Ursula Hegi Biography
Nationality: German-American. Born: Ursula Koch in West Germany (emigrated to United States, 1965; naturalized citizen, 1970), 1946. Education: University of New Hampshire, B.A. 1978, M.A. 1979. Career: Lecturer in English, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1978—. Agent: Gail Hochman, Paul R. Reynolds, Inc., 12 East 41st Street, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
Intrusions. New York, Viking Press, 1981.
Floating in My Mother's Palm. New York, Poseidon Press, 1990.
Stones from the River. New York, Poseidon Press, 1994.
Salt Dancers. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
The Vision of Emma Blau. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories. Moscow, Idaho, University of Idaho Press, 1988.
Tearing the Silence: Being German in America. New York, Simon &Schuster, 1997.
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There are three dominant subjects in the fiction of Ursula Hegi: the twentieth-century experience of being German in Germany and in America, the pain and complexity of the private lives of families and individuals, and the flow of experience in communities. Her method is a fine tapestry of prose of great subtlety and humanity, a naturalism often enriched by luminous images that telescope or expand time, linking generations or events in a gossamer pattern.
Hegi's Intrusions differs from her later fiction as it is an experimental metafictional novel in the style of John Barth and Robert Coover. The intrusions are those of the author and the characters, who get into rows about how the novel is going. The author frequently breaks off to complain about intrusions from her husband and children, and then her characters begin to attack her for misusing them. "The characters have moved in. They follow me around, even crowd my family at the dinner table." Both her heroine Megan Stone and she herself are trying to get peace and isolation and the stories of their lives converge without actually meeting towards the end of the book. There are brilliantly funny sections, such as the intrusions of a Norman Mailer supporter who vividly outlines the gross chauvinist style he thinks should be used for the sex scenes or the moment when Megan finds out what childbirth labor really feels like. While Hegi's later novels move away from this intellectual play, the concern with the management of the story remains one of her central concerns.
Although Hegi's Floating in My Mother's Palm is described as a novel, it is closer to a series of linked sketches of the girlhood of Hanna Malter and her perceptions of the fictional town of Burgdorf, a central construction in much of Hegi's writing. Hanna has complex memories of her mother, an artist and an unusual person in a small town, who dies in a car accident when Hanna is fourteen. The title chapter/story is about her mother's love of swimming and how she taught her young daughter to swim, supporting her in the water with safe hands as they swam in thunderstorms and rain in the nearby quarry. The final chapter/story "Saving a Life" occurs shortly after Hanna's mother's death when Hanna, wanting to save a life, goes swimming in the Rhein and is trapped by a barge's cables underwater. After escaping she realizes that she has saved a life—her own—and the reader sees in this her mother's loving care in teaching her to swim as well as her model to Hanna of daring and independence. The sections of Floating in My Mother's Palm are all from Hanna's point of view, so her experience shapes the events. In "The Woman Who Would Not Speak," for example, a drunken husband hangs himself by accidentally kicking away the chair while trying to get his wife to accept his apology. His wife sits clutching the kitchen table while he dies. When Hanna relates this horrifying tale she wishes to freeze the moment,
Fixed in my mind, they have stayed like this—in that instant when everything is still possible, when luck lies suspended and wants to mold itself into a new beginning.
The moving Floating in My Mother's Palm is a set of finger exercises for Stones from the River. This sweeping panoramic novel begins during World War I and follows the flow of the lives of the citizens of Burgdorf to 1952, through the horrors of Hitler's regime, through deaths and births and murders and romances and humor and madness and all the profound and absurd possibilities of human experience. Its central figure is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg or dwarf who grows up in the love of her father after her mother's early insanity and death. She and her father keep the town pay-library and she becomes the town center for gossip and information. While on the one hand this novel is a vast chronicle of a culture in turmoil, on another it is an intimate study of how Trudi comes to accept and understand herself and the lives of those around her. Although comparison with Günter Grass's Oskar in The Tin Drum is inevitable, Trudi is far less acerbic and surreal a character, a Zwerg rather than a boy frozen in miniature as a result of the horrors of Nazi Germany. Moreover, in Trudi Hegi is pursuing a more elusive and poetic goal—the implications of the storymaker as a maker and interpreter of reality.
The central metaphor of Stones from the River is the idea of the river of experience which is defined by the "stones" of persons and events. In her childhood pain Trudi piles a cairn of stones at the river for her painful memories of individuals, a cairn beside which she and her wartime lover later make love. But those stones are also the pebbles embedded in her mother's knee, which she later realizes are the evidence of her mother's adultery with a motorcyclist while her father fought in World War I. Slowly Trudi becomes aware that she shapes stories through her intuition, and that stories give her power over people. She saves her own life in this way by making up the exact story that captures the cynical nihilism of a Gestapo interrogator who waives his power to send her to a camp because she reads him so well. This novel, Hegi's masterpiece to date, has both scope and a lyrical richness of detail and sensitivity. It in no way defends Nazi horrors except in the Latin sense of the word apology: being an explanation of a people, a history, and a time. But through Trudi and those delineated around her it is also an intense document of the poetry of lives lived.
Salt Dancers tells of the struggle of 41-year-old Julia Ives to resolve her relationship with her father before she has a first child. She has not seen him for twenty-three years and carries memories of his drinking and his beating and mistreating her after her mother mysteriously left the family. In an increasingly painful and complex unraveling that leaps through time to childhood from the present, Julia realizes the degree to which she has confused the past, a revelation that tempers her vision of events. As with Trudi's revelations in Stones from the River Julia's truth opens an understanding of the meanings of the interlocked lives so richly depicted. The salt dance of the title refers to a family tradition that walking over a line of salt will mean leaving cares behind. The novel clarifies that this is not so simply possible, but it also indicates that a new beginning is possible.
Next Hegi produced Unearned Pleasures, a collection of short stories set in the United States, and Tearing the Silence: Being German in America, a brilliant shaped collection of interviews that reveal the struggles, the denials, the forms of acceptance and the struggle against prejudice for German Americans. This latter collection undoubtedly influenced Hegi's most recent novel, The Vision of Emma Blau. It follows Stefan Blau, who runs away from his home in Burgdorf at the age of thirteen in 1894, as he comes to America and becomes wealthy by a lake in New Hampshire as a restaurateur and as the owner of a large apartment building, the Wasserburg, or water fortress. It follows Stefan through two brief American marriages, the first of which ends at childbirth and the second one week afterward. He then brings Helene Montag, Trudi's aunt, from Burgdorf to be his third wife but his fear of losing her blunts his passion and blights their marriage, although they do have one child, Robert, who in turn has Emma, Stefan's granddaughter. Stefan had had a vision of the six-year-old Emma dancing before Wasserburg was even built, a vision he lives to see. After his death the property becomes the subject of complex struggles as it gradually declines, and in the closing passages Emma frees herself from the legacy she has tried to preserve.
Once again Hegi constructs a rich vision of a community, this time in New Hampshire, passing through the generations. In this novel she deals with the German heritage and American attitudes to it. But the true power of Hegi's writing lies in the detail, in the wealth of vision of human struggles within the frame of societies. Her characters are their fathers' and mothers' children, but they grow, struggle, and change, always in a natural world as powerfully depicted as the worlds of families and communities. That she has given Germans of the twentieth century a voice is no doubt a product of her own circumstances, but that is not the limit of her powers. Like the water that figures so prominently in the images in her novels she sees the unending flow of the human scene, rich with love and sometimes diverted by hate. Always there is the flow, and those who tell stories about both ripples and waves.