Of all the book recommendations I’ve ever received, this might be my favourite. I went to a book launch a few weeks ago, where I got talking to a man who used to work in opera. He was incredibly interesting and we got chatting about speculative fiction, Margaret Atwood and excellent writing in general. It was a brilliant conversation. He promised me I would love Penelope Fitzgerald, in particular that I should start with The Blue Flower. He was right.
The Blue Flower is a historical novel charting the young life of Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, who later became famous as the poet and philosopher Novalis of early German Romanticism. For the purposes of the novel, he is Fritz, one brother in a house of many. The story centres itself around his falling in love with Sophie von Kuhn, a twelve year old girl he meets through his employer.
This book manages to touch on a huge number of experiences and evoke many tones without being excessively dominated by any of them. It is poetic, and romantic, and in places achingly sad – but what I really fell in love with was the humour. It is very gentle – I maybe didn’t laugh out loud, but it made me smile. I wasn’t surprised but I was totally charmed. In large part just by the character of Fritz – someone who is intelligent and earnest and naive all at once. One of my favourites is a moment between Fritz and Karoline Just, in which she thinks he is scribbling Serious Poetry to see he has actually written about her eyebrows:
Karoline Just has dark eyebrows
And from the movements of her eyebrows
I can gather good advice
Fitzgerald makes the skill of good historical fiction seem completely effortless – characterisation is sympathetically and precisely done, the period and setting are evoked in everything without any obvious pointing towards them. Everything feels natural.
I can’t wait to pick up more books by Penelope Fitzgerald. This is not the sort of story I would have been drawn to generally, based on the blurb – but the writing itself made the whole thing so delicious to read. I’ve been struggling to get into books lately, but this was an exception because the writing is so perfect. I can’t recommend it highly enough.