Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, the protagonist and the future German Romantic poet Novalis, reads a beginning of a piece he is writing to his friend Karoline Just. Then he asks her what the story is about. He seems to be honestly at a loss himself.

The unlooked-for privilege of the reading was fading and Karoline, still outwardly as calm as she was pale, felt chilled with anxiety. She would rather cut off one of her hands than disappoint him, as he sat looking at her, trusting and intent, with his large light-brown eyes, impatient for a sign of comprehension.

What distressed her most was that after waiting a little, he showed not a hint of resentment or even surprise, but gently shut the notebook. ‘Liebe Justen, it doesn’t matter.’

When I first read this passage, I wondered at Karoline being able to tell him nothing useful about his Blue Flower. Now that I finished the novel, I reread this passage and smile with recognition.

This is the first book in a long while to leave me speechless. I don’t know anything about it, except that I liked it. Fitzgerald has charmed me out of my need to dissect every piece of writing into intelligible little pieces. It seems only fitting–Romanticists like Novalis were in some measure reacting against rationality.

Ostensibly, the story is about love. But part of Novalis’s legacy to the world is Liebesreligion, “the religion of love,” and it’s unsurprising then that here talking about love entails discussing everything. Underneath the dainty peak of Fitzgerald’s beautiful, breezy prose sits an iceberg of wit, philosophy, and impeccable grasp of history. In the end, The Blue Flower is the most awesomely strange novel I’ve read all year, and the originality doesn’t even seem to be the primary intent.

What is? Liebe, to me it didn’t seem to matter.