I have a vague recollection of having read Grand Hotel in 2019. I say vague because I was a very distracted reader that year, it wasn’t a good one personally, and I may have started the novel but kept it aside, which is by no means a reflection on the book (it is brilliant), but rather on my state of mind. Hence, I was happy to see it featured as part of Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 readalong, it gave me the impetus to pick it up again. Long story short, I loved it very much.
In the earlier pages of Grand Hotel, one of the central characters in Baum’s brilliant ensemble cast – the ballet diva Grusinskaya – is in the midst of one of her intense dance performances. Grusinskaya’s halcyon days of fame and adulation seem to be a thing of the past; she is now older when measured against the standards of her profession and yet not an old woman, but she is sharply aware of her star fading and her inability to mesmerize audiences the way she did in her younger days. As her dance performance draws to a close, the applause has dwindled and reduced to mere politeness, the theatre seats are mostly vacant mirroring the emptiness in Grusinskaya’s soul and the series of encores that she was so accustomed to are no longer plentiful. Grusinskaya’s entourage remains fiercely loyal to her despite her waning career because of her frail and tragic personality that stops them from abandoning her.
However, Grusinskaya’s creator, the author Vicki Baum, need not worry about a lukewarm response to her novel; in a virtuosic performance where she displays sheer mastery over characterization, Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, she dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions.
In the book’s opening pages, the lounge of the Grand Hotel becomes a stage for the audience (readers) to whom the various dramatis personae are introduced. We first meet Doctor Otternschlag, all alone and seated in a corner surveying the hectic scene before him, gripped by utter loneliness. Physically and mentally scarred by war (one half of his face is destroyed), Otternschlag often shuffles to the reception desk inquiring for letters addressed to him (mostly none), and the staff put up with this daily façade to humour him. Newspapers fail to assuage his loneliness in those twilight hours and his overall view of life seems to be coloured by despondency.
Shortly, into this lounge enters an elegant, stylishly dressed man, a whiff of the scent of lavender about him. This is none other than Baron Gaigern – handsome, easygoing, and utterly charming. Baron Gaigern exudes an aura of wealth and aristocracy, although the reality, as the reader soon learns, is entirely different. Gaigern is a light-footed thief but has failed to scale the heights of his dubious profession (he does climb the steep hotel walls to slip into Grusinskaya’s room) because of his casual but endearing nature. Gaigern is often short of cash and is now in cohort with a band of petty thieves, who entrust him with the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s pearls.
Next through the revolving doors (a metaphor for something more philosophical later on), the provincial man Kringelein makes an appearance. Attired in clothes that sharply indicate his limited means, Kringelein, an accountant at Saxona Cotton Company, looks incongruous amid the splendour of the hotel. But he has come to Grand Hotel as if on a mission – he demands a room, but based on his appearance the staff put him in one that is downright depressing, and in a fit of tears he throws a tantrum. Kringelein knows that his short-tempered boss Mr Preysing always enjoys a luxurious room in this particular hotel, which is Berlin’s finest and he painstakingly makes it clear that he wants something similar. Kringelein soon gets what he wants but not before Otternschlag watching this spectacle, offers him his equally dingy room. Although his offer is declined, it’s an act of kindness that means the world to Kringelein.
Then there’s Herr Preysing, General Manager of Saxona and Kringelein’s boss who terrorizes his subordinates back home but lacks confidence in handling business matters. Preysing is at the hotel on a tricky mission that involves deft and delicate maneuvering, but this is made all the more challenging by his incompetence and lack of respect from his peers as well as his father-in-law. Saxona is a large company, financially sound but faced with a floundering future, and is looking to acquire a smaller but nimble firm with exciting prospects called Chemnitz. However, with a breakdown in those talks, Preysing is charged with the responsibility of reigniting negotiations; a scenario where he feels completely out of depth. Preysing wishes he was somewhere else, safe in his domestic idyll with his wife Mulle and their daughters, rather than sticking with a difficult situation that only fuels his mounting dread.
Last but not least is Flämmchen, the coolest character in the book and my favourite. Flämmchen is smart and glamorous, armed with an ice-cool attitude and dollops of confidence. We first meet her as a typist hired for Preysing’s work related to the Chemnitz negotiations, but Flämmchen has bigger ambitions. She dreams of making it to the movies, but in the meantime is open to dabbling in an assortment of jobs that will earn her money till she gets her big break. Compared to the rest of the cast, Flämmchen has the smallest role in the novel, but in that short space, she leaves an indelible mark.
That is a brief sketch of the novel’s characters and Baum expertly weaves their storylines together into a rich tapestry that explores a slew of themes – love and friendship, crippling loneliness, suicide, thwarted ambition, failure, dashed hopes, the price of success, the value of life and so on.
Baum’s characters may be flawed but her characterization is flawless. Her creations come from different strata of society, mostly strangers to each other before their stay at the hotel. But once there, chance and circumstance see their lives begin to intertwine in unexpected ways. Despite differences in class and wealth, each is plagued with fear and insecurity that torments them within.
The core cast is looking for answers to some of life’s monumental questions related to love, life, success and money…quintessential and timeless topics that have always mattered to most of humanity. For instance, Grusinskaya has reveled in fame and experienced the intoxication of success, but with the heady days of her career seemingly behind her, she is besieged with dark thoughts. Love and companionship have always eluded her until there comes along her life-altering encounter with Gaigern.
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 sleeping by herself. Gaigern, as he stood by the door, felt a fleeting, tender pity at the sight of these little tokens of resignation on the part of a famous and beautiful woman.
Gaigern with his insouciant personality has always been a ladies’ man having enjoyed his fair share of affairs, but in Grusinskaya he finally experiences the beginning of something more substantial. But Gaigern’s chief problem is a perpetual shortage of cash and barely making ends meet which strongly belies his outer demeanor of elegance and extravagance.
As soon as the charming Baron Gaigern had forsaken the Lounge it became suddenly still, and the illuminated fountain could be heard falling into its Venetian basin with a cool and gentle murmur. The reason was that the Lounge was now empty, the jazz band in the Tearoom had stopped playing, the music in the dining room had not yet begun, and the Viennese Trio in the Winter Garden was taking a break. The sudden stillness was broken only by the agitated and persistent hooting of cars as they passed the hotel entrance and were lost again in the nightlife of the city. Within, however, the Lounge was as still as if Baron Gaigern had taken the music, the noise, and the murmur of voices away with him.
Gaigern is the very personification of Life itself, a symbol of optimism and robust health at least to the beleaguered Kringelein who during that very period is staring down an abyss towards death. Suffering from poor health, the doctors have handed him a poor prognosis, and Kringelein is suddenly gripped by a feverish urgency to live the final days of his life to the fullest. But in what way? Having lived a considerably narrowed provincial existence until now, Kringelein craves adventures and a sense of well-being that only money can buy. The doctor’s morose company at first depresses him, but then he latches on to Gaigern (who has his designs) and is transformed by this odd alliance. While Kringelein desperately hangs on to the last days of his life, the traumatised Doctor Otternschlag often contemplates death. Even the least likeable character of the lot – Preysing – evokes some sympathy from the reader as he struggles in his business dealings, increasingly yearning for success but staring instead at failure.
Grand Hotel sizzles with a vivid sense of place; we are immediately transported to the milieu of 1920s Berlin of which this fashionable hotel forms the primary setting. In the beginning, the hotel itself feels like a place of wonder seen through Kringelein’s eyes…
He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick red carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. Kringelein slid the sole of his boot gingerly over its pile and blinked. The Lounge was brilliantly illuminated and the light was delightfully golden; also there were bright red-shaded lights against the walls and the jets of the fountain in the Venetian basin shone green. A waiter flitted by carrying a silver tray on which were wide shallow glasses with a little dark-gold cognac in each, and ice was floating in the cognac; but why, in Berlin’s best hotel, were the glasses not filled to the brim?
There’s a whiff of nostalgia, a sense of looking through sepia-tinted glasses at a faded past; Baum has brilliantly captured the quiet, understated yet sophisticated mood of a plush hotel, the musicality of its range of sounds and voices with the volume turned down.
Senf, feeling somewhat oppressed, made his way straight across the Lounge, where there was now a good deal of movement. There the music of the jazz band from the Tearoom encountered that of the violins from the Winter Garden, and mingled with the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, the soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving to and fro.
One of my favourite set pieces takes place during afternoon tea at the hotel where the beats of the jazz band unleash a frenzy of dancing notably Charleston and tango; a set piece that also sees some drama brewing between Gaigern, Flämmchen, Kringelein and Preysing. Later on, we are given a whirlwind tour of Berlin’s vibrant nightlife seen through Kringelein’s eyes – a diet of fast cars, gambling clubs, sports arenas and drinking dens.
Like the effect of dappled sunlight with its interplay of light and shadows, Grand Hotel oscillates between moments of light and darkness that filter through the lives of its characters; we see them experience joy and exhilaration, even driven to acts of daredevilry that often alternate with periods of loneliness, depression, and frustration that weigh heavy on their hearts.
The writing in Grand Hotel is marvellous. The text is sprinkled with doses of humour and Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. The language is both tonal and visual – we can hear the tinkling of music and chatter in the tearooms, the sound of polite clapping in a theatre, we can see the blurred landscape through the window of a speeding car like Kringelein and taste iced champagne as he does in a cocktail bar. Baum’s descriptive powers also shine when she is writing about ballet, boxing or business. The set piece describing tense moments of Preysing’s crucial meeting with the Chemnitz owners is as riveting as the live boxing match that Kringelein attends along with Gaigern, the adrenaline coursing through his veins. She also beautifully evokes the atmosphere of jazz and tango teas that so epitomized the life of the jet-set crowd in 1920s Europe. Later some philosophical musings punctuate the text, the most striking one being the hotel’s “revolving doors” that in Doctor Otternschlag’s view serve as a metaphor for life and death.
In a nutshell, the drama that is life is full of its share of ups and downs; a dramatic reversal in fate whether for the good or the bad always a possibility. As the novel concludes, some characters meet a sad end but others gain a new perspective on the way they view the world and also derive joy from new friendships. It is this fusion of sadness and optimism that makes Grand Hotel a novel of pure perfection. I’ll leave you with this quote…
The experiences people have in a large hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, full and completed. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind its doors may be unimportant or remarkable individuals. People on the way up or people on the way down the ladder of life. Prosperity and disaster may be separated by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door turns, and what happens between arrival and departure is not an integral whole. Perhaps there is no such thing as a whole, completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings.
7 thoughts on “Grand Hotel – Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)”
Fascinating, and I love that quote at the end. I know this book as a film Grand Hotel, but now I am curious to read it. Incidentally, I re-watched Kramer’s film Ship of Fools (1965) only two weekends ago and I know it was compared to Grand Hotel as well. It is definitely a genre of a sort now.
Ah, that’s so interesting! It really is a brilliant novel and that quote is lovely isn’t it? There are so many beautiful quotes throughout the book, I had to stop myself from including them all. I’m very keen to watch the film now and also Ship of Fools!
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I thought this was a wonderful book, and it had much more depth than I expected. And yes, the writing is excellent!
I agree, there was something profound about her observations and the way each character viewed the world.
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