Tag Archives: Weimar Berlin

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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Filed under Baum Vicki, Fiction

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner

First the confession: I’d picked Going to the Dogs: The Story of  a Moralist by Erich Kästner as part of my German Literature Reading Month participation. Well that was November and this is December, so forget the reading month. Or not. One of the books I read and thoroughly enjoyed for German Lit Month was Heinrich Mann’s Man of Straw. It’s currently OOP in English and seems sadly neglected, yet after concluding the novel, I cannot but think that this is a seminal novel for its depiction of the militaristic features of Wilhelmine Germany. And that brings me to Going to the Dogs. We’re back in Germany, but it’s a terrible state of affairs. All that discipline and saber-rattling from Man of Straw appears to have disappeared and instead we are presented with the ultra-decadence of Weimar Berlin.

going to the dogsOriginally titled Fabian (after the main character), the book appeared in 1931. My copy is from New York Review Books, and it’s not a new translation. It’s the original translation by Cyrus Brooks, but this edition includes an Epilogue (“rejected by the original publisher“) and the Preface  (added by Kästner for a later edition). There is also an extensive and informative introduction which addresses various interpretations and criticisms at the front of the book by Rodney Livingstone, and for those who don’t want to know how the book ends, I recommend reading the intro after you’ve read the book.  Going to the Dogs is considered one of the key novels from Weimar Berlin, so add it to your reading list if you want to dig around in this period. In spite of the fact that the action takes place in the giddiness of a very decadent society, this is not what I would call a fun or light-hearted read, and that’s due in part to the main character, Fabian who’s often revolted by the society in which he struggles to survive. But there’s a second reason why this novel is a somewhat depressing read, and that’s because we know that Weimar Berlin, in all its frantic, frenetic, tawdry glory is spinning out of control; it’s on it’s last legs and its about to swept away and replaced by Hitler and the Nazis.

The book is set in Berlin in the late 1920s. The intro explains that there were 350,000 unemployed in 1930 Berlin but that zoomed to 650,000 just two years later, and that “one Berliner in four depended on welfare payments.” On to “the elections of September 1930 [when] five and a half million people voted for the NSDAP … making it the second largest party in Prussia.” The tone in Germany was shifting and the “pre-dominant atmosphere was right-wing.” Swastikas are mentioned in the book, and it is clear that society is in a state of chaos, a freefall, and of course, we all know where society landed when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933.

Kästner, who was born in 1899 and died in 1974, managed to live in Nazi Germany in spite of the fact that his books were banned and burned–with the exception of his 1928 novel, Emil and the Detectives. The others were personally consigned to the flames by Goebbels on May 10, 1933. As the introduction explains, there’s a great deal of Kästner in the character of Fabian–although perhaps the creation of Fabian allowed Kästner to survive in an ever-changing Germany. When reading Going to the Dogs, it becomes clear that Fabian isn’t really part of society. He’s an observer–a wounded morally lost observer. The society in which Fabian flounders clearly profits the opportunistic. Count Fabian out on that score. But that said,  Fabian doesn’t particularly condemn Weimar society, but neither does he participate. He watches….

The book begins with 32-year-old Fabian earning 200 marks a month as an advertising copywriter. This is just the latest in a series of jobs, and with rent at 80 marks a month, it’s a marginal, unstable living. At the newspaper office, the political editor , Münzer, arguing that “what we make up is not half as bad as what we leave out,”  believes in fabricating stories to fill up space, and when he invents a story about street fighting in Calcutta with “fourteen dead,” he tells his officemates to “kindly prove” him wrong:

There’s always fighting in Calcutta. Are we to report that a sea-serpent has been sighted in the Pacific? Just remember this: reports that are never proved untrue –or at least for a week, or so–are true.

Not far into the novel, Fabian loses his job, and if things looked bad before, they quickly become hopeless. The streets are full of drifters, hungry unemployed men, prostitutes, and sex-crazed women, and a visit to the unemployment office underscores the destruction and uselessness of societal institutions.

In the midst of Fabian’s bleak despair, the novel contains some very funny scenes which emphasize the feeling that society has gone insane, and in one of the book’s best scenes, Fabian attends a cabaret in which the acts are performed by lunatics. As the acts, managed by a man called Caligula, become more outrageous, the audience grows increasingly out of control until a “lanky ballad-monger” begins catching, by mouth, the lumps of sugar thrown at the stage.

One of the arguments concerning the novel is whether Fabian is a critic of his society or whether he’s a product. I’d argue that he’s both. He attends orgies out of curiosity, turns down an offer to become a male prostitute, constantly fights off sexually rapacious women,  and lives in a state of despair at the state of humankind:

If you are an optimist, you should despair. I am a melancholic, so nothing much can happen to me. I don’t tend towards suicide, for I feel nothing of that urge to action which makes others go on butting their heads against a wall till their heads give way. I look on and wait. I wait for the triumph of decency; when that comes, I can place myself at the world’s disposal. But I wait for it as an unbeliever waits for miracles.

But just as Fabian’s life appears to hit rock bottom, he meets a young woman who has ambitions to become an actress.

My conviction is that there are only two alternatives for humanity in its present state. Either mankind is dissatisfied with its lot, and then we bash each other over the head in order to improve things, or, and this is a purely hypothetical situation, we are content with ourselves and the universe, and then we commit suicide out of sheer boredom. 

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist offers a contrast to Man of Straw. The sane, decent or kind people do not fare well in Fabian’s Berlin, and Fabian, who doesn’t think that anything will change as long as people are “swine” senses another war ahead. Here’s a clip from Fabian’s nightmare:

In front of them towered a machine as vast as Cologne Cathedral. Before it were standing workmen, stripped to the waist. They were armed with shovels, and were shoveling hundreds of thousands of babies into a huge furnace where a red fire was burning.

Uncanny when you think that this was published in 1931.

And now we are again seated in the waiting room, and again its name is Europe.

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Filed under Fiction, Kästner Erich