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Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of…

Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls

by Frank Wedekind

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Mine-Haha is a collection of one novella and two short stories by the German writer Frank Wedekind (1864-1918). The sexual innocence of youth is a common theme to these three stories, which are otherwise quite different.[return][return]Mine-Haha; or, On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, the novella, is a strange but captivating work. It purports to be the autobiographical sketch of an elderly woman, Helene Engel, who has just committed suicide. She begins with her earliest girlhood memories of being in an institution with other girls and boys. They are being given the rudiments of an education in physical skills, especially walking and dancing. Eventually the boys and girls are separated, and Helene finds herself in a rigidly structured but pleasant environment along with hundreds of other girls in a park-like estate. Her education in the physical graces continues, and eventually she is to learn that it will culminate in a bizarre theatrical ritual.[return][return]It is difficult to know how to take Mine-Haha. It appears to be a dystopian satire on the shallow nature of girls' education, but the nature of its subtle eroticism--Wedekind was evidently a leg fetishist--does not accord with any feminist motives. It is, however, a poignant fable on the sexual innocence of childhood being manipulated by a cynical adult world. It is also an intriguing conjecture on how children view the world in the absence of adult models.[return][return]"The Burning of Egliswyl" is another story of sexual innocence, only this time with a young man as the subject. A convict tells the story of how he was the happy lover of all the beautiful young women in his village until he chanced to fall in love with one of them.[return][return]"The Sacrificial Lamb" is the story of a girl named Martha whose innocence is ruthlessly exploited by a young man, leading her eventually to desire to debase and punish herself as a prostitute. It is the most conventional and socially focused of the three stories.[return][return]The Hesperus Press edition has an informative introduction by the translator, Philip Ward, footnotes and a biographical sketch. The unusual combination of social allegory and eccentric eroticism is quite intriguing and should appeal to a variety of readers. ( )
  Dolmance | Oct 28, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This slender volume contains a novella (the title story), and two short stories. They are beautifully translated; the English prose is beautiful, there is no sense of "wrong" words, there is no sense that there are words or concepts missing, in the sense of the language it is a pleasure to read. In terms of the story this book is a puzzle - a story about an old lady who commits suicide, having reminisced about her education as a young girl; a story of sexual frustration on the part of a young man in a village; a story about a young woman's affair going wrong, and her turning to prostitution. These last two stories seem fairly standard and so-so, though maybe with more detail than usual.

It is the first story in this collection that is a puzzle. In her reminiscences the old lady remembers her education in an isolated school. Education is mixed until the age of 7. Girls board and are arranged in houses, with a house mother, who (from memory) is something like 16 or 17, perhaps 18. The girls are taught outside in a garden and river environment, and indoors, with the emphasis being physical education, leading to specialisation in music and dance. Reading and writing do not seem to feature. There is a lot of detail, the narrator's voice and emotions and story are compelling. On the surface there is a lot that does not make sense, because I think it did not make sense to the main character - I think she was confused and disorientated as a young girl, and only fragments make sense even now many years later. Her, and her fellow pupils', education took place in an environment with no external, societal, or adult frame of reference or models.

Eventually, the girls perform behind a kind of screen or grille in a theatre, for an audience they cannot see, in a play they have a hazy understanding of - that is they understand what they can from their age, experiences and perspective - but this is not at all what the audience sees and understands of the play, which is much more sexual. It's not too clear where the girls go after the theatre and school; though at one point I found a reference to the narrator designing a dress twenty years later, so perhaps she became a dress designer, rather than something related to the school. In fact it is hard to tell really, what kinds of jobs any of the girls will go to - more underworld roles like burlesque dancers and prostitutes, ambiguous roles like actresses, or more "respectable" roles like dress designers, seamstresses and teachers.

The narration and story at first had sensual qualities of just enjoying surroundings, and colours, and textures, and being in this enclosed world around other people her own age or a bit older, yet at the same time becoming increasingly confused, and then as the story turned more towards what would happen towards the end of school or in the outside world, it became more grotesque and dystopian. Towards the end I became slightly confused as to how many narrator voices there were - the girl, the girl as an older woman, the neighbour, the author.... This makes it a bit harder to work out whose impressions are whose. I need to re-read it already.

All in all, I'm still not sure what to make of it, but it's worth a read. ( )
  Flit | Aug 22, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
It's hard to know what to say about this rather peculiar and disturbing volume. Hesperus Press has brought us a slim anthology of short fiction by Frank Wedekind, better known as the writer of the "Lulu" plays that inspired Alban Berg's eponymous opera. The three works in this volume - the novella "Mine-Haha" and the short stories "The Burning of Egliswyl" and "The Sacrificial Lamb" - explore the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century European society, exhibiting a fascination with socially unacceptable manifestations of sexuality. The three stories also share a similar format: each consists of a brief framing device which establishes a setting for a first-person narrator to tell his, or her, life story. The title novella tells the story of a young girl's "bodily education" at a mysterious institution where she receives lessons in physical comportment, dance, and performance on musical instruments; meanwhile, the prepubescent girls are made to take part in sexually suggestive dramatic performances for an audience of adult males, the meaning of which they cannot possibly understand. The girl's account is cut off just as she emerges into the outside world, leaving us with no idea of what will happen to her, and how her "education" fits into a larger social context. The other two stories tell more conventional stories of jealousy and sexual frustration: a man who, blinded by misdirected emotion, sets fire to a village (attention: symbolism!), and a woman who is driven to prostitution when her relationship with an abusive boyfriend goes horribly wrong.

"Mine-Haha" is the hardest nut to crack - is this just another dystopia, the story of the finishing school from hell? Is it, as Leon Trotsky wrote, a scathing critique of the "bourgeois" nuclear family? Or is the entire story "the pubescent dream of a bold schoolboy," as the the critic Friedrich Gundolf suggested - that is, does the novella make us, as readers, so uncomfortable because Wedekind seems to take a prurient pleasure in the story's voyeuristic elements? In the final analysis, the meaning of the novel remains extremely ambiguous, seeming to circle around all three of these meanings simultaneously. Which is to say that there if there is something compelling about the story, there is simultaneously something repulsive, and this alternate fascination and revulsion was, for this reader, an disconcerting part of the reading experience. Your mileage may vary.

What saves the story from itself is Wedekind's fine writing, rendered into English by Philip Ward; one gets a sense of the narrator's voice as the girl's initial confusion and disorientation gives way to a tentative understanding of her world's rules. Her incomprehension, and our own bewilderment as readers, is expertly paced to keep a sense of building tension until the end of the story. The same compliment applies to the two shorter stories; nothing in either story breaks new ground from the perspective of storytelling or characterization, but they are both competently told and maintain the reader's interest. The translator is to be commended for this fine English rendition: the novel is identifiably in a turn-of-the-century German style, but is refreshingly free of "translatorese".

Ultimately, though, I can give this a mixed recommendation at best. "Mine-Haha" is a disconcerting story to read, and in the end one is not quite sure what Wedekind's point is in telling it, but the fine sense of characterization and narrative voice make this novella compelling. Think of the other stories as a little bonus, no doubt intended to fill out what is still a rather slim volume. ( )
  hauptwerk | Jul 13, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This collection consists of a novella and two short stories, and all three show Wedekind's interest in sexuality beyond societal norms. The title novella is by far the most disturbing, as it describes a sort of distopian society where young children are trained in dancing and theater for the adult society's pedophilic viewing. Wedekind leaves the possibility that the society described is an imaginary one, but his presentation certainly puts any theatrical presentation that involves children in an unfavorable light. The short stories, "The Sacrificial Lamb" and "The Burning of Egliswyl" show similar interest in abnormal sexual appetites and roles. While I wouldn't use these three stories to indicate that Wedekind is a master of short fiction, but I would certainly be interested in reading some of his drama. ( )
  wrmjr66 | Jul 12, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Mine-Haha is a mildly disturbing and completely enthralling novella about a mysterious boarding institution. The girls who attend the school care for each other almost from infancy, and they know little of their future. They are instructed in dance and music by a handful of instructors, and spend their prepubescence completely isolated. In the end they are thrust out into society, with nary a question about their future.

The narration is superb; it's told from the point of view of a woman looking back at her youth, and the story itself focuses on all the superficial details that are sure to make an impression on a young girl (clothing, jewelry, an accidental death, friendships, fear). The style gives the reader a sense of natural perception is an alien institution, and confirms the unspoken realities of this peculiar life. Mine-Haha presents a quiet exploration of sexuality and bodily consciousness, while developing a progressive technique of education, performance, and gender roles. ( )
1 vote Luxx | Jul 6, 2010 |
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In my estimation, a woman who earns her livelihood by making love stands immeasurably higher than one who stoops so low as to write magazine articles or even books.
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