Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

“It is an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving door the same as when he came in.”

Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is set in 1920s Berlin and portrays a varied cast of characters who take rooms, for a range of reasons, at the best hotel in town. The first notable guest is Kringelein, a middle-aged, dying bookkeeper whose illness has liberated him from a mediocre life of servitude. After receiving a diagnosis, he leaves his home town of Fredersdorf and heads to the Grand Hotel in Berlin, longing to experience the lifestyle enjoyed by his employer, company director, Preysing. Taking all the money he can gather, Kringelein intends to live a life of luxury for a few months and live as he imagines Preysing, a man about the same age, lives. Initially given one of the hotel’s worst rooms thanks to the snobbishness of the staff, Kringelein pitches a fit until he gets the sort of room he thinks Preysing would enjoy. Ironically Preysing also comes to stay at the hotel, and he balks at the extravagance of his room. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Preysing, who is not as affluent as he appears, is burdened with horrendous financial concerns.

Kringelein, “spending a month’s salary in two days,” strikes up an unlikely relationship with a fellow guest, the solitary, morphine addicted Doctor Otternschlag who guesses that Kringelein “wanted to seize one hour of crowded life before he died.” Dr Otternschlag, “a fossilized image of Loneliness and Death,” whose horribly disfigured face is a “Souvenir from Flanders,” sits in the lounge reading newspapers and asking daily for a letter which never arrives.

grand hotel

Another guest at the hotel is professional thief, Baron Gaigern, a very good-looking, charming man who lives lightly but expensively.

Gaigern was not a man of honor. He had stolen and swindled before now. And yet he was not a criminal, for the better instincts of his nature and upbringing too often made havoc of his evil designs. He was a dilettante amongst rogues.

It’s no accident that Gaigern is staying at the Grand Hotel. He’s not there for pleasure-he’s there for work, and it’s a job that causes him to cause between the two sides of his nature: self-interest or gallantry.

Another important guest is aging Russian dancer Grusinskaya who is accompanied by a coterie of faithful professionals who’ve sacrificed their lives to make hers easier. She possesses a valuable pearl necklace which she wears for every performance but now believes it brings bad luck. She’s already had plastic surgery, and is terrified of aging. Here she is looking at her reflection:

Grusinskaya fixed her eyes on her face as though on the face of an enemy. With horror she saw the telltale years, the wrinkles, the flabbiness, the fatigue, the withering; her temples were smooth no longer, the corners of her mouth were disfigured, her eyelids, under the blue makeup, were as creased as crumpled tissue paper.

In this novel, the guests represent a microcosm of Weimar Berlin society, and are all rather sad human beings. The war is in the not-so-distant past, and financial instability is glaringly present. Both Baron Gaigern and the doctor are veterans of WWI, but somehow the Baron remains a happy-go-lucky fellow, while the doctor is a shell of a man.

Since the focus is life in the hotel with its various comings and goings, Grand Hotel is not a traditional novel, but more a series of connected scenes as the guests meet and collide. There’s always a feel of the throw of the dice with a novel such as this; there’s no cohesive narrative which details the prior lives of our characters, but rather this is a group of diverse men and women thrown together by chance in a particular place, at a particular time. Each of the guests possesses some salient, unique, admirable, and achingly human quality: Grusinskaya possesses talent, Gaigern possesses a love of life, Kringelein possesses the will to pack a lifetime of living into a few weeks, and Preysing adores his family. All of these qualities are somehow or another challenged as the characters mingle in the hotel. The story dipped and lost its pace at a couple of points, but it’s well worth catching for the way the author bounces her characters off of one another, throwing them onto new pathways.

On a final note, while chewing over the idea that novels set in hotels capitalise on the idea that various types, who would not normally co-mingle. are thrown together, I began to count other, similar, scenarios: cruise ships, shipwrecks, people trapped by the elements, the work place.  Any others?

Here’s another review from The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Review copy.

Translated by Basil Creighton. Revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.

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34 Comments

Filed under Baum Vicki, Fiction

34 responses to “Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

  1. Army, Navy, Air Force, Insane Asylums, TB Sanatoria, Monasteries, Convents, Boarding Schools for a start.

  2. Spot on, Gert!
    I love these ‘hotel’ novels: I like Anita Brokkner’s Hotel du Lac; The Little Hotel by Christina Stead, and there’s a short story In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield which is superb.

  3. I really want to read this novel – both the era and the setting sound fascinating. Even though it was a little later, I couldn’t help but think of Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains as I was reading your review. I loved that novel so there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy this too.

    Another addition to your list: hospital wards and waiting rooms.

  4. Zoos if you’re prepared to include the higher animals.

  5. The issue with this kind of plotless book is that it relies on superb characterisation to make it work. Sounds like Baum has succeeded where lesser skilled people would have given you merely caricatures.

  6. I would add schools to your list. Hotels do lend themselves to drama – in movies too

  7. Thanks so much for linking my review!

  8. Looking forward to reading this, NYRB have such a great track record…

  9. Great commentary on this book Guy.

    Stories where incongruous characters are thrown together never cease to fascinate. I would add trains to the list of such settings.

  10. Jonathan

    I’ve seen a few reviews of this book and it certainly appeals to me as I share your interest in novels set in hotels, boarding houses, hospitals etc. I haven’t seen the film, have you?

    I’m surprised by the lack of novels set in the workplace as I would have thought it would be a subject rich with humour, pathos, intrigue etc. If only a modern day writer with the literary powers of Proust would turn their attention to the modern workplace.

    • Jeff

      Aye, the realms of the blogger who does a reveal into their profession and then gets sacked once identified!

    • I haven’t seen the film.
      For workplace books, I recommend Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

    • There’s Company by Max Barry. Hilarious and spot on. (And also Syrup and Jennifer Government)
      There’s also 99 francs by Frédéric Beigbeder and Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan.

  11. Jeff

    The setting of German inter-war personal finance at the top is unusual. Behind-the-scenes of a George Grosz painting. I like the way that loss, always a great theme, is used with ‘having’. And status. I like your portrayal of this. Sounds worth a browse when encountered.

  12. I have this and do want to read it, though it’s nice to be warned that it can be a little unstrucutred in places. It sounds possibly a little snobbish, as apart from his being a gentleman I can’t see any sense in which Gaigern isn’t a criminal.

    • Well he comes across as a bon vivant, very kind and considerate of others. I saw him as a Raffles type figure. There’s also the idea that post WWI Germany has seen some sort of leveling as one of the hotel employees has a title.

  13. This sounds really interesting. Like you I think there is something fascinating about a group of people who wouldn’t be thrown together live life at close quarters and of course a great setting for a bit of people watching!

  14. I read and reviewed it this during GLM a couple of years ago and really liked it. For some reason I found it more cohesive than you did.
    I love these stories in closed settings.

  15. Just picked this up by chance in a small indie store! Fits in well with my current investigation of G. Grosz. 😃

  16. I really enjoyed this one and your review of it.

    PS: Other places like this? Hospitals. Train carriages.

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