True story of a poet who falls in love with a child of 12. This is a very clever book and the author is quite gifted and tells this true story with subtlety and truthfulness as she knows it to be true from records. Very insightful into this century and the mind of this very eccentric's life. A good read.
I picked up this book because it had a pretty cover. I noticed it had a blurb on the front from A.S. Byatt, whom I rather like, and it also noted that the author, Fitzgerald, was a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. So I looked at the back cover, and saw that it was a historical novel about the early life of the German Romantic poet Novalis - which was quite a coincidence, since I'd just that month been reading about Novalis and looking at some of his poetry online. So I grabbed it!
However, at first I couldn't get into the book, and as I read through it, it began to actively annoy me.
Fitzgerald obviously did a lot of research for the book, reading Novalis' letters, writings, documents from the time period... (late 18th-century).
Unfortunately, rather than working these period details subtly into the narrative, she just bluntly inserts random facts into the text, even when they don't really serve a purpose in the story. It's distracting, and struck me as poor writing technique.
Her personal, 20th-century opinion on everything also shines through - and it's not a positive opinion. In my opinion, the 'job' of historical fiction is to take the reader into the time and place described, and to make the reader see things from the characters' point of view. Instead, we find out that Penelope Fitzgerald thinks that people in 18th-century Germany ate disgusting cuisine, were unhygenic, penurious - and for some reason she seems to think they were always freezing cold, even though Germany has a mild climate and particularly nice summers. I'm sorry, but if the characters would think that a pig's nostril was a delicacy, I want to FEEL that it's a delicacy while I'm reading the book. I don't care if the author personally thinks it's gross. By the end of the book, I wondered why she even chose to write about these people, since her opinion of not only their culture and lifestyle - but of them personally - was so low.
Fritz (Novalis) is portrayed as faintly ridiculous and a cad, and his love interest, the young Sophie, as air-headed and ugly. Both of their families come across as caricatures - one of the ridiculously strict and religious variety, and one of the jolly yet greedy and grasping type... I can certainly appreciate books where the characters are all unlikable - but I didn't get the impression that these people really were, historically, that bad - just that Fitzgerald personally regards them with a kind of snide contempt. There's no one in the novel that the reader gets to even really, feel that you know, due to the distancing style of the writing. Fitzgerald uses an odd style of referring to people using an article: "The Bernhard," "The Mandelsloh." Even if this was a custom at the time (I don't know if it was - it's not a modern German usage), such a construction should be saved for dialogue, not when the author is talking about her characters.
I couldn't believe the multiple pages of rave reviews printed inside the front of the book - I really didn't think it was impressive in any way.