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