Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

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The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. 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 carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these characters as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here, as has Emma here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

62 thoughts on “Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

  1. naomifrisby

    I started reading your review thinking this wasn’t for me and ended it thinking I had to read it – nice work, Jacqui! I love the quotations you’ve selected and the Baron sounds so much fun.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent news – so glad to hear it takes your fancy, madame bibi. I think you should treat yourself to a copy, especially seeing as August is women in translation month. It’s released in the UK this week – Thursday, I think. :)

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I read Grand Hotel way back in the mists of time when I was in my teens and although the detail now escapes me I do remember loving it and retaining a liking for this kind of premise which, as you say, offers a microcosm of life. Thanks for the nostalgia!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Oh how lovely, I’m glad to hear my post revived a few happy memories for you. It’s such a great premise – I just love novels set in hotels. The tone is very different here, but I couldn’t help thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, one of my favourites from last year.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, interesting. I’ve never read Perec although his name crops up every now and again across some of the blogs I follow. Will take a look. Thanks, Susan.

          Reply
  3. Lady Fancifull

    A brilliant review. I know the film, a wonderful piece,full of old star Hollywood froth, campery and glamour, with lots of mannered, bravura acting (it works, in the main). I adore John Barrymore. Now I must read this, and hope you might want to see it.It pops up late at night from time to time when there are b+w or old Hollywood classic series.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Lady F! I’m going to have to get hold of a copy of the film asap now that my review has gone live. It sounds absolutely glorious, full of stellar performances no doubt, and just the thing for a dull Sunday afternoon. I would definitely recommend the novel which I loved for its cast of wonderful characters and mix of different tones. It’s quite dark at times — more so than I had expected at the outset — so I wonder how the film will compare.

      Reply
  4. Séamus Duggan

    This all sounds very familiar in some deep echo chamber so I’m pretty sure I must have seen the film at some stage (Maybe I even read the book..). It sounds like a lot of fun and I do rather like Weimar Berlin as a setting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very possibly! I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed to avoid coming into contact with the film for so many years. Will have to remedy that asap. While the Berlin setting doesn’t play a huge role in the plot, it is very much there as a backdrop to the characters and their backstories. Doctor Otternschlag, for instance, who has been left embittered and cynical following his experiences in the war. Earlier this year I read Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, which was stronger on the atmosphere of Weimar Berlin; nevertheless, the Baum turned out to be a very interesting companion piece to Mr Norris. The political and cultural context plays an important role, I think.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui! I finished this at the weekend and absolutely loved it – one of my books of the year, I suspect, though my review won’t be up for a while as it’s for SNB. I thought she wrote brilliantly, holding the strings of her plot together wonderfully. Not sure if I want to see the film, TBH – if you watch it, let us know what you think!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I shall look forward to reading your review! Yes, a wonderful book, very carefully constructed such that each of the key players has a couple of turns in the spotlight. I loved the way they came into contact with one another in various ways throughout the course of the story. A bravura performance all round. Surprisingly dark at times too, especially towards the end. I liked the mix of light and shade in this one, it made it feel more true to life.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    This is a work that I have heard a lot about over the years.

    Stories centering on a location, such as a Hotel, with lots of characters interacting can be so good. From what I understand this book helped set the template for them.

    As you describe them the themes also sound very interesting and true to life. Interactions, some random ones, can make such a difference in life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it feels like a classic set-up so I can completely understand why it was such a success at the time of its original publication. It’s a great story, so cleverly put together to highlight the significance of these chance encounters. I just loved it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I had to buy two new bookshelves earlier this year as the number of books in the living room was spiraling out of control even with double stacking. When the time comes, I doubt you’ll regret getting hold of this one, Ali. It’s just the most engaging story – right up your street, I’d say.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love the cover too, Stu. It’s by George Grosz: Street in Berlin. Just right for this novel with its Weimar-era setting. The hotel is the perfect environment for this type of story. It’s a great book, so nice to see it as part of the NYRB collection.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Don’t they just. I seem to hit it off with so many of their books. Whoever makes their selections is doing a very good job indeed. They always seem to find such interesting works, very diverse in terms of style, tone and subject matter.

          Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I love the cover too. The artwork must come from a Weimar artist, either Georg Grosz or Otto Dix. Does it credit the artist? Very nice books these NYRB paperbacks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fabulous isn’t it? You’re right on the money with George Grosz. He’s credited on the back cover, and the name of the work is Street in Berlin. As per usual with NYRB, the book is beautifully produced – a pleasure to hold in the hand and read.

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I read it during an earl German Literature Month and remember liking it a lot. She was an interesting woman. I’ve got her biography and need to read it some day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I’m glad you liked it too. I was most taken with this one, I must admit. The characters were so well drawn, and I loved the way the storyline brought them together at various points.

      It does sound as though Baum had an interesting life. That’s one of the things I love about the NYRB editions, the introductions are always pretty good. Would love to hear your thoughts on her bio as and when you get around to it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Let me know what you think of it – I’ll be interested to hear. Must try to get hold of a copy of it myself. I’m hoping it’s available from the dvd rental service I tend to use…

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    Yours is the second review I’ve read of this and its just reinforced that I really should get to read it. Is it based on an actual hotel out of interest?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great – such an engaging read, just what I was looking for when I picked it up. I don’t know if it was based on a specific hotel, but I’m sure Baum took inspiration from various real-life sources. Several of the characters were inspired by people she encountered during her youth. The novel has that feel in many respects, a certain sense of authenticity and attention to detail.

      Reply
  10. FictionFan

    It feels vaguely familiar so I reckon I must have seen the film way back in the dim mists of time. The book sounds great – I always enjoy the idea of transient random strangers in hotels or on trains, and how they impact on each other’s lives.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Quite possibly! In fact, I’m wondering how I’ve managed to survive for so long without having come into contact with it myself. The premise is terrific, just perfect for the chance encounters between these unlikely bedfellows. (As you say, train journeys offer another opportunity for this sort of thing.) I tend to think that the success of this type of novel rests very heavily on the strength of both the characterisation and the scenarios the author creates around them. Happily, in this case, Baum delivers on both fronts.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great book, very charming in many ways. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (a film I loved!) is a good reference point. In fact, it gets a mention in Noah Isenberg’s intro to the NYRB edition of Grand Hotel. There is something endlessly fascinating about the inner worlds of these plush European Hotels of the 1920s and ’30s – at least that’s how it appears to me.

      Reply
  11. Poppy Peacock

    Superb review – already had this on the radar & now actively pursuing acquiring it as it sounds a fab read… I took a peek on YouTube and the movie is on there… looks ideal for a rainy afternoon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Poppy. It’s a fab book, and I’m fairly confident you’d enjoy it. Baum has constructed her story so well, moving relatively seamlessly from one chance encounter to another over the course of the novel. It’s a delight to read. Quite dark at times, more so than I had expected at the outset, but that’s no bad thing.

      Thanks also for the link to the film. That’s great! I’ll be bookmarking it for future reference. As you say, it looks perfect for a rainy afternoon. (I could gave done with it yesterday as it was absolutely tipping it down over here. :))

      Reply
  12. 1streading

    i liked the sound of this when In read Melissa’s review, and even moreso now, though I was slightly put off when I came across a ‘sequel’ (Berlin Hotel) in a charity shop.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She wrote a whole bunch of novels — two of which were also set in hotels, Hotel Shanghai and Hotel Berlin — but Grand was her most successful by quite a stretch. She wrote Hotel Berlin in 1943 so maybe it was a sequel of sorts?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Melissa. I loved the way Baum managed to weave everything together to create this engaging ensemble piece. The Baron was my favourite character, such a lovable rouge.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear you liked it too, Mel. Did you review it by any chance? I’ll drop by to take a look. The film does sound excellent, and I can just picture Garbo as Grusinskaya. Must get around to watching it soon.

      Reply
  13. Max Cairnduff

    I have this, and actually started it a while back but work interfered and I had to abandon it rather quickly. It sounds marvellous, as it did when Guy reviewed it. There’s something about these hotel/sanatorium settings isn’t there? Forcing people together who would otherwise never mix.

    Anyway, lovely review and a reminder to put it back on my reading pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I’m really pleased to hear you have a copy of this as I think you’ll take to it pretty well. I read it over the course of a couple of days after a long and stressful week and it was just what I needed at the time, a hugely entertaining romp with some nice touches of darkness thrown in for good measure. The use of light and shade worked very well here, I thought. The setting really makes it, too. Train journeys are another great scenario for this type of story (which I think Guy mentioned in his post).

      When I re-read Guy’s review after I’d posted my own, I noticed that he felt the story dipped in a couple of places. While I can see what he means (I suspect he’s talking about part of Preysing’s storyline here) it didn’t bother me so much and I was very engaged throughout. I’ll be interested to see what you think though. It’s always good to see a different perspective on something.

      Reply
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  17. Jeff

    Found your review linked from heavenali’s. This is one of those books that keeps popping up in the blogosphere, much like Alone in Berlin, and will appeal to anyone interested in 20th century Germany or Europe between the wars. Grand Hotel strikes me as an Agatha Christie novel without the bodies to look forward to – is there a growing sense, then, of wanting to know what’s in store for the hotel’s guests?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks for dropping by! Yes, that’s a pretty good way of visualising this novel. It is a bit like one of those country house mysteries where everyone has a little secret or something they wish to keep hidden from view. Much of the charm of Baum’s story comes from the various interactions between the characters – it’s interesting to watch the various ups and downs unfold as the novel moves towards its conclusion.

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        I’ve been away from blogging quite a bit for quite a while, and haven’t read as much as I’d’ve liked, so your review and Ali’s revives my urge to get back into books again. I shall have to post something about my TBRs – a short, restrained list that Grand Hotel now joins. Thanks for conveying the atmosphere!

        Reply
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  19. Emma

    Great review, Jacqui.
    I read it for German Lit Month after reading Caroline’s review and I liked it a lot.
    Reading you review, I was thinking about Miss Pettigrew and then you mentioned it. There’s something about desperate people who go out of their comfort zone and throw their rules away.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. Oh, I didn’t realise that you had read this one. Maybe it was before I found you on here. I’ll take a look at your blog and add a link to your review. Yes, there’s definitely a touch of Miss Pettigrew about Kringelein, the way he loses his inhibitions by going off on a lark with the Baron. I loved the scene in the tailor’s shop when he was being fitted for some new clothes – what a glorious transformation in both his appearance and his personality.

      Reply
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