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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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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 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
[Mine-Haha] by [[Frank Wedekind]]

I wasn’t familiar with Wedekind before reading this book, but he was apparently more well-known for his work in the theater than for his fiction, which can only make me think he was an amazing dramatist. The title story is fantastic, compelling and chilling in equal measure, and seems to me a pretty good indication that if he concentrated on fiction, he would have been just as successful in that field. As further evidence, the other two stories are just okay, but a strong voice shines through. Wedekind’s specialty seems to be showing characters living lives that seem normal in their outlines but turn out to be grotesquely distorted upon closer inspection.

This effect is heightened by the way the stories are told, too. Each uses a story-within-a-story framing device, which emphasizes the multilayered nature of the pieces right from the start. And that “multilayered-ness” is an essential part of Wedekind’s writing. Philip Ward, the book‘s translator, explains it well in his introduction. After providing one possible deconstruction of the title story, Ward continues, “But then, Mine-Haha can be read a dozen ways.”

Both that title and the highly provocative subtitle are apt examples of this, but a little stage-setting is needed first. “Mine-haha” is presented as a fragment of a manuscript written by an 84-year-old woman who has just thrown herself out the window of her fourth-story apartment as the piece opens. The manuscript comes into the hands of a neighbor of hers, and those pages make up the heart of the story here.

Mine-haha, were told by the neighbor/narrator at the beginning of the story, is the “title” that “appears in the notebooks” that contain the old lady’s writing. And at the end of the story, in sort of an afterward, the narrator then writes that a “young American” had informed him that Mine-haha is “Indian and means: ‘Laughing-Water.’”

But “Mine-haha” also happens to be the Germanic form of “Minnehaha,” and that’s the name of Hiawath’s lover in Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.” It also appears that the more “modern” translation of “Mine-haha” is “Falling Water,” as in “Waterfall.” It’s not clear to me if Wedekind were aware of either of these two details. Certainly, if he were familiar with the Longfellow poem, there are probably further layers to the story, but I, on the other hand, am NOT familiar enough with the poem to pick them out.

Anyways, moving on to the subtitle, “On the bodily education of young girls.” That was specifically appended by the narrator, who believed it was “necessary to add it,” since the title is “frankly, hard to understand.”

Maybe. But there at least as many readings of the subtitle as there are of the title. It’s hard to believe the narrator would have used those words unless he thought the manuscript were as “perversely erotic” as Marianne Faithfull described the story itself to be in her blurb of the book. On the other hand, there is nothing else in the narrator’s forward or afterward to the manuscript to indicate he thought it was in any way erotic in any way at all.

What the manuscript describes is, in broad outline, a story about young girls being raised in a secluded, isolated sort of settlement where they are taught only dance and music. Literally. I mean, we even find out later that they haven’t been taught to read. Before the age of seven, they are with boys their age; after, only with other girls.

Their training culminates in performances of what are obviously some sort of sexual pantomimes, done in various stages of undress, but which the girls themselves don’t understand. They think their performances are more in the way of light amusements for the audience, and notably, the stage lights shine on them so brightly they can’t see the faces of the audiences, of all men.

So, the way the manuscript is written, from the viewpoint of one of those girls, their lives are “natural” and “normal.” Anything beyond this is supplied by the reader’s experience. And this reader didn’t find it “perversely erotic” but eerily dystopian in a [Handmaid’s Tale] sense.

The other two, much shorter stories, are “The Burning of Egliswyl” and “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and their quality runs in the same order. In the first, the narrator recounts how once, when he was much younger, he ended up walking with his father after school back home, in the company of a convicted arsonist hired out from the prison to help his father. During this walk, the arsonist tells the story of how he ended up in prison. It’s suitably weird and frightening, but in a more normal way; that is, it involves the conjunction between arson and sexual frustration.

The final piece trods the well-worn ground involving a prostitute telling the story of how a bad choice in men leads her to a life of sin.

In the end, if the title story were of the same quality of the other two, the book wouldn‘t be anything special. As it is, “Mine-haha” is strong enough to lift the whole into the realm of “highly recommended.” ( )
1 vote KromesTomes | Jun 26, 2010 |
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Altena, Ernst vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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