Translated by Basil Creighton / revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Reviewed by Karen Langley
Being known as the author of one successful book can be as much of a curse as a blessing, as author Vicki Baum wryly acknowledged. Her 1929 novel Grand Hotel was a runaway hit, particularly after the popular movie adaptation starring Greta Garbo. Baum had a long career, writing over 50 novels, but it is still this one she’s remembered for and it’s now been reissued in a beautiful new edition from NYRB. And of course, there’s a reason that Baum is remembered for this book – it’s just so darn good!
The book is set in Berlin of the late 1920s and much of the action takes place within the walls of the eponymous building, although we do venture out into the wider world at times. Like any hotel, the Grand sees all manner of people pass through its revolving door, and we encounter a varied bunch from the very start. There is Dr. Otternschlag, a survivor of WW1 who lost half of his face in the conflict and sees the world from a cynical, jaundiced viewpoint. The great ballerina Grusinskaya, now hitting the point of decline in her career, is passing through Berlin on her never-ending tour. Then we have Baron Gaigern; young and handsome, yet titled and penniless, he is not what he seems and despite his obvious charm may have a darker side. Add into the mix two out-of-towners from Fredersdorf in the form of Herr Preysing, director of a family firm who’s here to conclude a big business deal, and an ailing clerk from his firm, one Kringelein who’s living on borrowed time, and you have a potent mix ready to come together.
Every object around him was a sham. Whatever he took up turned to dust. The world was a crumbling affair not be grasped or held. You fell from emptiness to emptiness. You carried about a sack of darkness inside you. Doctor Otternschlag lived in the utmost loneliness – although the earth is full of people like him…
Apart from the main players, there is a wonderful array of more minor roles; from the hotel staff to Gaigern’s side-kicks, Preysing’s business contacts and even the off-stage characters, the family left at home. And of course, how could we forget the beautiful Flammchen who drifts in and out of several lives having a dramatic effect on each person she encounters.
All of these people are at the Hotel for different reasons: Otternschlag because his ennui will not allow him to move on; Grusinskaya in an attempt to hold onto the glamour of her past; Gaigern to try to fleece as many people of as much money as he can; Preysing because his calm stable home life depends on the business deal he needs to bring off; and Kringelein because before he dies he wants to know what it is to live. And needless to say, all of these disparate characters will meet, impact upon each other and cause dramatic ripples to develop before they go their separate ways.
So Grusinskaya and Gaigern come together during an attempted theft and both experience emotions they certainly never expected; Preysing discovers a new side to himself, using guile to deal with his business colleagues and being tempted into infidelity; and Kringelein first spends time with Otternschlag, but then gets picked up by Gaigern and really gets a taste of what it is to be alive. In fact, Kringelein’s story is the most moving of the book and the one that really hooked me into it; watching him transform from a timid, bullied clerk into a more confident person, able to grab hold of the opportunities that come his way, was engrossing and uplifting.
But the chief and most remarkable feature of the Yellow Pavilion was the music. It was produced with incredible gusto by seven gentlemen in white shirts and short pants, the famous Eastman Jazz Band. It had a frantic vivacity. It drummed under the soles of the feet and tickled the hip muscles. There were two saxophones that could weep, and two others that derisively mocked their tears. The music sawed, snapped, stood on its head, laid eggs of melody, cackled and proudly jumped on them – and whoever got within range of this music fell into the zigzag rhythm of the room as if bewitched.
Through this all, Baum never loses her masterly control of all of her plot strands, pulling everything together and taking us back to even the minor players regularly as the story unfolds, to check on the progress of their life and fate. Weimar Berlin itself springs straight off the page, with its glitter and corruption, its bars and prostitutes, its closeness to the last World War and its striving for modernity in the forms of cards and planes and radio towers and jazz. The lives of several characters are drawn together briefly at one point, with dramatic results, and the encounter is entirely convincing.
The whole hotel is only a rotten pub. It is exactly the same with the whole of life. The whole of life is a rotten pub, Herr Kringelein. You arrive, stay for a while and go one again. Passing through. Isn’t that it?
Of course, the Hotel itself is a microcosm of life, and Otternschlag uses the analogy of the revolving door representing life – you come in, rotate through life for as long as you have on the planet, and then revolve out again. The trick is to enjoy yourself while you can, and for that, as Kringelein and Flammchen realise, you simply have to have money. The class differences are never glossed over, but the society portrayed here is in a state of flux – you can be a Count and penniless or working as a clerk in a hotel, whereas a petty little clerk from out of town can blow everything he has on a spree and win thousands gambling. And the passage when Kringelein finally has his say and tells Preysing exactly what’s wrong with the capitalist system and how badly he and his fellow workers are treated, is a powerful piece of writing.
Grand Hotel was something of a groundbreaker, in that it spawned the whole book and movie trope of setting the action in a confined space (hotel, plane, street, country house, tower block) and observing the interactions of the characters. However, this original really is the best; the setting, characterisation and plotting are excellent, the writing evocative and superb. Baum’s great book is one of those unputdownable volumes that involve you and your emotions from the first page right to the last and it’s definitely going to be one of my reads of the year.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks that life is a cabaret, old chum. (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Check out the interview with NYRB Editorial Director, Edwin Frank, in this edition.
Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel (NYRB, 2016). 978-1590179673, 270pp, paperback.