Monthly Archives: July 2022

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

With its strange title, and its impressive author, The Blue Flower has a fine literary reputation. For some it is Penelope Fitzgerald’s best book. It’s been called a masterpiece (Candia McWilliam, Hermione Lee and AS Byatt), a jewel (Carmen Callil), was the most frequently chosen Book of the Year in 1995 and so on, and so on.  My response is that it is an odd book, compelling, funny and ultimately not your run-of-the-mill novel.

The Blue Flower

In this novel the blue flower appears in a chapter of a novel written by Fritz. He reads the opening section to his story twice, once to Karoline and then to Sophie and her sister the Mandelsloh. He asks them to tell him what they think is the meaning of the blue flower. He does not get an answer, and the reader is also left to find their own understanding. The blue flower, the motif of European romanticism, signifies desire, love and the impossibility of perfection.

Fritz is the young man who would eventually adopt the name Novalis, a German romantic poet, who died of consumption in 1801. Penelope Fitzgerald imagines his life during the years before he became famous: 1790-1797. In these years he was studying a variety of subjects at various universities and was sent to learn administration from an old friend of his father. This was the time of great upheaval in Europe as a result of the French Revolution. Scientific and philosophical ideas were spreading amongst intellectuals like Fritz and his circle. 

The most significant thing that happened to Fritz, during those years, was to come across Sophie, the daughter of an associate of his mentor. He instantly becomes obsessed with the girl. He told his friends, ‘something has happened to me.’

Fritz is Friedrich von Hardenberg is the son of minor German nobility. Sophie is the step-daughter of an opportunist of much lower rank. Neither family are well off. There are many arguments to be made against any match between Fritz and Sophie. As well as of lower social status, Sophie is only 12, and has not a great deal to recommend her. She does not return Fritz’s passion; she lacks education, beauty, poise and intellect. 

Here is her diary from 1795:

January 8
Today once again we were alone and nothing much happened.
January 9
Today we were again alone and nothing much happened.
January 10
Hardenburch came at mid-day.
January 13
Today Hardenburch went away and I had nothing amuse me. (133)

Penelope Fitzgerald is rightly praised for her detailed research. I referred to it recently when I reviewed her novel of an English family in Moscow before the First World War The Beginning of Spring. In The Blue Flower we have great details about the domestic affairs of impoverished landed nobility in Germany in the late eighteenth century, and about other matters such as an operation without anaesthetic. The opening scene is a good example. Jacob Dietmahler has come to visit Fritz but finds the courtyard full of washing. Dietmahler is a medical student and he reappears at the end of the novel.

… Dietmahler ‘s own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case it didn’t, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family also. (1)

I love this scene. The ancient house, the ‘dingy snowfall’ of the laundry, already creating a contrast with the stone walls, the long list of items, the ‘no more’ added after the enormous number of shirts owned by Dietmahler, the involvement of different people and the final clause of that long rhythmic sentence they washed only once a year. So we have the domestic routine of a large house at that time, some knowledge of the family and Fritz’s friend arriving at a bad time.

I wrote in May 2008 when I first read it:

The pleasure of the novel lies in the juxtaposition of the high-minded philosophising, new ideas in medicine and the meaning of life, alongside the everyday. On the whole the women represent the everyday – especially Karoline and the Mandelsloh. They cherish Fritz. His father, brothers, friends represent the outside world and the grappling with new ideas. But in the end, one is not convinced of the love for Sophie, or the beliefs in the new ideas. The material world seems to win out in the end.

Now I think that his obsession with Sophie is not intended to convince the reader. Fritz is a man of ideas and many connections. He delights in them. His engagement to Sophie is both a reflection of the new romantic ideas and an interruption to Fritz’s life. But even after Sophie’s death they bring him little reward. In the end, we all have to deal with the material world and the finality of death.

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1995. I used the edition published by Flamingo in 1996. 290pp 

Related posts

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2022)

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Bookword January 2014)

Bookshops in Books (Bookword January 2018) 

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A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

The reader is drawn into this novel by Clara’s distress. She lives in the town called Solace in Northern Ontario, Canada. Her world is all askew because her sister Rose, who is sixteen, has disappeared. And now a strange man appears to have moved into the house next door. This is Mrs Orchard’s house. 

Clara is eight, and we find ourselves hoping that things will come right for her and her family, especially given the new development of the man in Mrs Orchard’s house. Is he connected with Rose’s disappearance? What will happen when Mrs Orchard returns? 

A Town Called Solace

In A Town Called Solace three people are suffering. The story unfolds to follow each of them until their stories run together and are resolved.

Clara wants her sister to return, but she is disturbed by the man next door, for she has the responsibility of feeding the cat. Mrs Orchard was a friend to her before she was taken into hospital.

Mrs Orchard’s story is told from her hospital bed. We find her to be a sympathetic patient, helpful to the nurses and the other women on the ward. But she comes to see that she will not recover. The reader discovers that she came to the town many years before, trying to escape her reputation. Something happened in the past. We also discover that she has given her house to the man seen by Clara.

Liam is the man in the house next door. He received notification of the gift of Mrs Orchard’s house just as he was leaving his life, his wife, and his job in Toronto. His first plan is to repair the house and sell it to raise money so that he can start again somewhere else. He must do this before winter sets in.

As the absences of both Rose and Mrs Orchard become extended, Clara begins to trust the adults in her world less and less. Her father has used an ‘abnormally normal voice’ since Rose disappeared. 

Her father couldn’t stand an argument. If people were arguing he had to sort it out, he couldn’t help himself. He’d wade right in the middle of it (‘wade’ was Rose’s word). ‘Whoa there,’ he’d say, making soothing patting motions with his hands. ‘Let’s cool things down a bit, see if we can find a compromise.’ Or, ‘Let’s see if we can strike a bargain. Who wants what, let’s start with that.’ It drove both Rose and her mother crazy (according to Rose, being infuriated by him was the one and only thing she and her mother had in common). He waded in at school too, Rose said, and it made people want to kill him. But in fact he was pretty good at it, at least in Clara’s opinion. All problems had solutions, according to her father; it was just a question of finding them, and he always did find them in the end. (15-16)

Clara’s mother retires to bed and pays scant attention to Clara. Neither of them tells her the truth about Rose or Mrs Orchard. They were trying to protect her, but it causes her great distress.

Liam finds his way gradually in Solace. Clara visits his house when he is out to feed and play with the cat. He is unaware of the cat and Clara’s visits until he finds her there one evening.  He understands her need for straightforward talking and for her physical world to be consistent. He gets a job with the local carpenter to expedite the fixing of the house, makes friends with the local policeman who is very concerned about Rose’s disappearance, and he becomes a friend to Clara and helps her untangle the mystery of Rose’s whereabouts.

Mrs Orchard’s story felt out of kilter to me. Her episodes are not sequentially placed. She has died in Liam’s section, but we meet her in hospital before that event. She contributed to Liam’s wellbeing, but her story seems over-complicated.

In time, Clara and Liam manage to gain information to track down Rose. We learn what happened to Mrs Orchard. Liam eats pies and drinks coffee and takes up with the librarian who makes excellent ice-cream that you have to dig out of its box with a hammer and chisel. And the cat reveals that it feels at home with Liam.

I did get caught up in the story and wanted to know what would happen next. It is a feelgood book, and it will go down well with book groups, as her previous novel Crow Lake did. Mary Lawson is good at describing her characters so that, for the most part, they are rounded, not tokens. This is particularly true of the secondary characters, an example being Clara’s father quoted above. But we come to be familiar with the man who fixes shingles, the librarian, the woman in the diner, Clara’s school teacher, the policeman and so on.

The town itself is bleak, and well evoked, with the right details. Here is Liam, fresh from Toronto, exploring the town. 

The stores, ranged along the two main streets, consisted of the basics plus a couple of extras aimed at tourists. There was a small grocery store with a liquor store tac ked on the back as if hiding from the authorities, a post office, a bank, a fire station, a Hudson’s Bay store with parkas and snow boots in the window already. …
Set back from the road was an old church graced by a couple of maple trees, and beside it was an equally old primary school. Both looked too big for the town’s needs. They’d be relics, Liam guessed, of the long-ago days when the North with all its riches looked like a place to be if you wanted to get ahead. Nowadays, apart from the lumber, it was probably only the tourists that kept the place alive. (31)

When he thinks about going into a café he finds that both of them are closed. ‘Just after seven on a Thursday evening and the place was a ghost town’. But Solace has human warmth, decent people, with a willingness to pitch in to help those who need it. Liam soon adapts to the ways of the town, helping resolve the mysteries.

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson, first published in 2021 and in paperback by Vintage. 290pp 

Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021

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The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

I admire Kent Haruf’s writing greatly, so when I found a copy of his first novel, The Tie That Binds in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester recently I did not hesitate to buy it. I am not alone in my admiration. I was first introduced to his novels by my co-author Eileen. And I was pleased to find that another hero, Ursula le Guin, also rated him very highly. Not quite as polished as his later novels, and a little drawn out in places, I nevertheless found myself gripped by this story of attrition on a farm in Holt, Colorado.

The Tie That Binds

Edith Goodenough (pronounced Good-no) is eighty years old and in hospital, guarded by a police officer, likely to face a charge of murder if she survives. It is 1977. A newspaper man from Denver finds her neighbour Sanders Roscoe and wants some quick, juicy information to flesh out what the police chief has told him. Sanders send him away, because it is impossible to understand Edith without going back to 1896, the year Edith’s parents moved from Iowa to Holt, Colorado, and the year before her birth.

Hating the flashy, quick story of a newspaper, Sanders Roscoe offers to tell us about Edith as if we were across the table from him, drinking our coffee as we listened.

… if a person just wanted to sit down quiet in that chair across the table from me and, since it’s Sunday afternoon, just drink his coffee while I talked, and then if he didn’t want to rush me too much – well, then, I could tell it. I would tell it so it would be all, and I would tell it so it would be right.
Because listen: (13)

We are told of the long connection between the Goodenough and the Roscoe families, from the time that Roy moved with his wife from Iowa to the farm near Holt, Colorado. It is a sad story of Edith, born to a deeply unhappy mother and a domineering father. She had a brother Lyman. The families were neighbours, but as Mrs Roscoe was of first nation descent they kept apart until Mrs Goodenough needed help in childbirth.

After the death of their mother, Edith and Lyman are exploited by their father to help him run the farm. Roy suffers a horrendous machinery accident in which he loses most of his fingers. He becomes dependent upon Edith and her brother to manage the farm. After the old man cuts off his remaining fingers Lyman runs off to see the world. The Roscoe’s son, father of the narrator, must offer help to protect Edith, with whom he is in love. Edith refused to leave her disabled father to marry him. She is bound to him.

Lyman sends back postcards from his travels around the US and an annual wodge of $20 bills to Edith, but he is away for twenty or so years. Roy Goodnough eventually dies. And when his father dies Sanders takes over helping Edith, despite going through a very wild patch himself. The Roscoes are bound as neighbours to provide help. 

When Lyman eventually returns, he and his sister have six good years together before he gets dementia. When Edith can no longer manage her brother she plans a violent and final escape from the farm.

There is much in this story about neighbourliness, community, hardships of farming, growth of the town. But through it runs the requirements of duty, the tie that binds: duty to parents, family and neighbours. All the sympathetic characters understand this, none more than Edith who believes in this very strongly and sacrifices her own happiness and eventual safety to duty. 

By beginning the story more than seventy  years before the drama that the newspaper reporter wanted to capture, Sanders Roscoe is providing a long and deep context for Edith’s actions.

Kent Haruf

Born in 1943, Kent Haruf was 41 before he published The Tie That Binds, his first novel. He had taken on many different jobs in that time, no doubt providing him with insights into the people of Holt, Colorado which was the setting of all six of his novels. 

Writing in her essay in his praise Ursula Le Guin noted that he lived far from the glamour of New York so that he could avoid all the publicity hooha and ideas about literary success:

… he could go on stubbornly being Kent Haruf, doing his job, keeping his defences up. He could go on writing about how hard it is to go on doing what you see as right when you aren’t sure how to do it, or even whether it’s right – how hard we are on one another and ourselves, how hard most of us work, how much we long for and how little we mostly settle for. [p234 from Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night in Words are my Matter]

The theme she identifies here is appropriate to Edith Goodnough. And also, perhaps, to Sanders Roscoe. It’s hard, this life.

Sanders Roscoe tells his story in a leisurely Sunday afternoon fashion, and in colloquial terms and with engaging detail about the characters. and with real love for Edith. He manages to convey the attrition of Edith’s life, as well as her pleasures and the depth of their friendship. 

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf, first published in the US in 1984 and by Picador in the UK in 2002. 246pp

Related Posts on Bookword

Eventide by Kent Haruf from May 2021

Plainsong by Kent Haruf from September 2018

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf from June 2017

He also wrote Benediction and Where you once Belonged.

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The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter 

People displaced by war, people in fear of political imprisonment, people fleeing as a result of colonialization, people are on the move. And they always have been. But it is a feature of our world because politicians and others try to contain them. As a result, many borders are dangerous places: fences, walls and the sea. 

And to leave your country is to gain much, freedom, safety, new opportunities perhaps. But there is always loss, serious loss: language, familiar landscape, music and other cultural opportunities, clothes, family members, friends, dreams, hopes, dignity and more. These losses may be passed on through the generations.

It is not possible to know in advance whether the journey’s difficulties and the losses incurred will outweigh the dangers and costs of remaining. That’s why there is always a dilemma: stay or leave. There will be loss either way.

The Art of Losing is a long novel following one family, from Algeria, over three generations. From a traditional life on an olive farm, they are caught up in the. Was for independence, leave for France, where they have citizenship but little respect, and finally the third generation are making their lives in present day Paris. 

The Art of Losing

The title of this novel is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, quoted in large part at the end of the novel. With considerable sharpness Elizabeth Bishop claims that the art of losing ‘isn’t hard to master’. 

This is a long novel, in three parts, one for each generation. It begins with Ali, who was decorated for fighting in the French army in the Second World War, and notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino. 

But on his return to Algeria he finds that he must question his loyalty to the French colonial power, and face the dilemma of continued loyalty, and the threats of the growing power and violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). His main concern is to father a son and then to keep his family safe. He must lose the livelihood the olive farm provided, and much more if he chooses to leave for France.

Ali chooses to become a harki, the derogatory term for an Algerian who supported France during the brutal war for Algerian Independence (1954 – 62). The harki were able to continue to claim French citizenship and expect help when they escaped to mainland France as the war ended. 

The honouring of the harki was permeated by racism by the authorities and the areas where the harki were settled: first terrible refugee camps, later ghetto like cités, slums. Healthcare, education, all services were scant for many years. The focus in this central section is Hamid, Ali’s son, who finds himself defined by his family’s experiences in Algeria. The only way to make a life for himself, Hamid decides, is to escape the cité and leave his family. He visits Paris one summer and stays on with Clarissa, with whom he eventually has four daughters.

Naïma is the focus for the final section. Her uncle is critical of the women of her generation:

They claim they are going there to study. But just look at them: they’re wearing trousers, they’re smoking, drinking, behaving like whores. They’ve forgotten where they come from. (4)

Naïma is Ali’s granddaughter, and she does indeed behave like a modern young woman, but she realises that neither her grandfather, nor her own father have told her much about their history. Her ideas of ‘where she came from’ are confused for she has never been to Algeria. Her own mother is a white French woman and her grandmother only speaks her own dialect. The moment comes when Naïma must discover her own family’s history by visiting Algeria.

The journey is painful and full of discoveries and welcomes. Naïma discovers more about what her family has lost. But this does not lead to a resolution. The novel ends with this sentence:

At the moment when I chose to end this text, she has not arrived anywhere, she is movement, she is travelling. (469)

Alice Zeniter has shown us the dilemmas, turmoil and unresolved issues resulting from colonialism (in France, but also everywhere), which affected (and still effects) so many people in the world and she has given her readers understanding of these as human stories through Ali and his family. Sure, there are policy issues, historical economic, demographic problems to be resolved from movements of peoples, but above all the questions they pose are human, too often problems of human tragedy. No wonder the prestigious (and lucrative) International Dublin Literary Award was given to Alice Zeniter and her translator Frank Wynne this year. It’s a remarkable and superb book.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, first published in French in 2017. The English translation from the French by Frank Wynne was published by Picador in 2021. 472pp. Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022.

Other recommended winners of the International Dublin Literary Award:

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2021)

Milkman by Anna Burns (2020)

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010)

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2007)

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