Vicki Baum’s classic international bestseller Grand Hotel: a lucid, affectionate depiction of a society in crisis

The Vienna-born novelist Vicki Baum made history with her novel Grand Hotel, published under the title Menschen im Hotel in 1929. Her work ethic, her curiosity and her openness towards things new and modern were contributing factors in her rise to literary stardom during the years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Her original take on the “hotel novel” genre was a huge hit and the basis for numerous theater and screen adaptations.

The most famous of these, the 1932 Hollywood film Grand Hotel, dramatically heralded the era of the all-star ensemble cast and cemented Greta Garbo’s image as an unapproachable diva. Now that the literary original is available in a revised English translation, readers can savor its clever structure and the sensitive characterization.

grand hotel
Vicki Baum Grand Hotel (Trans. Basil Creighton; rev. Margot Bettauer Dembo); New York Review of Books Classic, 2016; 270 pp; €10.46 (paperback) // Cover courtesy of publisher

The novel is narrated in a rhythmical and atmospheric way. Characters and setting form a subtly interwoven whole; the combination of interiors, music, dialogue and urban setting reminds us at every turn that this story is about a battle for resources, reminiscent of Émile Zola. Grand Hotel vividly portrays the creative, liberal but highly vulnerable society of the Weimar Republic, marked by Germany’s trauma of military defeat and the escalation of social conflict.

The story opens with a motley cast of characters housed in the most expensive hotel in Berlin. In one way or another, all have lost out during the Roaring 20s but are still yearning for freedom, while the shell-shocked World War I veteran Dr. Otternschlag coldly observes the individual struggles.

With only half of his face intact, Otternschlag serves as a Janus figure, who sees through the pretensions of society only to find history repeating itself.

Life’s a Lobby

The impoverished aristocracy is represented by Baron Gaigern, who struggles to clear his debts by spectacular but ultimately unsuccessful schemes of pilfery: In the end, his innate kindness and sense of honor get in his way.

Plotting for Grusinskaya’s pearls, he is instead bewitched and touched by the depressive prima ballerina, and together they share a last night of passion – the novel’s moving climax.

Comic provincial characters provide a counterpoint to the melodrama: General Manager Preysing, bumbling but ambitious both in business and in love, ends up in jail. Kringelein, his bookkeeper, responds to a terminal illness diagnosis by breaking out of his humdrum existence, squandering his life savings on a spree of jet-setting hedonism at the Grand Hotel, and with nothing to lose, delivers a rousing socialist diatribe to his former employer.

Kringelein also discovers a soulmate in the young secretary Flämmchen, who embodies the urbane “new woman,” independent yet unscrupulous when it comes to realizing her sexual capital: In an age of economic uncertainty, she knows her worth. The end of the novel offers the hope that love of all kinds is not the preserve of the rich and glamorous but is within the reach of ordinary people.

This newly-revised translation is excellent, enhanced by Noah Isenberg’s helpful introduction, which draws attention to Baum’s under-explored agenda of social criticism. The omitted original subtitle leaves no doubt as to the novelist’s intentions: Ein Kolportageroman mit Hintergründen, translatable as “a pastiche novel with a hidden agenda.”  Just be aware of one misleading anachronism – the claim that the novel refers to the financial crisis of 1929, which actually followed its publication. In Germany, as in Austria, the Great Inflation of 1922–1923 was disaster enough.

Today, Grand Hotel feels as timely as ever, its characters caught in the grinding wheels of circumstance and social tension; a bestseller during the Great Depression, the sense of dislocation is equally familiar in our world of economic upheaval and rapid change.