TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Donald G. Daviau (University of California at Riverside)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Peter Henisch and the Influence of American Popular Culture

Paul F. Dvorak (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond)



At particular stages throughout his extensive career, Peter Henisch reveals a fascination and preoccupation with American popular culture as he explores the broader themes of identity and identity crisis that generally characterize his writing. Works whose titles already hint at non-Austrian subject matter include Morrisons Versteck (1991, 2000), Schwarzer Peter (2000), and Black Peter’s Songbook (2001). Beyond the titles themselves it is music that forms the thematic basis for the major intersections with America as these narratives unfold; in particular it is the rock music of Jim Morrison and the Doors in the first case and the jazz of New Orleans in the latter two. Another intersection is that of the linguistic elements that are inextricably intertwined with these musical overtones as Henisch incorporates American (and British) song lyrics and other English-language elements (words, phrases, sentences, and even entire passages) into his German-language texts in these three works.

A less obvious or direct intersection with the American sphere of influence in Henisch’s work includes Die schwangere Madonna (2005). In this recent novel, in which the action actually takes place throughout Italy, it is the stylistic and structural elements of the American road movie (transposed to the medium of novelistic form) that reveal themselves. Moreover, though not as pronounced as in the aforementioned works, references to American (and British) song lyrics, singers, and cultural figures are scattered throughout this text as well.

As will be seen, use of terms associated with cinema (and photography) and references to famous American stars of the Silver Screen and their well-known films lace all of the texts mentioned here as Henisch’s narrators frequently draw upon filmic vocabulary and techniques to present their stories. Henisch has affirmed his personal affinity to photographic and cinematographic means to view the world and his subjects and has gone so far as to label his various writings as “Kopf-Filme.”(1) He attributes the inculcation of this reliance on visual elements to his childhood and father: “Ich bin von Fotos umgeben aufgewachsen” (Figurenwerfen, 79). Film techniques are structurally important to him both as compositional tools, but also as important means for capturing the settings in which his narratives take place: “Für mich haben Gegenden immer eine große Rolle gespielt. Das waren locations für meine Kopf-Filme” (Figurenwerfen, 245). In response to an interview question about his reliance on actual locations as the starting points for his books, Henisch commented: “Ja, stimmt, das ist mir wichtig. Um meine Fantasie in Schwung zu bringen, brauche ich die Schauplätze.”(2)

And along with these locations come the “cultural accoutrements” associated with them. In the instances of Morrisons Versteck (1991), Schwarzer Peter (2000), Black Peter’s Songbook (2001), and Die schwangere Madonna (2005), as well as in his “Austrian-based” work, physical locations and their ambiance and representational impact play important roles in the crystallizing of his narratives, thereby providing structure but also thematic and incidental embellishment.

To set the stage for discussing the specific intersections of American popular culture in these particular works, several remarks on Henisch’s trademark reliance on intertextuality are in order. Not only do cross-references among literary and artistic genres abound in his work, as in his erstling Die kleine Figur meines Vaters (1975), where autobiography and novel intersect with the mediums of writing and of photography, or in the recent “road novel” Die schwangere Madonna, but they are also present when he is dealing with real or fictional figures from his immediate Viennese environs (Baron Karl, for example), those from a shared Western heritage (Hamlet), or those from a distant America (Jim Morrison, Black Peter). Henisch’s writing is a writing across and through time, and even though the author and his work are firmly rooted in Viennese and Austrian culture, he has occasionally reached across to the opposite side of the Atlantic directly and indirectly to unearth material, sources, and structures that result in a hybrid constellation of ideas and themes that is in tune with his overall literary intent and personal world view. Henisch’s familiarity with American and British literature and film has enhanced further his ability to cross the intertextual boundaries that are particularly germane to this analysis.

And now to return to the main focus here. As indicated at the outset, central among the elements Henisch incorporates from the American shores are music and popular culture. Though “the British invasion” of the 1960s contributed heavily to the American musical scene at that time, it is predominantly the reach and influence of American pop culture that amalgamated this music into its own and raised that popular music to its dominant position worldwide. Himself having grown up amidst the hippie generation of the 1960s, Henisch, not surprisingly, was a fan of this period’s popular music that has its origins in the English-speaking world. That this interest continued is hinted at by the fact that in 1975 he founded the musical group “Wiener Fleisch und Blut,” which despite its clear intertextual reference to Viennese roots and to Strauss’s Wiener Blut, saw itself in a wider Western context extending in hybrid fashion beyond the quintessential Viennese musical associations. “Wie ich 30 war, hab ich mich das erste Mal mit Musikern zusammengetan, das war die Geburtsstunde der Wiener Gruppe ‛Fleisch und Blut’ mit Thomas Declaude, Karl Friedrich und einer wechselnden Formation von bekannten Mitspielern. Zum Teil großartiger Musiker, aber ein Sack voller Flöhe, die man nicht zusammenhalten konnte,” Henisch recalls.(3) Fifteen years later a new musical beginning was spawned with his partners Woody Schabata on vibraphone und Hans Zinkl on guitar. Henisch’s musical proclivities are further substantiated in an early fragment (“Ausbruchsversuch,” 1972), for example, in which the background music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Ray Charles conveys distinctions between Henisch’s Außenseiter characters and so-called bürgerliche Künstler (Figurenwerfen, 50). Right up to the present day, Henisch has continued to dabble in music through his collaborations Schabata and Zinkl. In addition to providing texts and lyrics, Henisch has provided vocals and harmonica accompaniment for Morrisons Versteck and Schwarzer Peter specifically. Rock and its predecessors, the blues and jazz, are part and parcel of the language and texts of these two novels. Black Peter’s Songbook, which was a symbiotic outgrowth of Schwarzer Peter,substantiates further this innate relationship between word and music.

Henisch’s penchant for reading in public from his works, often accompanied by musical interludes, is a further indication of the importance he places not only upon the written word but also upon its oral transmission in sound and music.(4) What one critic called his “Liebeserklärung an den Blues” with reference to the novel Schwarzer Peter serves paradigmatically for the significance of these musical overtones and intertextualities in other works as well.(5)

One final comment before looking at specific elements of the works under discussion should be reiterated, and that is that Henisch has remained the consummate Viennese throughout his career despite his relishing in intertextuality and hybridity that takes him beyond the cultural confines of his native city and country. Despite these periodic forays into life and culture abroad, the author has steadfastly remained attached to his Viennese foundations, physically, emotionally, and literarily, and even in the works that pay special homage to American pop culture, music and film, it is impossible to deny or obfuscate Henisch’s authentic Viennese and Austrian traits. There is the strong element of hybridity not only in his own person, but also in his literary output and his characters. One might easily characterize Henisch’s modus operandi with its inherent playful manipulation of themes and material as a typically inherent Viennese attribute.


Morrisons Versteck

In his notes to Craig Decker in Figurenwerfen Henisch states that he carried the Morrison project around with him for years after the rock star’s death in 1971 (217). It was actually not until 1991 that the project reached its first level of finality with the initial publication of the novel. One can certainly claim that the product of Henisch’s twenty-year incubation reflects “eine Fan-Perspektive,”(6) but the postmodern work is much more than an attempt at a biography of a rock star by a devoted fan. The novel has an open, associative form to it:

“Die vielen Facetten des Buches entstehen durch eine relativ offene, assoziative Form. Liebesgeschichte, Tagebuch, Briefroman, eine Verfolgungsjagd und eine Recherche nach Morrison, Beschreibung von Konzerten auf Video, all das reiht sich aneinander, greift ineinander. Das Buch ist geschnitten wie ein Film.”(7)

Henisch  uses the Morrison myth as “Spielmaterial” and siezes upon the literary, philosophical, and cinematic influences that Morrison himself appropriated: “Ausgehend von den Modellen der Vampirgeschichten und der Rockbiographie entsteht ein beziehungsreiches Geflecht von Parodie und Ernst, Phantasie und Realität, Ironie und tieferer Bedeutung.”(8)

Henisch has stated that he did not necessarily identify with Morrison, who happened to be born in 1943, the same year as he, but that he felt an affinity to him and considered the self-proclaimed “Lizard King” an important symbol of a generation. American, growing up during the turbulent protest era of the 1960s, increasingly opposed to the status quo of conservative middle-class American politics, society, and values, Jim Morrison was not just another spoiled offspring from an increasingly self-centered generation of counter-culture oriented youth—and was also not the typical rock star gifted with a modicum of musical ability but average substantive intellect. To the contrary, Morrison was an avid reader of Blake, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Artaud, and Kerouac, among others. It is this intellectual appeal which seems to have drawn the young and equally literate Henisch to the song lyrics Morrison composed for the Doors and also to the poetry the rock-star wrote. And then there was Henisch’s 1989 visit to Riverside, California to attend Donald Daviau’s annual symposium on Austrian literature and culture and the subsequent tour of colleges and universities throughout the United States organized by the Austrian Institute. It was during this period that Henisch gathered additional material for the first version of this novel published in 1991 as well as for the heavily revised and subsequently published paperback edition in 2001 (Figurenwerfen, 217-218). Eva Haldimann comments further on the evolution of the novel:

“Im Verlauf seiner kurzen Karriere stand Jim Morrison für alles, was das amerikanische Establishment verabscheute; er verkörperte eine verlorene Generation, deren existentielle Verzweiflung er in seinen Songs in den Saal schleuderte, seine Auftritte provozierten allenthalben Skandale...Henisch umkreist diese Erscheinung in buchstäblich allen Tonarten; auch in mehren Sprachen, wobei neben dem Deutschen das Amerikanische dominiert. Ein Zeichen der Zeit, dass er sich nicht die Frage stellt, ob seine Leser alles verstehen; Fremdsprachen werden ihm zum Stilmittel. Mit der Geschicklichkeit eines Zauberers, der sich stets im richtigen Augenblick zu entziehen weiss, jongliert er nicht nur mit Sprachen, sondern mit Perspektiven, Zeitebenen, Leben und Tod, Schein und Sein.”(9)

In recreating the story of Morrison’s life and career in this postmodern novel, Henisch exploits the use of English. Not only references to icons of popular American culture are mentioned, but entire linguistic elements from words to phrases to song titles and lyrics permeate the text. And not surprisingly, there are multiple levels of significance that can be ascribed to these various references to American popular culture and to the incorporation of English into the text.

On a purely surface level, many specific names, places, events, performances, etc., merely add to the local color into which Henisch immerses the reader in framing the novel. One is reminded of the author’s comment about how important locations are to him: “Für mich haben Gegenden immer eine große Rolle gespielt” (Figurenwerfen,245). Examples of this type are found in the film-like passage describing Morrison’s family traveling by car down the highway between Sante Fé and Albuquerque (Morrisons Versteck, 68). The media references to Tom and Jerry cartoons, Laurel and Hardy films, the actors Robert Taylor and Jean Simmons, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and James Dean, and Kirk Douglas also fall largely into this category. Further examples from the world of pop music include Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Louis Armstrong. It is perhaps only in their totality and multiplicity that their greater effect is felt.

There is also the intentional use of English words in German sentences where adequate German equivalents exist: „die Kids haben ihren Spaß, manchmal natürlich habe auch die Cops, ihren Spaß“ (75), “Der Killer erwachte noch vor dem Morgengrauen” (134), “Der big beat kam aus den Sümpfen” (236), and “alles sehr neat und clean” (64) are several examples. Such wording bridges the gap between modern German and English, but also represents here a technique Henisch employs to capture the flavor of the American environment that he is seeking to portray.

Other references extend beyond this elementary level of importance and embody a greater thematic significance, such as the early reference by the character Morgenrot to Morrison as a “mißglückte Nachgeburt Elvis Presleys” (9). As such, Morrison, the “Lizard King,” is in Morgenrot’s eyes a pale knockoff of “the King.” Though many of these interweavings of English into the German can be construed as being merely supportive of the ambiance (“Kulisse”) that Henisch attempts to evoke, there are others that clearly reach a higher level of significance, such as the interspersings of memoirs, diary-like entries, etc. The description of the encounter between Ray Manzarek and Morrison is a good example:

In that year, hat Morrison notiert, there was an intensive visitation of energy.
I left school and wend down to the beach to live.
I slept on a roof. At night the moon became a woman’s face.
And thus (hier folgt die entscheidende Information:) I met the Spirit of Music.
Eine bemerkenswerte Erscheinung, Schon wieder.
Morrison traf allerdings auch Manzarek.
Einen Ex-Kollegen vom Film-Department.
Und das war, folgt man der Beschreibung Manzareks, die entscheidende Begegnung.
A beautiful California Summer Day, the middle of August.
And who should come walking down the beach but Jim Morrison?
Hey man!—Ray hatte gedacht, Jim sei in New York (170–171).

And finally there is extensive quoting from Morrison’s songs and writings as singer and author “break on through to the other side” (262).

Some of these references thus function on a higher plane and are more directly related to the hybridity and intertextuality that predominates in Henisch’s work. The figure of Jim Morrison himself fits this category. The aforementioned penchant of the Doors’ lead singer for recasting literary and musical material, such as Brecht’s Alabama Song, is quite congruent with Henisch’s own intellectual interests and literary devices.

Clearly it is problematic to categorically classify many of these references, since they contain varying levels of meaning that perhaps only the individual reader can decipher for him- or herself. A full appreciation of the intertextuality relies directly upon reader reception. Given the novel’s complex interweaving of text and content, Jennifer Ward’s assessment seems on target: “Henisch yields up a narrative ball of yarn in which the reader has no easy time untangling the strands” (Balancing Acts, 94).

And finally the occasional misuses, misspellings, and non-idiomatic uses of American English that occur in the novel must be mentioned. They perhaps go unnoticed by a non-native speaker of English but are certainly obvious to a native-English speaker. Examples include the oddity of: “Keep off medium” for “Keep off the median” (69); “Where do you guy come from?” for “Where are you guys from?” (148); and “live and death” for “life and death” (152) as well as the misspellings of “Die Standford University” (73)” and “Corea” (74). Such elements unintentionally create a further linguistic hybrid that is neither Austrian/German nor American, but is rather a further hybridization of the two cultures. It is in this area that the native or near-native speaker of English can become somewhat irritated by the text and wish that both the author and publisher had taken greater care in editing the manuscript.


Schwarzer Peter

Though not lasting as long as the gestation period for the initial publication of Morrisons Versteck, Henisch worked for over five years on Schwarzer Peter before it appeared in 2000. In the middle of the process he decided that he needed a breath of fresh air:

5 Jahre also. Ungefähr in der Mitte dieser Langstrecke habe ich das Gefühl gehabt, daß wir Luftveränderung brauchen. Der Schwarze Peter und ich. Also hab ich mich um eine Möglichkeit gekümmert, einige Zeit in New Orleans zu verbringen. Die Luft dort war heiß und feucht. Wir sind ausgerechnet im August angekommen. Aber für meinen Roman war das gerade richtig (Figurenwerfen, 325).

During this extended period of research and writing, including a lengthy stay in the United States, Henisch’s intended goal was not to create an authentic black character, at least not one as an American audience might envision him. Black Peter is in fact another of Henisch’s hybrids, certainly not fully Austrian despite being the offspring of a Viennese mother and not an American either despite being fathered by an unknown Black American soldier. As an outsider in the United States, Peter is looked upon askance because he drinks his Coke warm without ice cubes and prefers sitting outdoors in the oppressive New Orleans summer heat as opposed to inside in an air-conditioned space (205). For Henisch, Black Peter ultimately represents the “other,” the counterweight to the overriding influence of dominant society, whether it be that of modern-day Austria or that of the United States. 

The interspersed segments of the novel that deal with Peter’s years in the United States, primarily in the jazz capital of New Orleans, serve to broaden but not totally counterbalance the identity issue beyond the concern with petty-bourgeois Austrian attitudes and prejudices. While Peter’s American experience does not include glaring discrimination beyond the subtle remnants that continue to be part of the Black experience in the United States and the South at this point in American society following the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, he still does not feel at home. From the beginning of the novel the reader is advised that Peter is not entirely black but yet black enough to be considered different. Peter’s comparison of his own childhood to that of Mark Twain’s Jim in Huckleberry Finn and of his boyhood friend Puschnig to Twain’s Tom Sawyer bridges the geographical gap between his native Austria and the American South. Peter’s English, tinged with the accent of his Austrian German, and his lack of full familiarity with Black history and culture within the United States by virtue of having spent the first thirty years of his life in Vienna, reveal Henisch’s main character as the generic outsider. Despite the fact that he blends easily into the American South by virtue of his dark-skinned physical appearance, Black Peter is “nicht ganz wohl in seiner Haut.”(10) Having traveled to America from Austria after the breakup of his marriage to Natascha in the 1970s, Peter attempts to unearth his roots in the United States by seeking out his vanished GI father, William Meredith, and by immersing himself even further in his obsession with jazz. His Austrian music teacher Kronstein had first made him conscious of the connection between his innate musical inclinations and jazz, thereby providing a further link between himself and the United States.(11) Jazz had its roots in Black America, and ultimately before that in the rhythms of Black Africa, a place the narrator reminds the reader that Peter always longed to visit but failed to reach, despite his attempts and expressed desire to cross over from Europe to the Dark Continent. His tenure in America, the land of his unknown American father, whose short-lived affair with his outgoing, sensual, and uninhibited earthly mother produced Peter as offspring in post-war Vienna, reflects another stage in his personal search for identity but does not expunge his “Austrian identity crisis.” Thus despite attempts to forget Austria, as Jenny, his live-in American girlfriend of twenty years, chides him to do,(12) an older, mellower Peter remains preoccupied—at least subconsciously through the narrative perspective—with his Austrian homeland.(13) What becomes important for Peter is the attempt to locate his roots and himself in this American setting.(14)

Further comments about the linguistic elements of the novel, especially the interspersion of English, will be treated in connection with the songbook Henisch soon published to accompany the novel.


Black Peter’s Songbook

Exakt neun Monate nach dem Roman ist “Black Peters Songbook” erschienen: ein musikalischer Gedichtband (plus CD), bei dem die Vatersuche weitaus mehr Platz einnimmt als im Roman. Seine Geburt wurde mit hymnischen Kritiken gefeiert, so beispielsweise im “Standard”: “Die Art und Weise, wie diese drei Künstler aufeinander eingespielt sind (ihre erste CD ‛Wegwärts von Wien’ gibt es als feinen Geheimtipp seit mehr als zehn Jahren), macht ein so unkonventionelles Produkt wie diese musikalische Fortsetzung eines Romans erst möglich.” Musik, Lyrics und Romanpassagen entwickeln sich zu einer dynamisch-poetischen Einheit, die ganz und gar einmalig ist—in Österreich und anderswo.(15)

Such was the commentary about the Songbook, whose content is comprised of a mixture of German and English texts that closely parallel passages and scenes from the novel itself, and thus in most respects is a musical extension of it. The two prose sections of the brief sixty-page text are labeled “Black Peter was here. Notizen zur Lage des Schwarzen Peter in New Orleans (1)” and “Drunt in Afrika. Notizen zur Lage des Schwarzen Peter in New Orleans (2).”  Through song and readings to musical accompaniment, Henisch evokes the character of his novel as he tells of his roots as the offspring of his Black American father and Austrian mother. Henisch uses an English (American) title, and the book’s cartoon-like cover drawing depicts a Black American GI in a jeep passing by a Viennese streetcar with a white female ticket collector clearly visible. The background street scene is clearly meant to conjure up war-torn Vienna after World War II. The back side of the cover depicts young Black Peter on the banks of the Danube. These cover scenes clearly depict important thematic elements from the novel.

Black Peter travels to the United States as a young adult in search of the American father he has never known and about whom even his mother can provide scant information, since the relationship that resulted in his birth was brief. The juxtaposition of German and English in the text highlights the dissonant components in Peter’s search for identity (and the text’s intertextuality). Peter’s (Henisch’s) English is heavily accented tinged by his native Austrian tongue. Pronunciation clearly remains non-standard American and a hybridization, as was the case in the novel and in Morrisons Versteck.

The question of the “authenticity” of the language is an important one here as it is in other works where Henisch interjects English words and phrases. Oddities of word order, construction, and vocabulary are present that might easily lead one to judge Henisch not fully successful in evoking the language of America in general or of New Orleans in particular. For example, he has his American host Joe Logsdon, to whom the novel is dedicated, speak the sentence: “I guess you’ll need some days for acclimatization” (Songbook, 9), an awkward construction at best. Other examples from the second text: “I fell in life” (16) and “fallen in this place” (17) as attributed directly to Peter are acceptable. The use of  the word “produced” in the phrase “the place where I happened to be produced” or “a fallen maid” or the use of the British English but totally non-American English “bloody” (17, 44)  are clearly misplaced. Furthermore, the word “crotchets”—British for a whim or a quarter note—is totally out of place in American English (18). Other oddities include the phrase “I was in advance” for “I was on the offensive” (21); “My bonnie is over the ocean mister” for “…lies over the ocean” (29); “I’m sitting on your side” for “…on your banks” (38); “detuned piano” for “an out of tune piano” (39); “could you tell me where’s my father” for “…where my father is” (40); “shy like a tiny boy” (41) for “…a small or little boy”; “this queer little country” (43) for “…this strange little country”; and “You must not think …that the novel I’m writing is nothing but tragic” for “…just tragic” (10).

Words also interspersed into the German text, such as “harp” (for harmonica), the word “Songbook” itself, and other like “Stuntman,” “statement,” “piano-player,” “Pianobar,” “fans,” “Lady,” “Germany,” and “Barkeeper.” Such conscious choices reveal Henisch’s attempt to bridge the gap between the Austrian and American spheres of his central character. Henisch’s attempt to Americanize Peter’s English thus leads to some positive and negative results. To the American ear especially his word choice can be somewhat off-putting and unnatural. Granted, Peter has not grown up in an American setting and therefore one cannot expect his English to be truly reflective of his new environment in New Orleans, but it should not be the case when Henisch is ascribing speech to native American English characters. Thus for the Songbook in particular it is hard to imagine an avid readership among those conversant with American English or the dialect of the deep South, although these readers, too, can appreciate the fact that Henisch researched his novel extensively in the United States and that his fascination with it and New Orleans is genuine.

Henisch stated that he was attempting to write the songs of his Black Peter, ones that the character would have actually written had he in fact existed. The interesting part of this is the fact that Henisch himself recognizes some of the incongruities in the actual songs that comprise the songbook:

Da sie zum Teil englisch getextet sind oder eher amerikanisch, sind sie wohl nicht nur Gegenstand der Germanistik, sondern auch der Anglistik. Darüber zu urteilen, um welche Sprache es sich da eigentlich handelt, obliegt jedoch Leuten wie Dir [d.h., Craig Decker und anderen amerikanischen/englischen Germanisten.] (Figurenwerfen, 326).

The actual music of the Songbook, too, clearly finds its roots in non-traditional Austrian music. Ironically of course, Vienna was, is, and remains the center of classical music with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, etc. The fact that Black Peter is a piano-player in a bar and plays the blues brings this point of opposition home clearly. Peter even confesses that Viennese music is not his music.

In Henisch’s oeuvre, Schwarzer Peter and the Songbook are thus further examples of what Anne Ulmer describes as the author’s predisposition towards a “literature of experience” rather than an “invented literature,”(16) further emphasizing the importance of location and local color for him.

Henisch’s main character standing outside the mainstream of Austrian and even American life is developed through the roots of Black Peter’s actual experience. Peter’s growing up in the second and third districts, i.e., in the neighborhoods of Vienna’s working class, reflected his status, as well as that of his mother, a streetcar conductor, who struggled to eke out her own degree of happiness and contentment for herself and her son. Peter does not venture into the society of the more visible symbols of Austria’s and Vienna’s stereotypical “official image”; the first district with its monumental reminders of a Habsburg dynasty, Strauss waltzes, and tourist vacationland Austria is foreign to him. Peter’s world is intersected by the greenish pea soup color of the Donaukanal and far removed from the idealized blue Danube and the image of Austria that Peter Turrini satirically labeled its “Hawaianization.”(17) Just as Black Peter’s failure as an Austrian pop star is predictable given the narrator’s remark on the very first page of the novel, “Seien Sie mir nicht böse, aber das ist nicht meine Musik (7),” so too is his environment not that of Austria’s official self-promotion. The river has been the source of life experience and the journey has included the New World as well through associations between the mighty but lazy Mississippi and the Danube and Danube Canal.


Die schwangere Madonna

As stated at the outset, Henisch’s 2005 novel has seemingly little to do with America and American culture on the surface. The title itself refers to a 15th century painting of the “Madonna del Parto,” the pregnant Madonna, by Italian artist, Piero della Francesca. Yet the novel about a middle-aged man in crisis, Josef Urban, and his youthful schoolgirl companion Maria is closely modeled after the generic American road movie. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984)(18) offer noteworthy structural analogies to Henisch’s “road novel,” for which Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a text that Henisch was certainly familiar with from his youth in the 1960s and from his research on Jim Morrison, provides a literary model. In Morrisons Versteck Henisch pays homage to Easy Rider when he speaks of “die erfüllte leere Weite der Landschaft” (68). The Morrison novel provides a literary hybridization of the search on the road for a life worth living for both the Beat Generation and its anti-establishment followers in the 1960s. In this latest publication, however, the novelistic landscape is that of Italy upon which the first-person narrator recounts the story of his trek down one side of the Italian boot and back up the other.

Much of Henisch’s text incorporates cinematic vocabulary and elements as well, something not particularly surprising, since Josef Urban, the novel’s first-person narrator, has up to the time of his unpremeditated flight from his Austrian homeland earned his livelihood working for the media. His last feature for radio was one on Alzheimers patients; the prior one was on Ernest Hemingway and A Farewell to Arms, which he actually researched some years ago in Italy just north of Venice, where Hemingway wrote his famous work. As Josef recounts his tale to the Italian Commissario while under detention, the reader experiences Josef’s mind working like that of a filmmaker, the profession to which he has aspired since childhood. Josef speaks of the “Kamera in meinem Kopf” (71) and describes film as “die Bewegung einer Figur in Raum und Zeit, der Versuch, etwas von dieser Bewegung festzuhalten” (71). As Josef continues narrating his and Maria’s stories and those of the other characters intertwined with theirs, he repeatedly uses cinematic terms as the camera of his mind and memory rolls. Flashbacks and flash forwards, backlighting, slow and fast motion, split screen, etc. characterize his narrative technique. He identifies himself and Maria as the protagonists in this road novel and other characters such as Francesco as merely secondary: “Maria und ich, wir waren die Protagonisten. Er [Francesco] war eine Nebenfigur und sollte es bleiben” (328). As the individual scenes and episodes of the road novel are patched together into a cohesive whole, other elements of intertextuality and hybridity connected to American popular culture emerge as well.

The interplay of high culture and popular culture is revealed already in the two mottos Henisch selected for this work; one is taken from Novalis, the other from Jimi Hendrix.(19) The romantic longing expressed in Novalis’s verse stands juxtaposed to the American expression of ear-splitting revolt and counter-culture. Henisch’s “Italian novel” thus bridges the gap between tradition and avant-garde. Overlaid atop the substrata of the classical treasures and ancient history of the Italian countryside, embodied by Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna del Parto,” are the bits and pieces of modern pop culture which either have their roots in America or were largely popularized there. The image of Henisch’s Madonna is not that of the proud mother-to-be of the Savior revealing her swollen belly through the slit in her 15th century Italian garb, but rather of a modern-day teenage Madonna clutching the symbol of youthful identity—the cell phone. The cell phone embodies the essence of contemporary youth—it’s ability to be constantly in touch through popularized technological advances associated with America.

Henisch’s Maria is a child of the West. She listens to its music, both hip-hop and rock. Josef too relates to this music, although he is clearly not as attuned to its lyrics as the younger generation to which Maria belongs. In recounting his story to the Italian Commissario, Josef states: “Für gewöhnlich hört unsereins diese englischen oder amerikanischen song-lyrics, ohne wirklich hinzuhören...Bestenfalls schnappen wir ein paar Worte vom Refrain auf” (72). And shortly thereafter Josef mouths the lyrics of another popular song: “Celebrate…holiday…It’s time for the good times, forget about the bad times…Everybody spread the word, we’re gonna have a celebration” and affirms: “Ich gebe es zu, Commissario, davon fühlte ich mich angesprochen” (73). Lines from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”follow: “I made it though the wilderness…Somehow I made it through…But YOU made me feel shiny and new” (74). There are other references to pop singers like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Sting as well.

Josef also introduces Maria to the fact that Hemingway wrote his famous novel, A Farewell to Arms, in Italy (77-78). He then informs her that he was responsible for preparing a television documentary on this subject. Henisch thus draws on these more “classical” cultural artifacts as a counterbalance to the pop and rock elements, such as those related to Pink Floyd and The Who that he recalls later (122). The intertextuality that derives from the connection between the popular and the mundane and the historical and the intellectually complex sheds light on the relative permanence of human experience across time as Henisch envisions it.

Just as he uses references to American and British personages (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Bonnie and Clyde, Patricia Highsmith), Henisch draws upon the Italian setting (language, landscape, and cultural references) to broaden his message. Intertextuality plays itself out again here, for example, through the character Carlo, who speaks about the “Kreuz- und Querverbindungen” (172) that tie history, tradition, and various cultures together.

In sum, Henisch’s Die schwangere Madonna exhibits not only a framework for the road novel based on American models, but also a content that directly derives from the popular culture, capitalism, and consumerism, for which the American continent provides the quintessential example.



Morrisons Versteck and Schwarzer Peter and its accompanying Songbook rely heavily upon the musical elements of rock and jazz respectively, while in Die schwangere Madonna the high art of Renaissance painting co-mingles with today’s pop culture of cell phones and instant messaging. Though the lines between American and British culture are often somewhat blurred in all these works, Henisch reveals a proclivity toward the interjection of English (and it should be noted Italian as well in Die schwangere Madonna) in his writing in general.

One has the feeling that many of the specific cultural elements he incorporates are merely ones with which Henisch is personally familiar. Individually they do not always provide critical thematic support to thoughts, plot, ideas, but in total they do convey more than the sum of their parts: they provide a series of buoys upon which the hull of Henisch’s boat floats.

It will be interesting to view Henisch’s newest novel, Eine sehr kleine Frau (2007), in detail in light of the topics presented here. The elements of intertextuality and hybridity are clearly evident in the title’s recalling of his first literary success, Die kleine Figur meines Vaters. It remains to be seen how this latest novel interfaces with his work in general, but two elements that provide an “American” connection are the fact that the novel’s narrator is a former professor of German literature and creative writing at Bates College(20) and that one of the grandmother’s favorite books is Gone with the Wind.

In sum then, the American as well as Austrian influences, interactions, and intersections within Henisch’s work are part of a larger overall pattern of attempting to break out of a restrictive mode, to complement the self-reflexive dispositions of his characters, and to fulfill what he referred to with regard to Steins Paranoia as a Bedürfnis: a “Versuch, diese fatale Entwicklung des österreichischen Bewußtseins literarisch in den Griff zu kriegen” (Figurenwerfen, 179). While remaining consummately Austrian, Henisch demonstrates again and again in his writing, that he, his characters, and his work encompass a much broader relevance for Western society.

In a final comment made in an interview about his revisiting texts and prior experiences, Henisch provides an appropriate conclusion to this discussion:

Für mich ist ein Buch nicht fertig, nur weil der Text zwischen zwei Deckeln gedruckt vor mir liegt. Von ‛Morrisons Versteck’ gibt es verschiedene Fassungen, die viele Jahre auseinander liegen. Auch ‛Die kleine Figur meines Vaters’ und den ‛Baronkarl’ habe ich überarbeitet, allerdings nicht so radikal wie den aktuellen Roman. Es zeigt, dass mich der Stoff weiter beschäftigt hat. Irgendwann möchte man dann das Ganze einfach noch einmal schreiben” (“Schwarzer Peter mit Kind”).

And so it is with Henisch’s experience and interaction with “American” material as well as evidenced in the works discussed here.



(1) Figurenwerfen. Der Peter-Henisch-Reader, hrsg. Franz Schuh (Salzburg: Residenz Verlag, 2003), 245.
(2) “Der Dichter als Fährmann. Ein Gespräch mit dem Wiener Schriftsteller Peter Henisch” by Barbara Peterson. Wiener Zeitung 8. Oktober 1999,
(3) “Henisch, Peter: Schwarzer Peter mit Kind” by Helga Häupl-Seitz. Wiener Zeitung 8. Juni 2001,
(4) For example, Henisch has entertained a faithful group of followers with an array of programs, such as the afternoon series devoted to Schwarzer Peter (2000)in the year of its publication on the ferry connecting Vienna’s second and third districts across the Donaukanal and another series based on the revised version of Morrisons Versteck at the facilities of the ORF during Summer 2001. Both programs consisted of an amalgamation of the author’s engaging readings from his works and of the musical accompaniment inspired by these texts that he and his fellow musicians provided.
(5) “New Orleans und Laaerberg” by Rainer Elstner (
(7) Ibid.
(8) Comments taken from the prefatory material to the revised paperback edition of Morrisons Versteck (München: dtv, 2001).
(9) “Virtuoses Verwirrspiel: Peter Henischs neuer Roman ‘Morrisons Versteck’” by Eva Haldimann. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23. Mai 1991, S. 51, Beilage S.10,
(10) See for example: “Mein Gott, was sollte ich darauf sagen? Mamma, ich fühl mich nicht wohl in meiner Haut? Oder: Mamma, ich glaub das Leben, das ich führe, ist nicht mein Leben? Zwar hatte ich ungefähr das vorgehabt, aber jetzt hatte ich das Gefühl, daß ich damit fehl am Platz war” (386).
(11) “Auf die Idee, daß der Musikunterricht irgend etwas mit meinem Klavierspiel oder gar mit meinem jungen Interesse am Jazz zu tun haben könnte, kam ich vorerst gar nicht. Von Kronstein wurde ich aber rasch eines Besseren belehrt” (197).
(12) “You’re born in Vienna, hatte sie gesagt, so what. / Sie sei in Selma, Alabama geboren. / Sie sei froh, daß sie vo dort weg sei, ich solle mir ein Beispiel an ihr nehmen. / Komm, sagte sie. Laß uns unsere schönen Tage hier genießen” (392).
(13) “Vielleicht was es keine so gute Idee, in diesem Zusammenhang, die Reise nach Österreich vorzuschlagen. Aber es ließ mir keine Ruhe. Irgendwann mußte ich damit herausrücken” (393).
(14)An ironic twist to the TV series Roots, in which Black Americans traced their ancestry, back to Africa, it is here the European-born Black coming to the New World.
(15) “Henisch, Peter: Schwarzer Peter mit Kind.”
(16) Anne Close Ulmer, “The Son as Survivor: Peter Henisch’s Die kleine Figur meines Vaters. The Germanic Review 61, No.2.
(17) See Peter Turrini, Mein Österreich: Reden, Polemiken, Aufsätze. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1988.
(18) Like the quote from Newsweek about Wenders’ film: “…a grim portrait of a land where people like Travis and Jane cannot put down roots, a story of a sprawling, powerful, richly endowed land where people can get desperately lost,” Henisch’s novel deals with Josef’s middle-age crisis.
(19) “Ich sehe dich in tausend Bildern
    Maria, lieblich ausgedrückt,
    Doch keins von allen kann dich schildern,
    Wie meine Seele dich erblickt”
    A broom is drearily sweeping
    Up the broken pieces of yesterdays life
    Somewhere a queen is weeping
    Somewhere a king has no wife
    And the wind cries ‘Mary’
Jimi Hendrix
(20) Craig Decker, who edited Balancing Acts. Textual Strategies of Peter Henisch for Ariadne Press (2002), is a professor at Bates and hosted Henisch there in Maine in 2000. As noted, the reader edited by Franz Schuh, Figurenwerfen. Der Peter-Henisch-Reader (Residenzverlag, 2003), includes a series of notes Henisch directed at Craig Decker in providing background on the various excerpts included in the reader.


1.11. American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections


For quotation purposes:
Paul F. Dvorak: Peter Henisch and the Influence of American Popular Culture. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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