By Penelope Fitzgerald.
226 pages
New York: Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.
ISBN # 0-395-85997-2.

Comments of Bob Corbett
March 2001

Seldom in these comments and reviews do I feel compelled to write with a sternly negative assessment. Alas, here I must do so. I just didn't like this book. I found the writing terribly pretentious, the story boring, the main characters thinly developed and the appearance of the centrality of philosophy and poetry turns out to be a disappointing ruse.

Before tackling some those themes, I want to turn the critical gun back onto myself. In general I think I choose my reading well. My tastes are fairly broad, but tend toward fiction which is intellectually stimulating, structurally creative and inventive: works which challenge me to new thoughts and perspectives or suggest revisitations of comfortable and fixed positions.

When a book does disappoint early on I tend to push myself to patience, and waiting, even plodding onward and this often carries me over an invisible hump into some interesting, intriguing and rewarding worlds. Occasionally, as in THE BLUE FLOWER, I have just chosen poorly and the work never delivers.

Why, I ask myself, do I so often then continue to pour hours into such books once I've decided they don't serve me well? When do I really come to recognize this and give up on a book? Does the very act of giving up preclude its rebounding and pushing aside the cloud of doubts to allow the sun of enrichment to shine upon me?

I really don't know the answers to these questions. It all seem so intuitive and elusive to my grasp. It does aggravate me that once I have firmly declared my NO to a book, and if I've gone, say, 1/4 the way into it, I seem incapable of putting it down and reaching for another.

After that moment of decision I still plod on, seldom able to be captivated, even angry as I read. Angry not with the author, but with myself. Why am I wasting this precious reading time when there is so little of it available?

These thought and arguments were with me for at least 2/3 of the present volume.

The story opened very strongly for me, and perhaps that was a problem; the author set up expectations which weren't delivered. A student, the main character and author of a story "The Blue Flower" for which the book is named, is returning to his country home and bringing another student as guest. They arrive on the day of the "annual" washing of clothes and bed linens. The main character is himself a student of philosophy and a poet, generally a Renaissance man.

This was what I expected and what had drawn me to the book. Fritz Hardenberg, the main character is a student of Friedrich Schlegel in Jena at the end of the 18th century with the French Revolution and Napoleonic era broiling around him. I was fairly sure I would be given a decent dose of philosophy, especially Schlegel, and that I would get a vivid picture of life at the end of the 18th century.

And thus the disappoints began to mount. Through out the book we're given about as much insight into the philosophy of the time and of Schlegel as one might get in ten minutes serious perusal of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The reader was treated to much more in the way of bits and pieces of late 18th century life, but the problem was, it worked like bits and pieces: time out, the book seemed to suggest, it's time to insert a juicy tidbit about how tough life was in relation to our electrified, central heating, comfortably controlled and automobile culture. There just was no naturalness to it.

We do have the famous Goethe making a cameo appearance and appearing the utter fool. Perhaps that was supposed to be cute; it just appeared trite to me.

Thus I was thrown back almost solely to the story. Here again there was promise, but the delivery was sorely lacking. Fritz, supposedly an intellectual and later famous writer, falls in love with a pre-teen who is neither very beautiful nor very bright. This certainly poses the problem of how do these things happen; we know from history that they do. But this Fritz created by Fitzgerald isn't in any obvious way an intellectual of promise. He sounds like a sophistical sophomore showing off bits and pieces of knowledge and showing not an iota of depth. I think we're supposed to feel sorry for Fritz's lot to get stuck with the dummy. I felt sorry for the teeny-bopper getting stuck with a pretentious dullard. We are given reasons to believe the beloved Sophie is a dope, but we're supposed to think Fritz is wowing Schlegel in Jena. And the Schlegels…. well, no need to go into that sad portraiture.

Thus even one of the great puzzles of human love -- the often wildly irrational attractions among people seeming not only to have nothing in common, but to be inviting their own downfalls -- is given whatever life it is given in a silly farce.

There were three strong lesser characters in the book whom I did like very much and tend to believe that Penelope Fitzgerald might write well about strong women in some other setting.

The first of these is Karoline Just, a young woman living with her uncle and who becomes Fritz's best friend, but he is incapable of seeing her love. That relationship, or lack of it on Fritz's part was well done and I kept feeling the passions of wanting to be able to grab the young man and shake sense into him, which would, of course, be impossible since he is blinded by his mysterious and irrational attraction to Sophie. This whole relationship is well done, and the character of Karoline Just is of a real human.

An even stronger character is Sophie's sister-in-law, "the Mandelsloh." She is intelligent, thinking, feeling and believable as a person. So many of the other characters, including the two main characters, Fritz and Sophie, are just shells of people.

Lastly there is Fritz's charming and spirited younger sister, Sidonie. I liked the portrayal of her very much. She could see through the nonsense of her father's pietistic ways, yet knew her limits as a woman and child. Again, the character development here, as in the above two women, was strong enough to make us feel for her and believe in her as a living, breathing and hopeless situated young woman.

As we learn in the historical afterword, she never had any chance to escape her fate, she died at the age of 21.

I've been a bit brutal to the book, perhaps a bit angry that I felt lured by the philosophical and 18th century themes into a book that treated both in trivial fashion. I was lured into a book that might address one of love's most fascinating contradictions and I'm given a weak soap opera set 200 years in the past.

Nonetheless, I will try to walk away from the book with the memory of the three interesting women who might have been the central characters in a less pretentious work set in times that Fitzgerald might be able to present in less strained ways. Could I actually be attracted back into a different Fitzgerald novel? Well, if I'm able to carry away the memory of the three minor characters and forget the rest of the book, then, yes, maybe I can.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett