BOOK REVIEW / Knee-deep in underwear

Penelope Fitzgerald's novel is beautifully crafted but emotionally unengaged. By Lucasta Miller; The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald Flamingo, pounds 14.99

"With the best will in the world, and after repeated trials, we have gained but a feeble notion of Novalis," wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1829. Not usually one to admit defeat, he simply couldn't get to grips with the German poet-philosopher whose real name was Friedrich von Hardenberg and who is famous chiefly for falling in love with a 12-year-old girl, writing a series of mystically impenetrable fragments and dying young. If his day job - as an inspector of salt mines - was less obviously Romantic, this only served to make him more mysterious.

Penelope Fitzgerald has chosen the elusive Novalis - or "Fritz" as she calls him - as the protagonist of her new novel, but she gets no further than Carlyle when it comes to working out what made him tick. The difference between their attitudes, however, is that where Carlyle kept irritably reaching after fact and reason, Fitzgerald is sublimely indifferent as to whether or not the mystery gets solved. She is quite content to have a hero who remains just out of reach - indeed she positively prefers to leave the most important things unsaid.

The novel deals with Fritz's early years, before he became well-known as Novalis, beginning during his student days and ending in 1796 with the death of his now-15-year-old betrothed, Sophie von Kuhn. Rather than grappling with his works, it focuses on his domestic life, introducing numerous friends and relations and maintaining an attitude of half-amused detachment towards his "genius".

Consisting of 55 tiny chapters, the book opens with a sort of verbal genre painting of washday in the von Hardenberg household, which sets the tone - half way between bathos and pathos - for the book as a whole: "great, dingy snowfalls" of linen are cascading from the windows and a newly arrived guest exclaims in portentous embarrassment, "Fritz, I'm afraid you have brought me here at an inconvenient moment. You should have let me know. Here am I, a stranger to your honoured family, knee deep in your smallclothes."

The book proceeds as a series of miniaturist vignettes. Each scene is set with extraordinary economy, whether Fitzgerald is describing a sickroom, a duel, or a philosophy lecture. She is interested in depicting small, enclosed worlds - her evocation of 1790s provincial Germany makes one think of Kersting's delicate paintings - in which mundane domestic details seem to strive beyond themselves. Novalis believed in a sort of pantheism whereby the spiritual world was immanent in the commonest everyday objects. Perhaps we are meant to read something similar into Fitzgerald's pared- down descriptions and pregnant pauses.

Certainly, external description has to bear a greater burden of meaning than usual, since Fitzgerald refrains from probing too deeply into the psychological interiors of her characters. Carlyle was deeply sceptical of Novalis's biographer's account of the poet's relationship with Sophie. One might expect even greater suspicion in our post-Lolita world, but we are left as mystified as Fritz's brother, who responds with complete incomprehension when informed about the grande passion which has erupted into their quiet, respectable, pietistic family. There is the odd hint at something darker, as when Fritz seems to admit he enjoys being in control of Sophie, but on the whole we are simply supposed to find the relationship charming.

Fitzgerald's austere style keeps us at such a distance that Sophie's eventual, agonising death - she endures three operations without anaesthetic - passes us by almost without emotion. This is a curious book, beautifully crafted in its mannered way, but so emotionally unengaged that it is hard to care about its characters.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible