The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald – Who started late Lesson 14 Write it! How to get started
Craft: Form and Function in our writing
The novel covers seven years from 1790 to 1797; Fritz meets Sophie in 1794: Hardenberg (Fritz) aka Novalis died at 28 in 1801, his work became well-known posthumously.
In a surprise choice in March 1998, the National Book Critics Circle gave Penelope Fitzgerald its 21st annual fiction prize when she was 81 years old—and she won the Booker Prize.
Her competition included some of the most acclaimed American fiction of 1997: American Pastoral by two-time NBCC winner Philip Roth; Underworld, the epic-length cold war novel by Don DeLillo; and Cold Mountain, the Civil War novel by first-time author Charles Frazier that was both an unexpected bestseller and winner in 1996 of the National Book Award.
Some background: In 2000, the year after Fitzgerald died at 83, Richard Eder1 wrote how she came to be:
The birth of a writer is a mystery; occurring as it does well past the womb and in plain sight, and all the more hidden because of it. Few writer births can have been more mysterious than that of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, one of the most remarkable British novelists of the last half-century.
She was only a couple of years shy of 60 when she began to write, after a near-lifetime that began in a degree of privilege and descended into a maelstrom of penury, marriage to a shiftless alcoholic, the struggle to support her family and a series of erratic house moves. One was to a houseboat that sank with virtually all her possessions: most important, her photographs, letters, notes and journals.
It is tempting to date the writer's conception right here, though birth would occur ten years later. With all you have been, or thought someday to become, sunk beneath the Thames, your only salvager is the typewriter and the mind that waited so long to use it.
Fitzgerald's first two books were a thriller written to amuse her dying husband and a life of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Almost at the same time she completed a biography of her father and his three brothers: remarkable men all, in idiosyncratic ways.
These books were a fluttering of wings for the aged domestic duckling, soon to swan out in eight novels written over the next 20 years and culminating in four masterpieces: ''Innocence,'' ''The Beginning of Spring,'' ''Gate of Angels'' and ''The Blue Flower.'' Set respectively in Italy, pre-Revolution Russia, Cambridge University at the start of the 20th century, and 19th-century Germany, their quirky beguilement is the float zigzagging as a murky form lips the fish hook 10 feet down.
With that introduction, let’s turn to The Blue Flower.
The Blue Flower explores the life of the poet Novalis before he became Novalis. The novel reveals with a satiric, yet sympathetic edge, the story of Fritz Hardenberg who lived from 1772-1801. The novel takes place as the French Revolution (1789) has shaken the world and German intellectuals are breaking new philosophical ground. Fritz, our main character, studies with Johann Gotlieb Fichte, a contemporary and rival of Kant. Fritz is not enamored of Ficthe: He suggests that he and his friends serenade him: “We know what is wrong with your system. There is no place in it, no place in it for love.” Jena (pronounced Yena) where Fritz is studying is also the world of Schlegel, Schiller and Goethe.
Please see Study Questions
We will be discussing form and function and I’ll provide TWO free-write exercises.
Note: Even Fitzgerald’s many admirers consider this her most difficult or “recondite” novel. So, don’t be surprised if you found this brief novel hard going. It will be worth it once you study its fragmented structure.
On a personal note, I like to think of the brilliant structures—and often criticized—films by writer and director Terrence Mallick, particularly The Tree of Life.2
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Mary Tabor "Only connect ..." to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.