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.