- A Very Little Woman by Peter Henisch
“I’ve started writing a book about Oma” (198). This straightforward objective by author Peter Henisch captures the essence of his biographical novel A Very Little Woman. Published in German in 2007, Henisch traces his childhood and youth in the Austrian capital, where he was born in 1943. Throughout his journey on the streets of Vienna and back in time, he skillfully ties his family history to major events in the twentieth century. His deep and personal relationship to his grandmother Marta provides the vantage point for many stories, making her the link that connects three generations of Austrian-German encounters.
Henisch delves into his novel by reflecting on music and literature. His grandmother introduced him to various songs and melodies as he lay under her piano in post–World War II Vienna. The connection to literature emerged within that relationship as well, and Henisch returns to the countless stories Marta shared with him as he grew up. For the reader, these memories outline possible connections between Henisch’s childhood and his later career as a professor of literature, far from his homeland Austria, in the United States. After several failed relationships and a sustained inability to connect to his students, Henisch quit his job to return to Vienna. He got an apartment, began reading books relating to his past, and started to relive various memories of interacting with his grandmother. As he summarizes this, at times, demanding [End Page 136] endeavor: “Now I’m here, pursuing a past that simply doesn’t appear past to me. A past that, if anything, affects the future” (110).
With honesty and complexity Henisch ultimately captures interactions between the past and the present. He talks about his seemingly endless walks with his grandmother, surprising the reader again and again about their close relationship and the author’s own memory. Moreover, Henisch connects his family history to historical events. He describes, for example, his grandmother’s experiences as a nurse, the struggles of the late 1920s, and the rise of Nazism. Powerful language describing “frozen-stiff, sun-bleached corpses in areas of where they had no business being” (190) paints a haunting picture of war, while connections to literature bring details to life and make the novel all the more personal.
Given the age of the main protagonists, Henisch weaves in much of the Nazi period. Its presence is felt throughout the book, in descriptions of the looming anti-Semitism in the past and the heavily guarded synagogues in the present. Nationalistic feelings following defeat in World War I, intolerance against Marta’s first husband—a Czech hairdresser and Henisch’s grandfather—among other subtle references nicely capture the atmosphere of the interwar period. Marta’s second husband Wilhelm then serves as an entrepôt into the rise of National Socialism in Vienna. Rarely portrayed as a pleasant character, the choices of Wilhelm underline one contemporary line of thinking. Marta herself takes the role of a bystander, not realizing, for example, “that he was attending such [Nazi] meetings” (132). Her withdrawal continues after her husband’s death in 1938 and this withdrawal is apparent in her commitment to literary fiction while Nazi Germany incorporates Austria in spring 1938. Even her own hidden Jewish identity plays a secondary role, leaving Henisch wondering how his grandmother made it through such devastating times.
The engagement with the present occasionally disrupts the author’s reflections. Henisch describes, for example, his journeys through the streets of Vienna, making the cityspace an actual memory and memorial. Interactions with daily affairs, current events, and family members interrupt his flashbacks and dreams as well. Henisch needs to sell his house in the United States, feels the need to comment on some news of the day, and is forced to engage with his younger brother and sister. Only in the end does the reader see some sort of finality, when Henisch buys a piano, puts a portable player with a cd by [End Page 137] Beethoven on top of it, “and then sat down underneath the...