Books: Daring to dance through a minefield

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald Flamingo pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
WRITERS, as writers, necessarily react differently than readers to the work of their peers. Leaving aside such ignoble concerns as the size of the advance or the scale of the publicity campaign, the range of immediate response tends to fall somewhere between two extremes: "I could do this, or something very like it, but I don't want to"; and "I wish I could do this, or anything resembling it, but I can't."

But there is a further possible position, much rarer and less often discussed (because more disturbing): "How on earth was this done?" Which names go where will of course vary from individual to individual, but the chances are that a straw poll would find Penelope Fitzgerald scoring heavily in the latter category. I know of no contemporary writer who more exactly fulfils the brief which Lord Grey of Fallodon drafted apropos of Jane Austen ("With all these limitations you are to write, not only one novel, but several, which ... shall be classed among the first rank of the novels written in your language in your country").

To take just two examples, Innocence and The Gate of Angels: the former would, with an appropriately foreign name and an accredited translator, have been acclaimed as an outstanding example of post-war Italian fiction; the latter not only succeeded effortlessly in rebirthing two species one had thought extinct the Novel of Ideas, and the Pygmalion romance but risked, and magnificently brought off, an explicitly "magical" denouement of the kind even Andrew Lloyd Webber might shy away from nowadays.

The new book takes many of the features of this last one and then raises the ante. Again, it is a "historical novel", with all the dangers of the "fatal cheapness" which Henry James ascribed to the genre. This time, though, Fitzgerald has gone for broke: we are in late 18th-century Germany, and the cast features "real" people. The protagonist is Fritz von Hardenberg, the Romantic poet and philosopher who later became famous under the pen- name Novalis, and Goethe, Schlegel and Fichte all make cameo appearances.

It is also a novel in which nothing happens, or rather one which questions as Fritz himself constantly does what it means to say that something "happens". What happens to him is that he becomes infatuated with an "objectively" unsuitable, uninteresting and immature 12-year-old girl. His subsequent problems are of a very different and less obviously dramatic kind than would be the case nowadays, and in the end everyone dies of TB. It is a measure of the degree to which Penelope Fitzgerald qualifies for the hors concours category mentioned above that the result is an utterly gripping and involving novel which lingers in the mind long after it has been finished, with a power out of all proportion to the events with which it is notionally concerned.

So how does she do it? Is it the style? To an extent, yes, but not in any obvious way. The prose is rapid, plain and unassuming, with a fondness for dry wit and familiar allocutions. There is little imagery and no recondite vocabulary. The author may have tricks up her sleeve, but a thesaurus is not one of them. Obliquity, timing, and the virtues of omission and allusion are her secrets. The "natural" rhythms set up by the syntax are continually jarred by transpositions and disjunctions. Paragraphing bears no obvious relation to temporal or spatial co-ordinates. We flit from one point of view, one time and place, to another with the nonchalance of a ministering yet invisible spirit.

These are, in a sense, negative virtues, and this may be the key to the mystery. How many historical novelists Peter Ackroyd, to take but one example seem to view the past like someone scanning a brochure of Tuscan villas in grey November, as a foreign country where they do things not just differently but more interestingly? And when real historical figures with a known fate and stature are involved, how hard not to fall into the fallacy of assuming that they and their contemporaries were either aware of or wholly unconcerned about the figures they would cut for us, backlit by the retrospective glow which posterity has bestowed on them.

Penelope Fitzgerald does not just step safely through this minefield, she makes of it a dance arena in which not only the central characters but all their numerous siblings, relatives and friends come to tumultuous and convincing life. As one of her characters says, "What is wrong with particulars? Someone has to look after them." Fitzgerald has looked after the particulars (is this it, perhaps?) and the generalities have looked after themselves. Her past is as present, this being as "unbearably light", its search for meaning as urgent and provisional, as our own.