“Must-read historical fiction ” – The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

2019 celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus School of arts and crafts by the German architect Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969). It operated in three different locations: Weimar (1919 – 1925), Dessau (1925 – 1932) and Berlin (1932 – 1933) when, under pressure from the Nazi regime, it was closed for the last time. The school is the setting for Naomi Wood’s third novel and is, thus, a fitting tribute to its history.

The story follows a group of six students as they begin their journey through their academic careers and describes the shifting dynamics of their complex friendship, their pairing offs, their partying, their loves and jealousies, their secrets and betrayals. Consciously or unconsciously Wood mirrors their personal turmoil against the turbulence on the political stage in Germany at the time. The core group of characters portrayed is fictional, while their tutors (Johannes Itten, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers) and some of their fellow students (Otti Berger, Marianne Brandt, Franz Ehrlich, Anni Fleishmann) were real figures.

The echoes with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History are almost deafening and must be addressed. The similarities begin with the way the story is told. Like Tartt’s novel, The Hiding Game has a narrator who relates events from his own point of view. Paul Beckermann, like Richard Papen in The Secret History, hails from a working class background (Beckermann’s father owns a shoe factory) and as Tartt does in her novel, Wood introduces the notion of an all-consuming obsession which leads to alienation and secrets among the friends. In both novels it is a tutor who plants the seed of an idea that grows to destructive proportions in the minds of the students. In Tartt’s novel it’s the passionate teaching of the Classics professor, Julian Morrow, which instigates the students’ enactments of Dionysian rites with tragic consequences; while in The Hiding Game it is Master Itten’s suggestion that fasting leads to greater mental clarity. The friends take the notion to extremes, existing only on black bread and lemon water for weeks on end. Instead of the desired result the regime, together with their intake of drugs and alcohol, brings out all their hidden demons and anxieties about the world they inhabit. For some of them their sense of reality becomes grossly distorted and they are no longer able to distinguish the truth from the lies they tell. Eventually, an event which is covered up as a brawl in the sauna of Weimar’s bathhouse, persuades them that fasting is not the answer to improved mental clarity. Normal eating habits, as far as war-time restrictions allow, are resumed. The narrator describes this period thus:

“I had the feeling that things were happening over which I had no control. One can speak of disquiet, but what does it mean? A feeling in the bones; in your eyes; the pit of your stomach. I didn’t know its source. Things did not feel right, but I didn’t know where this feeling came from – or whether it was simply the paranoiac vapours of the fast. In the mirror my gaze reminded me of a turbined Coleridge stumbling from an opium den into the outside light.”

The removal of Jews and foreigners are a constant niggling threat, but a so-called ‘citizens survey’ during the school’s Weimar period serves to exacerbate the fear for those studying at the Bauhaus from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland or elsewhere in eastern Europe..

“There was talk that the Director was not doing enough: there were fears he would pogrom his own students; get rid of the alien within. It was no secret that he wanted neither too many women nor too many Jews, and that this might be an opportune moment to recast the school. There were petitions and letter-writing campaigns.”

When Beckermann takes on a job at Ernst Steiner’s artist studio in the forest, producing paintings for the commercial market or for special commissions from abroad, he believes he has found a mentor in Steiner, but there is, nevertheless, a certain unease in their relationship. Beckermann wonders precisely why Steiner has taken him on. Years later he sees him again in Berlin during a street parade as part of Hitler’s entourage. It is Beckermann’s lightbulb moment, explaining the disquiet he has harboured for so long about the man he wanted to be able to trust all those years ago. So, Steiner was a Nazi! Soon he would be responsible for outlawing Jews and foreigners from the Bauhaus, forcing its leaders to close the school for the last time. Beckermann, himself, ends up escaping from Berlin to settle in England. A little earlier in the novel he had pondered on his life:-

“It made me smile that I had once been obsessed with truth and transparency. Now I had a synthetic life with no passions, and it wasn’t all that bad. I knew I was a little dead, but in a funny way it was the only way I had to stay alive.”

As the real school did, the Bauhaus of Wood’s novel moves from Weimar to Dessau, then to Berlin. By the time it is established in its final location, the friends are no longer students, but teachers, and their relationship becomes increasingly fragmented and precarious. With the discovery that, unbeknown to him, there was a selfless humanity in the heart of one of their group, the narrator’s long-held, deep-seated doubts about him are overturned and the novel’s somewhat dark ending holds an unexpected note of warmth.

Like The Secret History, Wood’s novel is a coming-of-age story that is governed by the notions of control, deception, the questioning of identity and self. Having read both Wood’s previous novels, The Godless Boys (a bizarre tale that lies somewhere between William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale) and Mrs. Hemingway (a fictionalisation of the writer’s ménage à trois with Hadley Richardson and Pauline Pfeiffer in the summer of 1926) I was a little wary of Wood’s uneven writing style, but my interest in art of all persuasions made The Hiding Game irresistible.

There is no doubt that researching the subjects she writes about are a great part of Naomi Wood’s raison d’être. She does so extremely thoroughly and manages to blend fact with fiction in interesting ways. In The Hiding Game it is all there, including, rather disappointingly, her quirky style of writing which, to me, with its awkward syntax (often running for several pages at a time), feels as though it has been translated from some East European language. Originally from New York, Wood has lived in Hong Kong, Paris and Washington, so it doesn’t really explain this idiosyncrasy. At other times her writing imitates the intellectual mentality of her protagonists. One or two chapters begin with brilliant painterly word-images that cleverly reflect the narrator’s artistic disposition. In England Beckermann has made his home in an unnamed seaside town. This is how he describes the holiday makers on his local beach:

“There’s a sunny haze to the scene. With a few brushstrokes the families could just as well water down into the misrule of the sea. ‘The Beach at Trouville’: is that what it reminds me of? That absurd, but genteel scene of Parisians come to Normandy to bathe. It’s a painting as far away as possible from the ‘Bathers at Moritzburg’ that sent me into such a frenzy, aged fifteen.”

Any Cop?: Despite the uneven writing style this is must-read historical fiction for anyone interested in the history of the Bauhaus School.

 

Carola Huttmann

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