11 APRIL 1998, Page 31


The sweet smell of success

Philip Hensher

Alittle national pride has been restored, in the aftermath of the much-lamented failure of any Briton to win anything much at the Oscars, by the tri- umph of a short English novel in gaining the most prestigious of American literary Prizes. Penelope Fitzgerald's ninth novel, The Blue Flower, beat the widely fancied chances of three enormous and ambitious American novels to walk off with the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Well, the captains and the kings depart; prizes are more quickly forgotten even than the members of the Critics' Circle; and what, in the end, will be left will be this great novel, a masterpiece. Fitzgerald has been widely and justifiably praised for the excellence, discretion and solidity of her historical imagination, which brings unlikely periods of history to life with unarguable, strange rightness. We know exactly from The Beginning of Spring the wattage of lightbulbs permitted in Moscow in 1911 (25 watts); we learn from The Blue Flower that livestock were for- bidden to cross the bridge at Weissenfels in the 1790s. Perhaps even more impressively, she has a marvellous sense of what was regarded in a particular time and place as commonplace, and what was held eccen- tric; Matryona Osipovna in The Beginning of Spring, recommending that young girls should have their eyes washed with their own urine, for instance, or, in The Gate of Angels, a 1912 Cambridge don's wife's food faddism:

'Now, as to main dishes, this is a tin which I bought at the new Eustace Miles Emporium in King's Parade. You can read about it on the label, it's all printed there and it's worth knowing for its own sake, particularly if — well, as you can see, this tin contains Health Plasmon, which may be combined with a variety of substances to make nourishing dishes without the necessity of cooking them.'

`It looks like cornflower to me,' said Daisy.

But mere research would never have produced this degree of solidity. Fitzgerald is a writer rooted in the physical world, who, whether she is writing about a famil- iar or a strange world, always bases her abstract truths, her observations of charac- ter and morality on a concrete fact. At another moment in The Gate of Angels,

Fred looked at his watch. It was a silver watch, belonging to his father, given to him when he took up his appointment, and yet not quite given to him either, since when he went back on vacations his father tended to borrow it back.

She is, of course, not quite talking about the watch here, but about Fred; her obser- vations ground a single truth much more deeply than a simple statement about his character would have done.

And the novels are full of such strongly physical moments, making a large point through a small observed detail; Florence's embarrassing and regretted red party dress in The Bookshop, or the cheese straws which the lackadaisical Maurice, short of fuel, burns to keep warm on his decrepit barge in Offshore. She is a writer who wants to understand how things work, and wants to make the workings — particularly the financial workings — clear. Accountants play a crucial role in The Beginning of Spring, At Freddie's, and The Bookshop; we know an almost embarrassing amount about the finances of the Hardenberg household in The Blue Flower. Sylvia Townsend Warner said of her great medi- aeval novel, The Corner that Held Them, that she wrote it 'on the purest Mandan principles, because I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of the monastic life, you'd have to put in all their finances'. Fitzgerald has the same urge; her novels are constructed from the ground up.

Occasionally, in some of her moral observations, she may strike the casual reader as fulfilling the famous definition of a cynic. 'It was not a fair blow, but justice is sometimes what you can afford.' (The Gate of Angels), '[Willis's] moral standards were much the same as Richard's, only he did not feel he was well enough off to apply them as often, and in such a wide range of conditions, as the Skipper.' (Offshore). But if her more impoverished characters some- times seem to have a clearer view of truth, it is because they are closer to what the world acts by, and can less afford romantic illusions. From The Gate of Angels: 'Don't you know what you are to me?' Fred asked. Daisy considered. 'I suppose I do know, Fred. To tell you the truth, a child of six would notice it.' There is an extraordinary swiftness about all Fitzgerald's writing; she gives the impression of having finished the paper while the other candidates are still sharp- ening their pencils. Only two of her novels are longer than 200 pages, or need to be. And, though she is not a Dickensian writer, she has the Dickensian trick of fixing a character through a single sharp observa- tion:

The Director of Programme Planning ordered a second double in his dry, quiet, disconcerting voice. Probably in the whole of his life he had never had to ask for anything twice.

The swiftness is at its most marked in the last page or two of each of the novels. At the end, Fitzgerald characteristically brings about a resolution which seems, in retro- spect, always to have been foreseen, but which, in the process of reading, catches the reader on the hop. At her most won- derful, there is a sense of spiritual release, expressed in half a dozen final lines: in The Beginning of Spring the outer windows of the Moscow house are flung open to the northern wind; at the conclusion of The Gate of Angels, an ancient door, magically, opens for only the third time in history, and a woman, entering, changes everything, as men 'cry out in dismay and one of them in what sounded like animal terror'.

`We can't go on like this,' Salvatore says at the end of Innocence, just before his life changes for good. 'Yes, we can go on like this,' said Cesare. 'We can go on exactly like this for the rest of our lives.' That is the superficial claim of these great novels; to be documenting unremarkable lives, without drama, with only small events. But fundamentally, they are fictions of transfor- mation in which those small events — a man folds a map for a woman, a lonely New Zealand farmer turns up, uninvited, for dinner — somehow change everything.

They are often incredibly funny novels, but are never satisfied merely to make the reader laugh. Even a delicious romp like her first, The Golden Child, finds time and space to breathe and make a few serious points about the responsibilities of culture; and even her most hilarious are apt to end in death, disaster or a glimpse of the sub- lime. At Freddie's, for instance, has a bril- liantly funny line in child actors, culminating in the monstrous Joybelle Morgan. It concludes, however, with a cool, distressing look at the indignities to which genius subjects itself in search of perfec- tion, with the boy Jonathan leaping off a pile of crates, 'climbing and jumping, again and again and again into the darkness'.

A dazzling scene in Human Voices shows just how far Fitzgerald is prepared to push her comic invention. The novel is set at the BBC, during the last war. A general of the Free French, General Pinard, arrives to give a live broadcast to the nation. Welcomed by half a dozen dignitaries, he embarks on what seems a bland, effective speech. After a couple of minutes, however, he sets off on an unforeseen tack:

When the Germans arrive, and at best it will be in a few weeks, don't think of resistance, don't think of history . . . all governments are bad, and Hitler's perhaps not worse than any other. Give in when the Boche comes in. Give in.

The disaster proves to have been averted when an administrator admits to having pulled the plug in advance; Fitzgerald's acute sense of balance between the hilari- ous and the appalling is underlined by a brief conversation between the administra- tor and his superior, reprimanding him for acting without authority:

`Heads will roll. He was a privileged speaker. Do you intend to do this sort of thing often?' `I hope we shan't often be within measurable distance of invasion.'

`I don't like that, Haggard.'

`I don't mind withdrawing "measurable".'

Some writers would have omitted this exchange, not wishing to puncture the bril- liant farce with a grim truth; most would not have thought of making a serious point with the devices of farce. The interest in farce is constant; one of her best short stories, 'The Means of Escape', is revealed, only at the very end, to be a farce, as well as, as the reader had always suspected, a crime story, a miniature psychological thriller.

Remarkable as all her novels are, it is with The Blue Flower that her greatness finally becomes unarguable. It is the story of the German romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) and his pas- sion for a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kuhn. Novalis's writings, such as his unfin- ished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, remain partly cryptic, and, to his biogra- phers, his life is still more opaque. How he fell in love with a girl about whom nothing remarkable is known and how, after her death, he could so swiftly propose marriage to one Julie von Charpentier are questions which no one has managed to explain. The Blue Flower takes on a strange and difficult subject; it is at once a realistic historical novel of incomparable solidity and accura- cy, and a richly suggestive fable about the fascination which mediocrity holds for genius. Blake's proverb, 'Eternity is in love with the productions of Time,' might stand as an epigraph.

The novel's extraordinary richness and depth come with its perfect balance between the quotidian and the sublime. This is something which Fitzgerald has often exploited for comic effect, and, in the exchanges between the artists of the novel and the members of rural Saxon society, goes on enjoying here:

`All I am doing is glancing round the table and assessing the presence, or absence, of true soul in the countenance of everyone here.'

`Ach Gott, I should not think you are often asked out to dinner twice,' said the Mandelsloh.

But here things can be simultaneously ordinary and numinous; it is all a matter of perception. Sophie von Kuhn is, to most of the cast, an ordinary little girl; she has a double chin at 12; she is 'a decent, good- heartened Saxon girl, potato-fed, with the bloom of 13 summers, and the coarser glow of 13 winters.' But we are not asked to doubt Hardenberg's rapturous view, when he looks at her and sees that

Sophie was pale, her mouth was pale rose. There was the gentlest possible gradation between the colour of her face and the slight- ly open, soft, fresh, full, pale mouth.

The temptation is always to assume that the high-falutin is punctured by the commonsensical, to agree with Karoline Just when she says that

Mignon dies because Goethe couldn't think what to do with her next. If he had made her many Wilhelm Meister, that would have served them both right.

But The Blue Flower sets out a world in which both poetry and housekeeping have their place, where, indeed, they depend on each other. The double view of Sophie allows a stunning coup near the end. Friedrich's brother, Erasmus, interrupts Goethe, who has been pontificating about Friedrich's chances of happiness, and cries, `About hers, about Sophie's, about hers!' And we realise that Erasmus, too, has been given a glimpse of the sublime.

Like her previous novels, The Blue Flow- er ends with an epiphany, an afterword whose shattering force seems out of all proportion to the modest means employed. But the whole novel is rather like that; a work in which the major weight of expres- sion seems to fall between the words, where the silences so beautifully created by Fitzgerald's sense of rhythm and her evoca- tion of the unsayable allow the reader time for his own thought, his own feelings. It is precise and unambiguous, and one cannot see how it is done. It never shouts its own seriousness, or seems to be leading the reader to any premature conclusion, but its quality, like the quality of the rest of Fitzgerald's work, is beyond question. The Blue Flower deserves every prize in the world, but, by now, it no more needs them to make its way than Heinrich von Ofterdin- gen.