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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, November 28, 2014

I dissent: The Blue Flower is not a classic work of fiction

Ok 130 pp or so into Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower - i.e., more than half-way through the novel - and I have to register my dissent from the general consensus that this is her greatest book and a classic novel. For one thing, I believe the standard for a classic historical novel has to stand at a higher mark. The novelist is not creating characters, events, scenes, plot - but rather infusing a historical story line with life, meaning, insight. There are two types (at least) of historical novels: one takes an episode in history that we are most likely familiar and gives us new meaning and makes the dry scenes of historical tomes vivid. Think, for example, of Gore Vidal's historical fiction or, though I was not a great fan of this work, Wolf Hall. Another type takes a lesser-known or even largely unknown historical personage or episode and introduces this info to a readership - an example: The Great Lord Bird (John Brown rebellion). The novelist I think has to make the case this there's an advantage to presenting this material as fiction - there has to be some "value added," otherwise, why not a great biography like the many presidential bios in the U.S., Adams, LBJ, et al.? Fritzgerald takes a historical personage little known, to me virtually unknown except as a name-check, Novalis, a German Romantic poet, She tells his life story as a series of brief episodes through about 60 chapters each about 3 or 4 pages only. To me, first of all, he does not come alive through these vignettes - I don't see him ultimately as more than a fragment, a glimpse: he's an awkward young man and philosophical dreamer, somewhat weak-willed and very tied to his large, prosperous, bourgeois family, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and proposes marriage to her (when she comes of age), to the astonishment of his family not so much because of her age but because she's not in their view especially smart or pretty. The fragmentary nature of this novel ensures that Fitzgerald never explores any scene or emotion in any great depth, leaving Novalis unknown and elusive. Most important - why should I even care about this character? Absolutely nothing in the novel up to this point give me any indication of how he became a great poet, what he thinks about art and life - he's just a dream-filled undergraduate who likes to wax philosophical - but there's no evidence whatsoever of any great drive or talent or even struggle. Why did she choose this subject, and why is it so appealing to so many (mostly British) readers? To me, Fitzgerald makes this work unnecessarily difficult - almost sadistically enjoying overwhelming us with German place names, few of them familiar, and with many variants on the names of each of the characters - for ex., the main character called various Fritz, Friederich, and various spellings of his patronym - as if she's trying to mimic Russian fiction by adopting its least appealing characteristic, the obscurity of the nomenclature. There are so many works of modern British fiction more appealing, moving, and thought-provoking than this one - I don't get it.

2 comments:

  1. I remember reading this novel last year, and I too found it difficult to engage with, mainly because of the abundance of German place names and variations of names. Also, despite being a brilliant philosopher, Fritz seemed very distant to me. I found Sophie and his brother far more interesting. Although I enjoyed uncovering the meanings of the blue flower, especially of that period, it's not a story that lingers in my mind, not until I saw this blog post at least.

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  2. That makes two of us, then, Niall. - ek

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