Monday, July 12, 2010

{review} grand hotel

Vicki Baum (1929) Grand Hotel:
Ideas of conventionality were elastic in the Grand Hotel.
I find Vicki Baum's books a bit hit and miss. Some have aged badly. Once in Vienna (1943), for example: total miss (tale of narcissistic overwrought suicidal lovesick junior opera divas who take far too long to meet their Maker). Grand Hotel, though: absolute hit. An astonishing read. Why has this gone out of print in English? Of course, I may be biased by my adoration of the film (Grand Hotel: 1932, starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and two Barrymores), but there is no doubt that Baum brilliantly captures the Weimar 'moment' of the late 1920s.

The copy which I'm reading was translated by Basil Creighton (from Menschen im Hotel [People at a Hotel] - a much better descriptive title) and published in 1930 in London by Gregory Bles. It too suffers in places from the stifling emotional atmosphere familiar from Baum's other novels, but the story-line's relentless progress towards inescapable disaster is so compelling that this book is unputdownable.
"Will you be kind to me?" he asked softly. And as softly with her eyes cast down to the raspberry-coloured carpet, Flämmchen answered: "If it's not forced on me----."
In a cold March week in Berlin in 1929 the lives of a disparate group of painfully lonely people are changed forever during their residence in the 'Grand Hotel'. The action is contemporaneous with a pivotal moment in history, as we learn from the newspapers: "Scandals, panic on the Bourse, colossal fortunes lost"; and the shifting fortunes of the cold world outside are mirrored in the transitions underway with those inside the comfortable hotel.

Will the ageing ballerina Grusinskaya (the role stunning recreated by Greta Garbo) find peace?
The bed was turned down, and a pair of little bedroom slippers were by the bed. They were rather trodden down and shabby - the slippers of a woman who is accustomed to sleep by herself. Gaigern, as he stood by the door, felt a fleeting tenderness of pity at the sight of these little tokens of resignation on the part of a famous and beautiful woman.
It had come to this, she thought. She poured out a cup of tea and took a packet of veronal from the bedside table. She swallowed a tablet, drank some tea, and then took a second. She got up and began to walk rapidly to and fro across the room, four paces this way, four paces that. What is the use of it all? she thought. What is the use of living? What is there to wait for? ...With a rapid gesture she took the bottle of veronal and emptied them all into her tea...
Will the aristocratic thief Baron Gaigern make his fortune and be redeemed by love?
"He's the handsomest man I've ever seen in my life - this Baron," she added in Russian. Her voice as she said it sounded as cold as if she spoke of some object displayed for sale in a saleroom.
Whenever he passed through the Lounge it was as if a window of sunshine were opened in a cold room. He was a marvellous dancer, cool and yet passionate. There were always flowers in his room. He loved them and their scent. When he was alone he stroked and even licked their petals - like an animal. He was quick to follow girls in the street. Sometimes he would merely look at them with pleasure, sometimes he would speak to them, and sometimes he would go home with them or take them to a second-rate hotel. Next morning the Hall Porter would smile, when with a feline and innocent air he made his appearance in the elegant and more or less irreproachable Lounge of the Grand Hotel and asked for his key.
Will Dr Otternschlag, the hideously scarred drug-addicted doctor, the "living suicide", escape the demon that is his eternal loneliness?
No, nothing happens, nothing at all, he muttered. He had once possessed a little Persian cat, called Gurba. Ever since she forsook him for a common street tom he had been obliged to carry on his dialogues with himself.
Will Otto Kringelein, the deathly ill lowly factory book-keeper, have one good time before he dies?
It is not very nice to go to one's grave at forty-six without having lived at all and only been harassed and starved and bullied by Herr P. at the works and by the wife at home.
He sat on the edge of the bed and talked, not like an assistant book-keeper... but like a lover. His secretive, sensitive and timid soul crept out of its cocoon and spread its small new wings.
Will the miserly Herr Generaldirektor Preysing save his Saxonia Cotton Company but lose his soul?
He had never yet committed the least irregularity. Nevertheless, there must have been a bad spot in him somewhere, a minute nucleus of moral disease which was destined to get a hold on him and bring him low. Yes, there must, in spite of all, have been just the merest trace of some inflammation, some microscopic speck on the irreproachable purity of his moral waistcoat. . .
Will the falling angel Fraulein Flämmchen escape a fate worse than death?
"You must tell me, too, what salary you ask," he said in a flattering tone. This time it took Flämmchen even longer to reply. She had to draw up a comprehensive balance sheet. The renunciation of the incipient affair with the handsome Baron figured on it, also Preysing's ponderous fifty years, his fat and his heavy breathing. Then there were one or two little bills, requirements in the way of new underclothing, pretty shoes - the blue ones were nearly done. The small capital that would be necessary to launch her on a career in the films, in revue or elsewhere. Flämmchen made a clear and unsentimental survey of the chances the job offered her. "A thousand marks," she said. It sounded a princely amount, and she was under no illusions as to the sums that were nowadays laid at the feet of pretty girls. "Perhaps a little extra for clothes to travel in," she added... "You want me to look my best, naturally."
"You need no clothes for that. On the contrary," Preysing said with warmth.
The fish out of water, Kringelein - the poor provincial clerk in the unfamiliar rich world of the hotel and the nightlife of Berlin (yes, a bit for Isherwood fans here) - is the main focus of the narrative, much of which we see through his eyes: "...eyes in which was so much yearning expectation, wonder and curiosity. In them was hunger for life, and knowledge of death."

Yes, this is a sad book but it is a wonderful book too. Baum captures the sights, sounds and even scents (she's particularly good on the smell of things) of the transitory inhabitants of that microcosm, the Grand Hotel, and the ephemeral world outside in a Berlin where, too, no one seems to have belonged since the end of the war.
These two had come together from the ends of the world to meet for a few hours in the hotel bed of Room No. 68 where so many had slept before them...
For readers with an eye to history, this book is even more rewarding. As the Baron says, "Nowadays being in Germany is like being in clothes you've grown out of."

Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... instead of the obvious (Isherwood) try something with a feel for European journeys of the era: Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936: made into the 1938 Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes) or Graham Greene's Stamboul Train (1932: also filmed in 1934 as Orient Express). 

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