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The Vision of Emma Blau

By Ursula Hegi
Simon & Schuster. 432 pp. $25

Reviewed by Robert Clark, author of two novels, "In the Deep Midwinter" and "Mr. White's Confession," and three works of narrative nonfiction, most recently "My Grandfather's House: A Genealogy of Doubt and Faith."

Sunday, February 6, 2000

By all rights, the new century ought to find us pretty well shorn of illusions, the previous one having disabused our civilization of so many certainties, beliefs and consolations of every stripe. The generation that came of age with World War I emptied the stuffed shirt of tradition of most of its kapok; the mid-century laid God to his perhaps not quite eternal rest; and the century's final decades decreed the "end of history," depriving what we thought was time's narrative course of a final purpose and perhaps the better part of its meaning.

That notion -- that history is as much an idea and a force in its own right as an account or a story -- is a legacy of 19th-century Germany and seems to me also to inform the work of the German-American novelist Ursula Hegi. In three novels, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Stones from the River (for which she was both a PEN/Faulkner finalist and an Oprah's Book Club selectee), and now The Vision of Emma Blau, Hegi has chronicled the lives and times of Burgdorf, an imaginary town set on the Rhine, through two world wars and then under the shadow of the Holocaust. Her themes, unsurprisingly, are those that attend national tragedy: ambition and enmity, guilt and shame, community and family poised against alienation and exile, and -- emerging as and when they can -- forgiveness and redemption.

But Hegi is scarcely a writer of political or even social novels. Although her cast of characters is large and diverse (sometimes a little more so than seems manageable), she renders the world mostly through the lens of one or two individuals within the frame of family. Thus were the unspoken secrets and shames of postwar Burgdorf distilled into the unwitting knowledge of the girl Hanna Malter in Floating in My Mother's Palm; and so was the "otherness" of Jews under Nazism refracted in and through the gossip and stories of Trudi Montag, the dwarf librarian in Stones from the River.

In this narrative strategy, we might almost say that, along with so much else in our time, history is being privatized, internalized and made truly visible only in the lives of individuals in whom it gets passed as a kind of genetic material. That seems to be the case especially in The Vision of Emma Blau, in which nearly the whole of the 20th century forms a vague backdrop to Stefan Blau's transmission to Emma, his granddaughter, of a hollow and ill-starred obsession -- that of a true home in a world in which the immigrant (together, Hegi suggests, with those visited by afflictions ranging from homophobia to bulimia to the loss of love and children) seems condemned to perpetual "otherness." History has not been kind to Stefan Blau -- as an exile in the world, neither fully American nor German and a twice-widowed husband -- and his response to these displacements is itself tragic, a monomaniacal quest to erect and bequeath to his heirs a towering luxury apartment house overlooking a New Hampshire lake. He has exiled himself from his own family in Burgdorf, and his quest for an ideal home in the new world succeeds only in alienating the affections of his own children, whose mistrust and fear spread in almost viral fashion among their spouses and offspring.

Finally, years after his death in the 1950s, his granddaughter Emma -- whose own monomania is to maintain Stefan's memory -- is the sole heir and repository of his obsession, defending the dilapidated, money-losing building against the predations of its shiftless tenants, her spendthrift mother, and the contemporary world. Abandoned by the father of her illegitimate son, estranged from that same son and from her only sibling, and nearing bankruptcy, Emma at last comes to realize that the act of tending her family legacy must broaden to include not only remembrance but the capacity to forget in the service of love and reconciliation.

If this sounds like a story with a pointed moral, a calculatedly redemptive closing, it must be said that this is true, both to the book's credit and, in some places, the book's loss. As in Stones from the River, Hegi's 1930s, '40s, and '50s characters suffer trials -- eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, thwarted priestly vocations for women, and equally thwarted romantic and sexual aspirations for priests -- that seem a little too freshly minted from contemporary preoccupations and that are resolved, via feminism, self-empowerment, and the recognition of one's victimization by socially constructed "otherness," in ways that ring a little false or anachronistic.

Yet history is not written for the past's sake but for our own, for purposes that are for us necessarily redemptive. Even after we have declared it over and done, it persists, if only in its demands that we make peace with it. In this always vividly imagined and deeply felt novel, Ursula Hegi reminds us that whether we are whole peoples or individual persons, history inhabits and, yes, haunts us, and must be somehow rendered its due.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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