Last semester, when I worked with a World War II history class, I quickly learned how little the students knew about the interwar period in Germany. As far as they knew, it was World War I, Treaty of Versailles, Hitler, World War II. A few knew about the Weimar period, but no one had a really good idea of ordinary life at the time. Even though the professor frowned on fiction, I wish I could have snuck the students a few novels to help them understand. Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum (translated by Basil Creighton), would be another terrific entry in my fictional arsenal. Grand Hotel offers linked portraits of five visitors to the Grand Hotel in Berlin in the late 1920s. Each struggles with their past lives and their hopes for and worries about the future. Through them, we get a cross section of German society, examined from a deeply human and apolitical perspective.
The novel opens and closes with the hotel staff. The staff do their utmost to cater to the whims and needs of their guests, even though they themselves have their own worries. They introduce us to our main cast of characters. Baron Gaigern is a well-liked but slightly mysterious man. Doctor Otternschlag is a wounded veteran who is sinking into depression. The ballerina Grusinskaya still works hard even though her glory days are well behind her. Herr Preysing is in the hotel to secure a deal that might save his business. And Herr Kringelein is at the Grand Hotel to seize the day for once because his doctors have told him he only has a few weeks to live.
The omniscient narrator drifts from character to character as they meet and part and get tangled up in their own concerns. We learn why the mysterious Baron is really in the hotel and watch Kringelein work out what living really means. There is no overarching plot, rather:
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…Much that looks like Chance is after all really the Law of Cause and Effect. And much that goes on behind Life’s doors is not fixed like the pillars of a building nor pre-conceived like the structure of a symphony, nor calculable like the orbits of the stars. (n.p*)
By looking at the characters and their actions this way, the narrator can present the highs and lows of human emotions, especially through Gruskinskaya and Kringelein. We also get to see characters get tangled up in their own plots and face the consequences.
Grand Hotel is not allegorical by any means; it is far too human for that. But I did wonder if the names of the characters were little puns. I’m not a native German speaker, but some of the names sent me to Google Translate to confirm if the names really were sparking memories from my mostly formant German vocabulary. Kringelein’s name, for example, might mean “little squiggles.” Otternschlag combines a word for rack and ruin with hit. Gaigern’s name sounds a lot like the word for vulture (even though it’s closer to violinist). I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely. Still, it was fun to try spotting puns.
Linked narratives are hard to pull off. Authors have to be careful that one character or plot is not more interesting than the others. Pacing is critical, so that we don’t linger too long on one thing and have to backtrack in time to catch up the other plots. Baum expertly balances all of these concerns in Grand Hotel. She’s so good, I wonder why we haven’t heard more of her. Grand Hotel, published in 1929, was made into a major film in 1932 with Greta Garbo and two Barrymores.
I’m very glad the New York Review of Books resurrected this book. As I read it, I could see the action play out in my mind’s eye. I felt like I was in the hotel, in Berlin, in the late 1920s. The characters were so well drawn that I could see them, too. I hope the NYBR or another press republishes Baum’s other books, because I want more.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 June 2016.
* Quote is from the New York Review of Books Press advanced readers’ copy.