Dark Fates

Frank Kermode

  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
    Flamingo, 226 pp, £14.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 00 223912 4

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is a historical novel based on the life of the poet, aphorist, novelist, Friedrich von Hardenberg, a Saxon nobleman who wrote under the name of Novalis and lived from 1772 to 1801. He figures largely in all accounts of the German literature of the time, and Georg Lukács is not much more extravagant than other critics in calling him the only Romantic poet. He spoke of the need to romanticise the world by the action of intellect and imagination; in this novel he parodies his teacher Fichte, crying: ‘Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!’ He also dwelt on self-annihilation, and in his last years made a cult of death.

In this country his reception has been less than tumultuous. Carlyle, liking the idea of self-annihilation, and also finding in him a sympathetic tendency to worship heroes, thought it his duty as a Germanist to introduce Novalis to British readers, and wrote an essay about him in 1829, treating him as a mystic and comparing him with Coleridge. This is held to have been a mistake, to be explained by Carlyle’s erroneous view of Coleridge as a mystic, and by Coleridge’s obsession with obscure German Idealist philosophy. Carlyle was right to describe Novalis as talented, poetical and philosophical, wild and deep, and right to compare his thought with ‘what little we understand of Fichte’s’, but again wrong, as Rosemary Ashton explains in her admirable book The German Idea, in failing to understand that Fichte and Fichteans differed fundamentally from Kant in rejecting the Thing in Itself. You were to think the Thing only as a preparation for thinking that that thought of the Thing.

In Fitzgerald’s book the student Novalis and his friends gather in order to fichtieren among themselves after the great man’s lectures, but Fichte wasn’t the only influence; there were others, possibly deeper. The Hardenbergs were a noble but not a rich family (the poet, though formally addressed as ‘Freiherr’, was short of cash, rode a nag and sometimes had to walk). They had a 16th-century reformer among their ancestors, and they were Moravians, interested in prayer, hymn-singing and simplicity of life. Although he was to find the disciplines of the sect too limiting, the poet retained a powerful strain of pietism, unaffected by his professional interest in the latest chemistry and geology. Familiar with modern philosophical idealism and the Romantic ‘organicist’ aesthetic, resistant to the rationalism of Enlightenment, Novalis can presumably be thought of as participating in what Isaiah Berlin named the ‘counter-enlightenment’.

As Berlin remarks, irrationalists such as J.G. Hamann could turn Enlightenment thought to their own purposes, and it is here slyly hinted that Novalis could have reconciled his interest in Jakob Boehme and Spinozan pantheism with an interest in Hume (for example: it is belief in miracles that is the miracle). Other leading ideas were that matter and spirit were continuous, and that all knowledge, from mathematics to poetry, was of the same basic stuff.

Like Goethe, though probably with more practical success, Novalis had a job in mining, and seems to have found a place in his philosophy for mineral deposits. And as Goethe wanted to find an Urpflanze in Sicily, Novalis had a vision of a unique blue flower as the goal of a quest. He admired Goethe, of course, though he found Wilhelm Meister artificial, a work of the understanding rather than of the imagination, and wrote his unfinished, posthumously published novel about the blue flower (Heinrich von Ofterdingen) to counteract what he regarded as the coldness of that work.

The above ragged and perfunctory account of Novalis is in sad contrast with Penelope Fitzgerald’s. She has the gift of knowing, or seeming to know, everything necessary, and as it were knowing it from the inside, conveying it by gleams and fractions, leaving those who feel so disposed to make it explicit. Her first novel was a detective story set in a museum rather like the BM, and it was at once clear, though unobtrusively so, that she knew all about museum administration and its crises. Bookshop implied knowledge not only of bookshops but of book-keeping; Offshore not only of life on a houseboat in Battersea Reach but of William de Morgan. Human Voices unmistakably suggests an inwardness with life at the BBC, and Innocence a close familiarity with post-war Italy, Gramsci and various human deformities. Other novels hint at omniscience concerning Cambridge, and Russia in 1913.

All this is inside information, which never seems to be got up or stuck in for the occasion, as sometimes happens with historical blockbusters: and of this rare skill The Blue Flower is a remarkable further instance. ‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history,’ runs one of Novalis’s fragments, used here as an epigraph. It is a wise remark and explains why familiar ways of writing history acquire something like the narrative qualities of fiction. Fitzgerald, a superbly tactful novelist, has avoided a form of fiction that might be thought to resemble that kind of history. The method used here is episodic, discontinuous: the effect is rather tachiste, which enhances one’s sense that the book’s design or designs are for the reader to make or discern.

The visionary blue flower dominates his imagination, but in the waking life of Fritz von Hardenberg the part of the flower was played by Sophie von Kühn. She is 12 years old when he meets her and at once designates her his future bride and his incarnation of Wisdom. Reluctant parental permission is obtained for their betrothal, but Sophie (as well as not being noble) is tubercular. Much of the story concerns this painful and destructive illness, which kills her when she is 15. Novalis himself, though he lived long enough to get engaged to somebody else, thereafter confessed a wish for death, and did not long survive Sophie, dying at 29 of the same disease. Their relationship, and Fritz’s dealings with his own family and Sophie’s, are the main business of the novel.

Sophie was, it seems, a perfectly commonplace young girl, neither intelligent nor particularly beautiful, but on Novalis’s view of the world nothing is commonplace because all when rightly seen is symbolic. There is no barrier between the seen and the unseen. He claims to love Sophie all the more because she is sick: ‘Illness, helplessness, is in itself a claim on love. We could not feel love for God if he did not need our help.’ His friends can understand neither his blue flower nor his passion for Sophie, though one of his brothers also falls in love with her; unlike Fritz, he is repelled to discover that because of her illness she has become bald. Only another brother, 17 years younger than Fritz, has an intuitive glimmering as to what the flower is all about; he doesn’t say, but probably guessed it had to do with death. This boy is the latest version of a type that Fitzgerald has used before, a sort of wise child figure, with a gift for shrewd, pert dialogue, rather like some children in Ivy Compton-Burnett. The Bernhard, as he is called, is sketched with great delicacy and humour, in spite of his dark fate; he died – before Fritz – by drowning, a fate he probably sought. His end is prefigured in the novel though outside its time scheme.

The main narrative is fragmentary and rather distanced. What is so impressive is the sureness and economy with which the setting is established. Great men – Goethe, the Schlegels, Fichte – walk on without seeming in the least intrusive. Allusions to contemporary university life (students could still ask Fichte questions only because he was not yet a professor), to contemporary philosophy, medicine, agriculture, have the same unobtrusive certainty, which also characterises more humdrum matters. If a piano is bought to replace a harpsichord the qualities of this newfangled instrument and the merits of rival makers are touched in with the same assurance as the domestic duties of daughters, the pious habits of a Moravian father, or the privileges and duties of the minor nobility.

The book opens with the confusions of washday in Fritz’s noble Saxon household, and we learn as it were by the way that washday was an annual event in establishments possessing enough linen to last out that time – a friend of Fritz’s, deriving from less exalted stock, feels ashamed that he has only 89 shirts, so that at his house there has to be a washday every four months. Fitzgerald, who delights in knowing this kind of thing, also knows how winter supplies of wood were delivered, how coaches were sprung, why the wrist-watch was invented and how Christmas was celebrated in pious homes (all confess the sins of the year to father; there is a Saxon variant of Father Christmas called Knecht Rupert). The cuisine of Saxony (rose-hip and onion soup, goose with treacle sauce, Kesselfleisch – the ears, nose and neck fat of the pig boiled with peppermint) seems too recherché to have been made up for the purpose, and is unlikely to have been included in the collected works of Novalis; but this curious and retentive writer has not confined her researches to them. She has always had a taste for detail.

Detail, expertly dabbed in, provides in the end a substantial background for the story of a poet which, it is subtly suggested, is also the story of a remarkable moment in the history of civilisation. There are echoes of the great disturbances in France; a brother joins the Army; the universities, notably, Jena, and the cities, Leipzig and Dresden, are just out of view, but the formation of the poet is largely domestic. He is naive and provincial, but innocently intelligent, which enables him to entertain with uncorrupted enthusiasm ideas of all sorts – about nature, its purity and its symbolism, about God and mineral deposits, about the epiphanies vouchsafed to the elect, about the new and the old ideas combining at the great moment when it was possible to proclaim that the world must be romanticised. It is hard to see how the hopes and defeats of Romanticism, or the relation between inspiration and common life, between genius and mere worthiness, could be more deftly rendered than they are in this admirable novel.