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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.
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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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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