Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Could my own preference for writers' - not just Lawrence's - notes and letters be part of a general, historical drift away from the novel? For Lawrence the novel was 'the one bright book of life', 'the highest form of human expression so far attained'. Nowadays most novels are copies of other novels but, for Lawrence, the novel still contained these massive potentialities. Marguerite Yourcenar offers an important qualification to this idea when, in her notes on the composition of Memoirs of Hadrian (a text of far greater interest, to me, than the novel to which it is appended), she writes that 'In our time the novel devours all other forms; one is almost forced to use it as a medium of expression.' No more. Increasingly, the process of novelisation goes hand in hand with a strait-jacketing of the material's expressive potential. One gets so weary watching authors' sensations and thoughts get novelised, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression. ((from Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer))

This is the thought of the ‘protagonist’ a near-Dyer beset by velleities from the book, - ‘we don’t like novel’ -, with the post colon - wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. I use quotes to mark the irony of ‘agonia’ or wrestling in Greek. In any case after a while one loses interest in pinning this ‘Dyer’ and not taking the book up again is easy.

How different it is with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. When for the purpose of this little note I began to read it I found myself being drawn into it again. This author has nothing up her sleeve, no post modern meretriciousness, no theory and yet it’s more than a story. The beginning for instance with the gathering up of the laundry for the year at the home of Novalis.

Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend's home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weissenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler's own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillowcases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn't, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. The underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.

We are being introduced to the aery passage of the souls of the Hardenbergs, vestments that she will fill with their bodies one after the other and at the end of the book empty again with the record of the ways of their passing. It is simple ‘once upon a time’ storytelling that you surrender to with a child’s bated breath. There are 55 chapters, a form which suggests the Fragments of Novalis , occasionally rounded off with unstrained after aphorism.

Hardenberg was not really an old man - he was between fifty and sixty - but he stared at Jacob Dietmahler with an old man's drooping neck and lowered head. 'You are right, quite right. I took the opportunity. Opportunity, after all, is only another word for temptation.'

We know that Fritz von Hardenberg is going to die but this will be after his Sophia, Sophie von Kuhn, has pre-deceased him. That’s true but now in the nunc-stans of the novel he is alive and we forget much as we forget our own mortality. Artfully, Fitzgerald ends the novel with Novalis still alive and Sophie dead. In a previous experience of the flimsy boundary between the dead and the living he has had an intimation of the way to accept his grief:

The creak and thump of the pastor's cows could still be heard far into the burial ground where the graves and the still empty spaces, cut off from each other now by the mist, had become dark green islands, dark green chambers of meditation. On one of them, just a little ahead of him, a young man, still almost a boy, was standing in the half darkness, with his head bent, himself as white, still, and speechless as a memorial. The sight was consoling to Fritz, who knew that the young man, although living, was not human, but also that at the moment there was no boundary between them.
He said aloud, 'The external world is the world of shadows. It throws its shadows into the kingdom of light. How different they will appear when this darkness is gone and the shadow-body has passed away. The universe, after all, is within us. The way leads inwards, always inwards.'

The description of the operation on Sophie without anaesthetic is based on the reality and ought to be compared to that of Dr. Brown the Edinburgh surgeon.
surgeon brown
Sophie’s Operation:
'We will administer the cordial.'
It was a mixture of wine and laudanum, to Dr Brown's prescription, which Sophie drank down without protest. Then to the bedroom, where all must skirt awkwardly round the bed in its unaccustomed place. The students, to be out of the way, stood with their backs to the wall, darting sharp looks, like young crows, each taking out the pen and inkwell from behind his lapel.
Sophie was helped onto the pile of borrowed mattresses. Then the Professor asked her, in tones of grave politeness -suitable, in fact, to a child on its dignity - whether she would like to cover her face with a piece of fine muslin. 'In that way you will be able to see something of what I do, but not too clearly . . . There now, you cannot see me now, can you?'
'I can see something glittering,' she said. Perhaps it was a game, after all. The students wrote a line in their notebooks.
Following the medical etiquette of Jena, the Professor motioned Dietmahler to his side, and asked him,
'Esteemed colleague, am I to make the incision? Is that what you advise?'
'Yes, Herr Professor, I advise it.'
'You would make two incisions, or one only?'
'Two, Herr Professor.'

It was only after her death that Hardenberg became the Novalis , the clearer of new land. The story of the Blue Flower was never finished.
The novel of this Year and many a year for me.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I have greatly enjoyed this series on and around Novalis. Perhaps I have even learned something. I should go back to Novalis and see for myself.

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks Tom,
His philosophy wasn't settled before his death so I think each fragment is free standing.