In the eyes of her publisher, Alexa Hennig von Lange has found a “treasure”. The author, who was assigned to popular literature in the 1990s but has been writing mainly light entertainment and youth literature for some time, has been able to draw on her experience in her new novel. At the age of ninety, her grandmother documented her own life story between 1908 and 1965 on more than 130 cassette tapes.
Hennig von Lange used this material to create a trilogy of novels, the first volume of which was published as “The Checkered Girls”. He describes the experiences of a young woman who, like the author’s grandmother, worked as a teacher in a children’s sanatorium and head of an educational institution for young girls in the 30s.
As Henning von Lange reported in the epilogue, when she listened to the cassettes, she was “disturbed” by what her grandmother did not say: “She described the disciples, character traits, conversations, inauguration ceremonies, plants and visits of the elderly. But that does not mean that the synagogue was burning on the A few minutes’ walk away.”
It would have been attractive if the writer had taken this omission, this silence, seriously and drew conclusions from it as to the narrative form of her novel. In this way it was possible to present what the writer found in her grandmother’s notes – a biography marked by contradictions. Henning von Lange chose the opposite. She filled in the gaps in the narrative with a morally saturated historical lesson in the form of a literary account of her experiences.
All major events of the late 1920s and 1930s are described from the perspective of protagonist Clara, who, just like Henning von Lange’s grandmother, absorbs her memories in old age and alternates between present-day reflections, critical self-question and description of the past jumping in here.
In 1929, young Clara was a “revered” spectator at the bicentennial of the “Great Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn” at the Dessau Synagogue where she was horrified nine years later when she witnessed the church fire and looting. She visits the exhibition “Degenerate Art”, where the audience of onlookers enjoys the “slander, betrayal and humiliation of their fellow human beings” while she herself sees the disgraceful images as “rain of colored gems” shining with “creative power”.
To be on the safe side, Clara’s perspective always conveys his interpretation
The day after the night of the Reich massacre, she “trembled” in the streets of Goslar, as people “were tired of seeing the suffering of their neighbors.” When the radio reported the book burning, Clara and her friend Susan expressed shock at the “terrible mental illness” that this “irrational” act revealed. Clara’s perspective always conveys the interpretation of events at the same time they are told. Here the National Socialist “monsters” and the angry masses, there are the terrified young women.
The life story of the main character, according to the author, should raise “moral questions.” But the world that Hennig von Lange paints is too moldy to allow real contradictions to emerge. In order to save the educational institution from closing, Clara cooperates with the National Socialist Governors. Clara confronts the officials who visit the house as being “cold” and brutal. There is no doubt about its integrity in the novel.
However, the story becomes quite schematic and cliched with an additional fictional plot line, which the author of the life story has lent to her grandmother: when the Jewish orphan Tula is taken to the sanatorium at only a few months old, Clara passes the girl as her daughter, in order to protect her from the access of the system to her . According to the author, Tula means “loss of innocence” and “pain” that arises when “an entire society turns against humanity.”
The complexity of individual biographies is reduced to emotional symbolism
When characters become symbolic of guilt or innocence and embody principles, the complexity of historical events and the contradictions of individual biographies are reduced to Maudlin symbolism. With Henning von Lange, politics was reduced to simple opposites and emotional struggles. Linguistically, the novel is marked in many places by the excessive use of adjectives and twisted images: “The warm wind ran down her cheeks as she disappeared into the cold pine forest and the bike jumped over the little potholes.”
Kitsch is, in the words of Adorno, a “breathing parody.” What is meant by this is that the need for harmony and emotion is met by resolving conflicts in such a way that ambiguities and tensions do not remain. Don’t jeopardize cliched words themselves or their audience. They confirm what you already knew and believed in.
It seems that Hennig von Lange made a lot of things easier when trying to deal with the contradictions in her grandmother’s life and start a ‘conversation’ with her. Perhaps in this case it would have been better to rely less on one’s imagination and ideas of good and evil than on the fact that the best stories are written by life itself.
Alexa Hennig von Lange: fickle girls. a novel. Dumont, Cologne 2022. 368 pages, €22.
“Explorer. Communicator. Music geek. Web buff. Social media nerd. Food fanatic.”