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Book by Hegi Ursula
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Chapter One: 1894-1909
It didn't look like the kind of house that would carry a curse. Built by a German immigrant of brick and dark timber, the Wasserburg was six stories tall with six apartments on each floor. In the small New Hampshire town that carried the name of the lake it bordered, the U-shaped building took up an entire block and stood high above the clapboard houses and the shoreline. It was the kind of structure you might expect to see in New York -- with marble bathrooms and stained-glass inserts in the tall windows -- and it was too flamboyant, the townspeople said, too conspicuous for this part of New England where dusk set early upon the vast lake that was flecked with hundreds of islands and that the Indians had named Winnipesaukee -- Smile of the Great Spirit.
When Emma Blau was a child, her grandfather's Wasserburg -- water fortress -- was still splendid with carpet runners in the hallways, the design and colors of peacock feathers. Often Emma would pretend she walked on the tail feathers of an immense peacock who sweeps himself with her into the air. She soars above the sand-colored trim at the roofline and the glazed blue tiles set into the facade; above the courtyard with its brick walks and the birdbath fountain; above the elevated garden with its swing set and flower beds where her German grandmother Helene is planting snapdragons and geraniums and camomile and pansies -- Stiefmütterchen -- an affectionate term for little stepmother, a role Helene had taken on for the children of her husband's dead wives.
Ever since Emma's grandfather had brought her to the secret place where the house breathed, Emma had returned there alone, though it was a forbidden place where children might fall and get mangled by the green machines and wires that spun dust motes in the half-light. She'd steal the key to the roof door from behind the pewter cups in her grandparents' china cabinet, ride the elevator to the top floor, and slip into the brick structure that sat like an immense smokestack on the flat roof. As she'd climb the wooden ladder to the platform above the elevator, the breath of the house would raise the fine hairs on her arms with a whoosh, and she'd laugh with delight. Steady puffs of warm breath emanated from a wheel that turned to the left. Wound around this wheel was a chain -- similar to the one on Emma's bicycle -- that ran up to an oval loop and connected to moving rods that clicked and hummed in an always changing song. Whenever the elevator stopped, she'd feel a shudder rise from the shaft as if the building were stirring itself awake.
Emma knew the house from within and from above: she had crawled into its guts, played behind the boiler in the vaulted furnace room, climbed out of the second-floor window onto the curved balcony above the entrance, and balanced on the edge of the roof far above the town. Sometimes she felt she was the center of the house, breathing its breath-song, while other times the house was at the center of her like a pulse that warmed her as she held it safe within her body.
Her grandfather, Stefan Blau, was only thirteen when he ran away from his hometown in Germany one rainy November night in 1894. Convinced he lived in the most fascinating time possible -- an age of transformation and discovery -- he'd felt restless in Burgdorf. Too many traditions. Too many restrictions. America, he believed, was the country where people brought about changes instead of resisting them. But his parents didn't want to listen when he read to them about immigrants earning fortunes, about inventions, about gold in the hills; they didn't know that America had grafted itself to his mind so tenaciously that he had dreams of it every single night, dreams of an odd and magnificent landscape that fused what he had culled from various books, a landscape inhabited by buffaloes and by buildings so tall they pierced the clouds.
When Stefan bought an English dictionary and memorized forty new words each day, his parents shook their heads and told him they were not about to leave Germany, and when he suggested he'd make the passage alone and send for them and his sister once he'd made his fortune, they smiled. "What a child he still is," they said to each other.
They were asleep when he left.
Although short for his age, he was sturdy and talked his way into work on a coal barge that floated north on the Rhein past Oberhausen and Xanten into Holland, where the river split into two tributaries that swirled into the North Sea. The language of the Dutch -- even more guttural than his native German -- sounded harsh to Stefan. When he reached Rotterdam and was unable to trade labor for passage to America, he started toward Amsterdam and walked through cold nights and days, resting in barns or churches only when he was too chilled and exhausted to keep moving. But he never lost his enthusiasm because with each step -- so he reminded himself -- he was getting closer to America. Besides, people helped him along the way as if to make certain that he'd really get there: a bald priest gave him woolen earmuffs that some other boy had forgotten in the confessional, and a farm woman fed him Schwarzbrot with Blutwurst -- black bread with blood sausage -- and packed him enough for a second meal to take along in his wooden toolbox that already contained his clothes and books.
It was sleeting the afternoon he got to Amsterdam, but he felt lucky because before nightfall he was hired as a kitchen hand on a passenger ship bound for New York. So what if he wasn't sixteen as he had claimed to be? What if he hadn't worked on river barges for two years? Things only became a lie if you couldn't follow them through. Someday he would be sixteen, and as long as he could do the work he was hired to do -- and do it well -- it was his to decide what he told others about himself. Besides, he could pass for sixteen. He had more hair on his body than most sixteen year olds. Especially on his back. Black and soft and curly like the hair on his father's back. Though not as thick. Not yet. "You can recognize a Blau by his back," his father liked to say. "Regular pelts. If you line up a hundred men, their backs to me, I'll pick out the one who's a Blau anytime." His father's hair covered his back and shoulders and ran down his arms to his knuckles like sleeves that were too long. "All Blau men shave before they're fourteen," he had told Stefan when he was just three, making him look forward to that day when he, too, would lather his face and scrape off the foam with a Rasiermesser.
One dawn at sea Stefan awoke early and couldn't get back to sleep because he started thinking about the good jacket his father had sewn for him in his tailor shop, and how it must have hurt his parents that he hadn't taken it along. He worried more about that jacket than about the note he'd left for his parents, telling them he was going to America, and it wouldn't be until he was a father and his own son, Tobias, would run from him in anger, that he'd begin to understand how his leaving must have devastated his parents.
Once he thought about the jacket, he remembered other items he'd left behind, especially the telescope his mother had given him for his seventh birthday. She'd set it up for him by the kitchen window next to the larger telescope that used to belong to her grandfather whose name had also been Stefan. His mother knew everything about stars and planets because her grandfather had shown her how to draw star charts when she was a girl. "You can inherit interests the same way you inherit money," she'd told Stefan and his sister, Margret, and she'd taught them about the stars long before they'd learned the alphabet. Stefan had understood quickly that each star rose and set four minutes earlier every night. In one month that made a two-hour difference, and in a year it came to twenty-four hours. Lying in the grass behind their house, his mother would rest her head on the broad flank of their dog, Spitz, and point toward the sky, the white of her arm linking earth and the stars in one luminous arc. Sometimes he'd have to stare hard because all he'd see were the brightest stars, and it would take minutes for the others to emerge, although -- so his mother assured him -- they'd been there all along.
Whenever she talked about stars, she got so excited that she seemed more like a sister to him than the mother who powdered her face and made the crispiest Reibekuchen -- potato pancakes -- in Burgdorf. Eyes flickering with anticipation, she would unroll her linen star charts or sketch a swift pattern of chalk stars on Margret's blackboard, urging both children to guess which constellations they formed. At first they made mistakes, connecting the wrong stars or leaving out lines that should have been there. Soon Margret became bored, but Stefan was determined to get it right, and by the time he was nine, he knew how to figure out which stars were in the sky any night of the year. "Well done," his mother would say. Stefan was glad he didn't have an old mother: she was younger than the other mothers in town -- only fifteen when his sister was born, barely seventeen at his own birth. That meant she would live for a long time. He'd remind himself of that whenever he became afraid of her dying before him, leaving him.
And now she doesn't even know where I am.
To escape his uneasiness and the stale air of the sailors' quarters, Stefan climbed the stairs to the promenade deck, bracing against the icy fog. All sky was as gray as the sea, blurring the horizon. In the last few days he'd seen whales and flying fish, waves as tall as his parents' house, but now the gray made everything seem flat, though he could feel the ship heaving in the waves. There was not a single star. No moon -- not even an orange sliver of moon -- and yet it came to him, then, that orange moon in a sky so clear you can make out even the faintest stars. The air is still warm -- tinged with the scent of the last lilacs. High above stands Vega, bluish-white, part of the Lyra constellation. It's easier to connect imaginary lines to her stars than to Hercules' whose stars don't shine as much and spread over a larger area. His mother reaches toward the sky, snags it with her right forefinger that's been crooked since birth, and pulls the sky down, down till he can touch it too. Velvet and night. All his and smooth. "Can you see Pegasus?" his mother asks. When he says, "yes," she tells him and Margret the story of the winged horse that carried Perseus and Andromeda to safety. From the taller grass by the brook comes the croaking of frogs --
Not frogs. No. A different sound. Thin and long. Then silence again. Stefan glanced around. There, next to the stack of canvas chairs lay a seagull. It looked dead, one eye clouded over; but when he picked it up by one leg to fling it overboard, it flapped its wings and he could see that much of its back had been torn out. Stunned by the sudden awareness that it was dying alone -- now, as one day I too will have to die alone -- Stefan supported the bird with both hands, trying to make it more comfortable. It let out a frail screech. Then another. He lowered it to the planks. Backed away, knowing it would be best to kill it. Kill it swiftly. Now. Release it from its suffering. If he tossed it into the sea, he wouldn't have to look at it, wouldn't have to think about it. But he couldn't. Knew that he couldn't. He winced at the thought of crushing its head with his foot. Yet to let it live would be even more cruel. A slab of wood. Lay it on top of the bird. Step on it. Step on it hard. He ran off to find something. In the passenger lounge five chessboards were stacked on a shelf. He took one. Started for the door. But then sat down instead and rubbed his palms across the smooth-grained wood. Who wins? He thought of not going back. Of letting someone else find the bird. Because it isn't me who's done it, the hurting. And so it isn't mine to decide what to do about it and then live with that. With that. Yet already he was out there again in the fog, ready to lower the chessboard on the seagull and step on it.
But it had died.
Had died without him, and he felt weak with relief. Sorrow.
In lower Manhattan, he found work in an elegant French restaurant, where he peeled vegetables and washed dishes with the same eagerness that he would, years later, bring to his own restaurant. Only the owner was French; the rest of the staff were foreigners from other parts of Europe, who gesticulated and shouted scraps of Italian, Yiddish, Hungarian, German, and fractured English across the three long stoves in the center of the well-stocked kitchen. Not all had come to America as willingly as Stefan: some had fled from religion; others from family or war; but what kept each of them here was hope.
Being part of his new country would never be quite as total for Stefan as when he first arrived and wanted to be American in every way possible. How he loved the lack of convention, the instant familiarity. Here, respect had nothing to do with age but was earned with success. Class differences -- that complicated ladder of human worth he'd grown up with -- did not exist in America, he believed, and it would take him years to grasp the many subtle shadings of prejudice.
One day as he walked to work along West Street past vendors' carts and people on bicycles and horses pulling delivery wagons, he felt protected from the raw wind in his American coat and bowler hat, and it struck him that no one could tell he was a foreigner. As long as he did not speak and reveal his accent, he blended in like everyone else. He breathed it in, that certainty of belonging, held it in his body with deep exhilaration.
From the head chef, Tibor Szilagi, a Hungarian with a slight limp and a contagious laugh, Stefan learned about passion for food and its preparation. He enjoyed the work, the effort of it, the results. Liked the scents of grilled meats and sautéed vegetables. His eagerness soon earned him the job of kitchen assistant, as well as an invitation to the poker games that the Hungarian organized in his apartment on Gansevoort Street in the early morning hours. Curtains drawn, a group of tired men -- policemen just off duty and others from the restaurant business -- would gather around the table that was covered with one of the embroidered linen cloths the Hungarian's maiden aunts sent him for his birthdays. To revive his guests, Tibor would serve thick coffee with whiskey in porcelain cups, and when he'd push Stefan's winnings toward him, he'd accuse him of being far too lucky.
"It's because you don't have the fever of gambling in your soul yet," he told him one morning and winked at him.
"Not now. Not ever."
"It's a fine lover."
"Not for me."
pard"Always hot and never gets enough of you." Tibor Szilagi crushed half a cinnamon stick, mixed the tiny splinters into a handful of tobacco, and began to roll his special cigarettes. "It'll get you too."
Stefan smiled and shook his head.
"At least use your money. Travel. There's a lake you would like, I swear. I've only seen it once, but it reminded me of Germany. Trees and mountains and so much water that you can never see all of the lake at one time."
"Where is it?"
"New Hampshire. I took the train there my second summer in America. To a town with the same name as the lake. Winnipesaukee."
But Stefan didn't have time to travel. And he was far more interested in studying French recipes and checking the newspaper for yet another success story of immigrants. His new language was filling in around him, and he like...
The Vision of Emma Blau is the luminous epic of a bicultural family filled with passion and aspirations, tragedy and redemption. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stefan Blau, whom readers will remember from Stones from the River, flees Burgdorf, a small town in Germany, and comes to America in search of the vision he has dreamed of every night. The novel closes nearly a century later with Stefan's granddaughter, Emma, and the legacy of his dream: the Wasserburg, a once-grand apartment house filled with the hidden truths of its inhabitants both past and present. Ursula Hegi creates a fascinating picture of immigrants in America: their dreams and disappointments, the challenges of assimilation, the frailty of language and its transcendence, the love that bonds generations and the cultural wedges that drive them apart.
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Description du livre Simon & Schuster, 2000. Hardcover. Etat : New. N° de réf. du vendeur DADAX0684829975
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