books, Historical Fiction, Immigration, Reading, Women Writers

“The Vision of Emma Blau” by Ursula Hegi

“Had he known how the Wasserburg would seduce and corrupt him and his family, Stefan Blau would have taken the train back to New York that day, but to detect rot is often impossible in its early stages: it starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies. But what Stefan saw that summer afternoon was only the splendor of the Wasserburg as it would be the day he would finish its construction.”

IMG_0374“The Vision of Emma Blau” is the story of German immigrant Stefan Blau, his family, and the family’s legacy (and curse) – a mammoth apartment building, named the Wasserburg, in Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Stefan comes to America as a 13 year old boy, all on his own. As he scrapes and dreams his way into adulthood, he opens first a restaurant and eventually the Wasserburg, an apartment building of his own design, straight out of his dreams. Stefan’s first two wives die during and shortly after giving birth to his children, a fact which shakes the already stolid Stefan and pushes him further along his path of pragmatism and cold remove.

“Once, in the bleak morning hours, after Stefan had paced through the house, he entered the rooms of his children, and when he found them both asleep as of course they would be at that time, it struck him as such incredible faith – sleeping here like that – faith in him, that he was overwhelmed by the sum of their future needs. He felt as though he were the only person awake in the town, perhaps even in the world, and he suddenly knew that his next wife would be here entirely for his children’s sake – not his; that he would not kill another woman with his seed.”

It seems Stefan invests not only his time and energy into the Wasserburg; it is now the only object of his love and affection. Ursula Hegi creates a family portrait composed of characters with one prominent family trait – the habit of pining for the unattainable, of loving an ideal at the expense of reality. This is a story filled with wanting characters, people who are never content and who love most that which can never love them back.

“Drawing her coat closer around herself, Emma shivered as she recalled how not being with Justin had often given her more pleasure than having him with her. In her longing for him, she had felt lovely and high-breasted. But as soon as he’d arrived, she’d felt rushed, trying to fill their one afternoon with all she wanted to have with him – while he was unhurried as though they had unlimited time together. Already disappointed, though he hadn’t left yet, she dreaded his departure; but as soon as she was alone once again, she began looking forward to their next meeting when the possibility of anything would be hers. Except it never became more than a possibility.”

The broad span of this saga means that, in addition to other monumental moments in history, it covers both the First and the Second World Wars, a time when being notably of German descent in America was particularly difficult. The author, Ursula Hegi, is herself a German-born American, giving her point of view biographical credentials, and though the immigrant-aspect of this story is in many ways specifically about the experience of Germans in America, the biases and prejudices faced by the immigrant characters ring true for many of today’s immigrants. Their sense of displacement, disdain, and dysphoria  are likely the same for so many displaced persons.

“It made her feel different, made her think how – although everyone carried some difference just by the separation of skin from others – that became magnified when you were an immigrant, when there were more details to set you apart. Language, for one. And then of course the experience of having grown up a certain way. Here is America she felt more German than she had back home. Because here she stood out.”

“‘Did you know that you have an accent’
‘Of course. People in America tell me – ‘
‘No, here. In German.’
She was stunned.
‘Not much of an accent,’ he hastened to tell her. ‘It’s like a different melody almost that runs beneath the language.’
‘A different melody. . . . That means I have an accent in both languages now.’
‘Does it bother you?’
Slowly, she nodded. ‘It marks me. Instead of feeling connected to both countries, I belong to neither one.'”

Ursula Hegi is a superb writer. Her stories are often quiet, her characters achingly subdued. “The Vision of Emma Blau”, while not as powerful as her “Stones From the River”, is another fine piece of writing from an author who brings confidence, grace, and poetry in equal measure. She is an author well worth exploring, and “The Vision of Emma Blau” does not disappoint.

“The morning of his funeral she awoke with red imprints of her fingernails on her palms from clutching her sorrow inside her fists all night. . . . Once she opened her fists, her sorrow was everywhere, in her father’s eyes, in the drinking water, in her Oma’s steps on the floor above her.”

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