the knack of bringing history to life.
on 15 April 2016
I am willing to acknowledge the following:
-- that gender relations in late 18th-century Saxony fell far short of our current notions of what gender relations should be;
-- that if we were transported back in time to the 1790s to meet Goethe, he might well strike us as pompous, self-absorbed and sexist;
--that the men who forged the German Romantic Movement were impractical, unrealistic, and at times rather silly, consisting of dream-addled artists, head-in-the-clouds philosophers, dogmatic proto-scientists and religious ideologues, all of whom were incapable of seeing everyday life as it truly is;
--that the female contemporaries of these men far surpassed them in clear-eyed shrewdness;
--that these men often treated women thoughtlessly, employing them as unwilling muses, conscripted soulmates and/or indentured servants; and
--that the silliness of these men was sometimes endearing but sometimes not, and could occasionally have lethal consequences, especially for the women.
Having acknowledged all this, I nonetheless believe the following:
--that the above observations do not amount to an adequate assessment of German Romanticism;
--that a novel written primarily or exclusively to make such observations is reductive, trivial and foolish;
--that the art of Penelope Fitzgerald, however wry, subtle, elliptical, cozy, funny and English, is not commensurate with the achievement of Goethe,
Schlegel, Schiller, Fichte and Novalis; and
--that for all his real or imagined failings, Goethe is Goethe, while for all her real or imagined virtues, Penelope Fitzgerald isn't.
This is one of those perfect short novels that seem so inevitable it's difficult to envisage someone - from our own time, not from the Romantic era in Germany in which it is set - created it from nothing but a few biographical facts and a sense of time, history and romance. It feels like a classic, if only a minor one. The language, however, is modern, the sensibility behind it is modern too - objective, a little bitter in the Beckett sense, full of sensuous apprehensions - and it is, as everyone notes, a miracle of concentration. Indeed, on this latter point, it reads like a three-decker 19th century European novel reduced by surgical excisions to one slim volume. This is part of its brilliance; though it can at times make one feel Fitzgerald leaves too much to the reader's imagination, depriving us of a scene's development, the kind we're used to in classic novels of the past.
The cast is large - I wished at times for a cast list - and the book's themes (eg, doomed romantic love; family dynamics in a patriarchal setting; the early life of a renowned poet; the spiritual world on the margins of the physical world) are familiar, but the treatment is modern in its economy. It might have a romantic theme and setting, it might include figures like Goethe and Schiller, but emotional restraint is everywhere, inference is everything, psychological analysis, the angst of interior life, is absent.
Fritz - the future poet Novalis - falls for a girl of twelve and never wavers over the next three years in his determination to marry her. Shades of 'Lolita', of Ruskin's love for Rose La Touche. This aspect of the romance is considered normal. It's not an issue because Fitzgerald never introduces sex into the story: the lovers do not even kiss. Indeed, one gets the feeling that it was more an intellectual passion on Novalis's part - he called her his 'Philosophy', his guide and spirit, while she seemed merely to go along with it all with a light-hearted acquiesence - than one based on desire. This all makes for a cool tone, one which does not mirror the fevered romantic atmosphere of 18th and 19th century romances which we are more used to. It doesn't use emotional intensity to grip you. It's Fitzgerald's ability to conjure up whole scenes in a few deft words that holds the attention.Her touch is famously light but searching, illuminating a few details to help you conjure the whole.
on 4 July 2011
The Blue Flower is a small gem of a novel, based on the early life of the German poet Novalis. Symbolic of Inspiration, the blue flower stands for desire, love and romantic striving for the infinite and unreachable. Novalis first used the symbol in his unfinished Bildungsroman, entitled Heinrich von Ofterdingen, (in German, "Die Blaue Blume").
In this 1995 novel, Penelope Fitzgerald recounts the early life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), later Novalis, and his love for young Sophie, his "heart's heart", his "spirit's guide". It is written in her clear, sparse style, inventive and witty. I loved it.