The Rear-View Mirror: The Excursion of the Dead Girls (1944)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Anna Seghers’ short story The Excursion of the Dead Girls starts with the heroine Netty walking through the Mexican desert as a middle-aged woman, but quickly spirals into past memories, fairy tales and metaphor, all connected to that school trip in Germany many years ago. It’s semi-autobiographical – Seghers, after going through two worlds wars, had to escape Europe, and it was Mexico that seemed to offer a way out, as told in her novel Transit. Plus Seghers calls her protagonist Netty, a name she got called in her youth.

The short story manages to tell us about a dozen characters, starting with some of the girls, who are best of friends, are yearning for boys, or are trying to figure out what they will become later in life. Seghers regularly singles out a girl and, in a few words, tells about the rest of her life. Eventually, a boys’ school sidles into the story, and some of the girls and boys try to reach out to each other, with different results.There is also a male teacher who thinks it’s perfectly all right to court one of the girl students.

Most of their friendships and love attachments are betrayed through the politics of the day: many of the characters have their flash-forward, and they die in bombings, concentration camps or in the trenches, while others join the Nazis because they are either afraid not to join, or because they believe in white supremacy. Seghers’ story is devastating for such a short text, but uses pretty few moralistic points if you realize that the story, in a way, was still going on while she was writing it in 1944. There is a certain heavyness to her writing, which cannot come as a surprise, but she knows how to steer clear of any moralistic finger-wagging. Her story lives through the contrast of young girls full of life, and their eventual betrayal or being betrayed, and their deaths.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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