The Vision of Emma Blau by Ursula Hegi is a novel with a noteworthy pedigree: not a sequel per se, but a third fictional meditation on the familial destinies and individual moral crises of a cast of interrelated characters spanning more than a century of modern history, introduced by the author in two books published in the preceding decade. Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990) and Stones from the River (1994), the latter an Oprah’s Book Club selection, portrayed life in the fictional German town of Burgdorf between 1915 and 1952. These two works emerged from Hegi’s preoccupation with the world of her own childhood in western Germany, where she too negotiated a culture conflicted by unacknowledged guilt for the crimes of the Third Reich. Even as these previous volumes explored a tortured Old World connection to the problem of evil that modern Germans evaded at their own spiritual peril,The Vision of Emma Blau allows Hegi to examine evil’s reseeding in her adopted country, where ostensibly sunnier human success stories harbor their own soul-crushing betrayals.
The Vision of Emma Blau refers to people and places from Hegi’s previous books, which allows fans some intriguing backstory. Burgdorf quickly recedes into the narrative distance, however, as Hegi’s real subject emerges: an elucidation of the truth behind Stefan Blau’s fabled teenage flight to America in 1894, where he completes the quintessential immigrant odyssey, reinventing himself through equal parts luck, daring, skill, and tenacity. Far less infatuated by the archetypal dimensions of that transatlantic journey, Helene Montag Blau arrives in the United States many years later, at age thirty-one, having become her childhood friend’s third wife; she soon discovers Stefan’s far greater interest in her ability to raise his two motherless offspring than in her own desire for the passionate union seemingly promised by their long correspondence.
The true love of Stefan’s life is the monument to his American-fed aspiration that he constructs on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire: a massive, elegant, European-style apartment house he names the Wasserburg (or “water fortress”). Born of a vision he has while rowing across the lake in the aftermath of a deadly Manhattan restaurant fire, the Wasserburg is the primary motivation behind his opening of an elegant French restaurant in the small New England resort community he has made his new home. Though the sophisticated restaurant initially puzzles the residents, they not only ensure its success with their patronage but yield up to its proprietor in relatively quick succession two of their favorite daughters. It is through the banker father of his first wife, Elizabeth, that Stefan secures the interest-free loan that allows him to begin planning the Wasserburg in earnest, and it is his second wife Sara’s indefatigable energy that finally brings the structure to vibrant life. Through the Wasserburg, Hegi dissects the American Dream itself, with its origins in the romantic idealism of the Old World transformed by nineteenth century bourgeois materialism into unprecedented levels of acquisition and consumption in the New World.
Ironically, though, Stefan’s very American trajectory from rags to riches is bounded throughout by an ambivalence about giving himself completely to his new context. Even as Stefan self-consciously shapes himself into an American, the Wasserburg exudes a European sensibility that registers as a none-too-subtle critique of American cultural barrenness. In old age, as his building ceases to retain its allure, Stefan retreats into the German language of his childhood, using it to convey to his granddaughter Emma his dream of a Wasserburg immune to time. Through Stefan’s cultural identity crisis, Hegi dramatizes the hybrid nature of the immigrant sensibility, a blending of allegiances that precludes one from belonging completely to either the home or the adopted country.
In contrast to the historical sweep of Hegi’s previous works, the real dramas in The Vision of Emma Blau unfold in the psychological interstices among kin warily negotiating with one another on a private stage. Each of the principals must come to terms with a morally compromising legacy: not only the Wasserburg itself but also the example of its founder, a man who embodied in his life’s work the American equation between unimpeded ambition and self-definition. Perhaps it is in this light that the somewhat hackneyed conceit of a family curse dismantling Stefan’s dynastic pretensions might best be seen. The origins of this curse lie in Stefan’s bad faith with his Flynn in-laws as he fails, decade after decade, to acknowledge, much less...
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