What a book! ‘The Blue Flower’ by Penelope Fitzgerald is the most perfect instance of historical imagining I’ve ever read. She enters the world and minds of people in late 18th century Germany so effortlessly that it can’t be called historical writing at all. It’s not my way to admire a writer’s style – I don’t know how to separate the words a writer chooses and the order in which they’re arranged from the thing being said, the insight and truth – form and content seem to me to flow together – which is why I so dislike writers whose style demands a level of admiration their understanding doesn’t merit – but here I’m acutely conscious of a miracle of style. Never obtrusive, never ‘fine writing’: just observations, insights, reflections, images, lightly placed just where they fit, like someone building a dry-stone wall.
As I read I found myself comparing ‘The Blue Flower’ with Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ (Goethe has a walk-on part in Fitzgerald’s novel), much to the detriment of Goethe. Both novels centre on a young man’s romantic obsession with a young woman; but where I found Goethe’s understanding of romantic love to be naive, Fitzgerald maintains a quiet authorial distance from her hero’s projected emotions. Somehow she pulls off the trick of showing sympathy for her hero, and allowing us too be moved by his plight, while never sharing his illusions. Her gaze is deeply unillusioned. The result is tender, wry, sad, and dispassionate. I don’t love this book in the way I love, say, Tolstoy, or to take a better comparison, Chekhov; but I loved reading it, and I admire it, and I wonder greatly about how it was done. How does she know so much detail? How has she been able to transform mere research into a living world?
Penelope Knox, as she was then, was at Somerville with my mother, they were in a sense rivals, and my mother was awarded a higher First. Throughout her life my mother hoped to be a writer, and watched Fitzgerald’s rise to fame with open envy. For this reason, not wanting to hurt my mother more, I never read Fitzgerald’s novels. But my mother died last year, and I’m now free to read her, and to acknowledge that she is a modern master.