Vicki Baum: Grand Hôtel – Menschen im Hotel (1929)

Vicki Baum was an Austrian novelist most famous for her Berlin novel Grand Hôtel aka Menschen im Hotel published in 1929. Although this book made her one of the early bestselling novelists and is still widely read in German it seems a bit difficult to find English copies. But since her far lesser known book Life and Death in Bali has just been reissued I hope that her other books, especially Grand Hôtel, will be republished as well. In any case, it is possible to find used copies. Part of the long-lasting success of the novel comes from the fact that it was made into a movie starring Greta Garbo Grand Hôtel (1932) and later into a German movie Menschen im Hotel (1959) starring Michèle Morgan and Heinz Rühmann. Vicki Baum wrote far over 50 novels, 10 of which have been made into movies.

Grand Hôtel is set in a luxurious hotel in Berlin between the wars. It’s walls shelter a microcosm of German society. The novel draws a panorama of the society and the times, reading it is fascinating and gives a good impression and feel for the time and the people. Vicki Baum includes a wide range of characters, the porter who waits for his wife to give birth to the first child, the aristocratic head porter Rohna, the many drivers and maids as well as some very interesting guests. Including the employees of the hotel gives the book a bit of an upstairs-downstairs feel and permits insight into the lives of the “simple people” who earn just enough not to starve.

The main characters are the guests. Dr. Otternschlag is the first to be introduced and he will also be the one closing this novel as he is almost part of the establishment. He stays here year in and year out, sits in the lobby and does nothing much. Badly wounded in Flanders, half of his face is just a scarred mass with a glass eye, he has lost interest in life. Wherever he goes his little black suitcase travels with him. The suitcase is packed for his final trip. It contains a large amount of morphine vials which he intends to inject should he be finally too disgusted by life. For the time being, he endures living but eases it with a regular nightly shot.

The Russian ballet dancer Grusinskaja is another important character. She is an aging beauty who is less and less successful. Her dancing lacks spirit and the public punishes her by leaving the theater almost before the final curtain. Once the lover of a Russian aristocrat, she is now still admired for her looks but not many fall in love with her. She reminded me of Gloria Swanson in the movie Sunset Boulevard or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The astonishingly handsome Baron von Gaigern is one of the most joyful characters. He is easy-going, always happy, a womanizer and a con artist. Nobody knows that all he has left is his title and that he is without any financial means. He too was in Flanders but apart from a tiny scar on his chin he seems unharmed.

The industrialist Preysing has come to the hotel for an important meeting. If the business men he will meet, will not sign the contract, he is done.

And there is the terminally ill accountant Kringelein, one of the many employees of Preysing.  Kringelein hasn’t done much else than save money all his life. He has never treated himself to anything and now, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has left his wife in some little provincial town and travelled to Berlin to spend all his savings and to finally live.

Flämmchen (little Flame) is Preysing’s temporary secretary. She is very young, as good-looking as Baron von Gaigern, good-natured but without much luck. Because she can’t find work, she started to model and sells her company to business men.

During the course of three days these people meet and interact. Some fall in love, some help each other, one kills one of them and at the end it’s not entirely clear who is a winner and who is a loser.

The character portraits are the strength of this novel. And the variety of themes. I was amazed about the range. It isn’t only about aging, the loss of success and fraud, but it also shows the aftermath of WWI. The war has left its mark on the people, their faces and their souls and changed the society forever. These people are very frivolous and venal. The meaning of life for them equals having a good time. If you want to have a good time you need money. And so another of the central themes is money. There is a whole chapter in which Preysing and his consultant discuss how they want to raise the value of the stocks of Preysing’s factory. What they do to achieve it, sounds so modern.

It’s interesting that the characters can be divided into two diametrically opposed groups. One group embraces life fully and greedily while the other one is weary and suicidally tired of it.

When you read a novel like Grand Hôtel that isn’t only set in the 20s but has been written at the time, you see the whole difference of a historical novel and one that depicts it’s time. Vicki Baum has an insider’s knowledge that is hard to achieve through research. I would really recommend this novel to anyone interested in the era, to those, like me, who love novels set in hotels and to all those who like a character driven story.

I would be very interested to know if anyone has read this one or any of her other novels. The way she described the society of the 20s is a very anthropological one. I’m not surprised, after reading it, that Life and Death in Bali was suggested reading at university in a course on Balinese culture. Our professor said the book was so well written that it was as good as non-fiction in its detailedness and exact observation.

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week III Switzerland and Austria

61 thoughts on “Vicki Baum: Grand Hôtel – Menschen im Hotel (1929)

  1. I loved Arthur Hailey’s Hotel. This book too seems pretty interesting. It’s sad that German literature is not as well known as French or South American literature. I am glad you are hosting this event as I have come to know of some real good books/ authors.

    • Thanks Neer, I’m glad you like the event. I think there is quite a lot of prejudice when it comes to German literature which is due to all sorts of things. People are tire of WWII but those books have a better chnace of being translated or reissued.
      I haven’t read Hailey’s Hotel but will have a look. I really love the setting.

  2. This book sounds interesting, I like books with many characters to explore especially when all are done perfectly. In movies, I like less characters but in book, more is better. Everyone seemed to have problem of their own but somehow connected in a certain way. It kinda reminds me of Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

    • I haven’t read a book with so many interesting and well described charcaters in a while. It’s really much more charcater than story drive although there is a lot happening as well. You just reminded me that I wanted to read Deep River. I can see how there may be a connection. The style will be very different, I suppose.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline! I like the fact that the book focuses on the characters. I also enjoyed reading your thoughs on how Vicki Baum wrote about the era she lived in and how that is very different from someone writing a historical novel. Because you like novels set in hotels, you might like Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’. It is also set in a hotel, but it is more an adventurous romance. I read it first when I was in school, and then later in life I searched for it everywhere but discovered that it was out of print, and then discovered one publisher who had published it. I loved it even more the second time I read it, because it was a treasure lost and found.

    • Thnaks, Vishy and alos for the recommendation. Something similar happened to me once with another book. It’s like finding an old friedn when we can trcak down a book that is out of print.
      She could have written her book mayn different ways but I liked that she focused on the characters.

  4. You’ve jolted a memory of my 17 or 18 year old self standing in some bookstore holding that very edition of “Grand Hotel” and then not buying it because…? Quel regret when, not long afterward, I saw the movie for the first time and felt a sort of perverse desire live inside it. I’m still drawn to grand hotels. I’ll track this down.

    • I think you might also like Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy. Of course, he is the superior writer, from a stylistic point of view. Hotel Savoy is a run down hotel while the rand Hôtel is still in its splendour. She was ceratainly more “risqué” at the time and her character descriptions are great. The way she writes about money is interesting as well. It’s topical.
      Btw I like that cover. I had a hard time choosing one and since it’s out of print I took the one that appealed the most.

  5. Alleluia!! This one is available in French and in paperback. A miracle.

    I want to read it after Hotel Savoy as they have been written at the same time and are set in a hotel.
    It’s going to be interesting to see the contrast between the crowd Roth describes and the one Baum depicts. Or maybe there won’t be so much difference in their state of mind despite the difference in wealth.
    I ordered it.

    • I actually checked that as well and thought it’s surprsing. They are very different. Baum was a huge bestseller she alos lived in Hollywood and is quite an interesting character. I think you will be interested by the financial element. One reason why they are so different is certainly the setting. Baum chose a German setting. The sense of an ending wasn’t the same in Germany and Austria. Clearly the Austrians were mourning the end of an era and that’s captured in Roth. While here it’s party time. Dancing on corpses but still party.

  6. I could swear I heard about Vicki Baum just recently – wasn’t she one of Danielle’s discoveries in her library? This does sound fascinating and I just love those novels that plonk a lot of strangers together and see what happens. Have you read Ali Smith’s Hotel World? Very, very different take on the hotel novel, but clever and poignant.

    • Yes, exactly, Danielle mentioned her. That’s why I decided reading it now. It’s a fascinating concept, stranger meet and all of their lives are changed forever. Quite tragic as well. As fascinating era too. I’ve got the Ali Smith novel after you’ve mentioned it once, I really need to read it.

    • That’s a coincidence. Thanks for the link, Fay. I’m not too surprsied. His letters are very beautiful. He is one of my favourite poets but his prose is not less wonderful.

    • Have a look at the German covers… They are very sober. I like this cover because it’s so typical for its time. I found covers like that at a second hand shop for Agatha Christie novels and the French 60s papaerbacks have similarities. It doesn’t have all that much to do with the content. It’s not a corny book.

    • It’s quite possible, they do republish it. I’m suprised they chose a lesser known work.
      I’m sure you could find it in a library.
      I found it fascinating to see how different the voice is of someone who has experienced the 20s versus those who only did a lot of research. Maybe if you’ve never read a book that’s actually been written during that period you wouldn’t know.

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  9. I love the cover of your copy–even though it is very 1960s-ish! 🙂 I wish now I had managed to read the copy that came my way via my postal reading group. I ran out of time and didn’t want the person waiting for it to have her time with the book shortened. My library has the German edition, but I am sure I can get it via ILL. I like books from this period for exactly the reason you mention–you are getting an actual view of the times and the feel is usually quite different than historical novels. I also like books with large casts of characters when the author presents them all so 3-dimsionally like Baum does! I’m so glad you wrote about this–now I will be looking for a copy as well!

    • It was actually lucky she was part of Lost in the Stacks that made me remember the book. I had bought it such a long time ago and always meant to read it. I expected it to be different but it was very good, I liked it and could imagine you would like it as well. I hope you get to read it.
      I liked this cover as well, btw.

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  11. It’s a fascinating period and setting. My only concern is that it sounds like perhaps a bit too much drama to be entirely credible for one hotel.

    The dichotomy between the two sets of characters is interesting though. Those who love life and those who weary of it.

    Like Danielle I rather like the cover, though I agree it’s rather 1960s-ish. The copy available in the UK has a rather more 1920sesque cover, but not a better one.

    My main concern actually, other than there being maybe a little too much going on, is that the English translation is by one Gaston Baccara who I strongly suspect may be French. Ideally translations should be into the native language of the translator and I wonder if that’s true here.

    • It’s quite a lot of drama but it didn’t feel to overdone. I’m aware this is a biased view as I tend to think these were higly dramatic times. One can read it like an allegory although the dialogue and the small details are very realistic. I’m very curious to see what Emma will say. She has now read Hotel savoy which is superior from a style perspective but she was not to keen on it. I know she got this one and may read it soon.
      Gaston Baccara sounds very French. I know it is generally said that you should translate into your native language but maybe there are levels of proficiency that would allow both. I’m for example thinking of authors who chose to write in foreign languages and the result was excellent. Personally I’m not sure. I have much more of a problem when I notice that my German copies of Russian, Japanese or Chinese novels have been translated either from the English or the French (I found quite a few books like that) . This strikes me as almost dishonest.
      It would be odd but maybe the English was translated from the French?
      I could really imagine she is due for being re-discoeverd and re-translated.
      I just started Bellos book on translation and it’s fascinating.

    • I got my copy of the book at home but it won’t be for this month, The Custom of the Country is a big book and I have the Spark afterwads. (also in English, so slow pace)

      My French copy is translated by Gaston Baccara. So the guy is French but might have an English mother and be bilingual? After a little research, he’s the translator of Wuthering Heights and other Brontë novels.

      I heard than Solaris was translated into English from the French translation, something I don’t understand. I’ve checked several books from different languages in my library and I never found a book not translated from the original language.

  12. Guy’s sold me two books this month, Emma’s sold me Effi Briest and now I fear you’ve sold me this.

    It didn’t sound in Savoy’s territory style-wise, but style isn’t the only measure of a book’s success.

    You could be right about Baccara, in any event I shouldn’t rule him out on pure prejudice. I do share your dislike of double translations. Apparently the translation into English of Marai’s Embers (I think it’s that one) is a double translation and yet good, but generally it seems you’re just getting too distant from the source.

    Tom wrote up a book on translation at A Common Reader recently. It’s an interesting review, though I’ll probably skip that particular book.

    • Crap! I thought I’d managed to sell you Romain Gary this time! 🙂

      I’m going to read the Bellos on translation. I downloaded a sample, it’s not too complicated.

    • Lizzy, no, that’s another one. I thought so too at first. I’ve heard it is quite a good one as well and I want to read it but the setting and the story are different.

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  17. I just found some time to drop by to read your review of this one. Lovely. I like how you’ve distinguished between the two different types of guests at the hotel: those who embrace life to the full and those who are rather weary or tired of life. There’s a nice reversal of fortunes for one or two of the characters as well. I didn’t say much about the time period in my review, but you’re right, it’s an important part of the context – the fallout from WW1 which has affected these characters in contrasting ways.

    I don’t think I’ve ever come across any of Baum’s other books (and this one only came to my attention by way of its inclusion in this year’s NYRB releases). I would be open to reading another at some point, depending on the nature of the book. Hotels make a great setting for this type of story so it was a no-brainer for me.

    • Thanks for reading the review.
      I think it’s excellent. The time period is very important but there’s so much else in this book.
      You need to read Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy. It’s a great companion piece,
      I’ve got her “Bali” book- Liebe und Tod auf Bali. not sure how it’s translated but I know it’s available in English. Many say it’s her best. She lived there. I got it but always forget about it.
      I love hotel settings.

      • No worries. Sorry it’s taken me a few days, but I kept getting distracted by other things. Funnily enough, Roth’s Hotel Savoy is on my Classics Club List. I’d never read him but figured the hotel setting would appeal – great to hear you recommend it too. Probably one for next year as I still need to get hold of a copy.

        I’ll be interested to hear more about Baum’s Bali book as and when. Even if it’s not available in translation, it’s always good to see a review.

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