Page and Screen: ‘Grand Hotel’ by Vicki Baum
Movie enthusiasts might know Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel Grand Hotel as the source material for the classic film of the same name. Released in 1932 and directed by Edmund Golding, it features greats like Greta Garbo, the Barrymore brothers, and Wallace Beery while often being remembered as Joan Crawford’s breakthrough role. If you loved the movie, or at least had heard about it and were curious enough to look for the book, finding it was somewhat difficult for many years. This summer, however, NYRB published a new edition translated from the original German by Basil Creighton (also known for bringing Hesse’s Steppenwolf into English) and with an introduction from Noah Isenberg, whose book on Weimar cinema demonstrates his expert knowledge of Grand Hotel‘s context.
There are many movies based on books; not all are worth a casual reader’s time. Grand Hotel is one that not only stands on its own merits and is culturally interesting in its own right but also lends a bit of insight into the film. Like the movie, the book features an ensemble cast of characters with well-defined motivations who begin the novel as strangers but soon feature prominently in one another’s lives. The balance between characters and transitions between perspectives are generally flawless; while a few sections run overlong, Baum’s sense of timing feels smooth and natural. These characters develop in interesting ways over the course of only a few days and nights, and it is these changes that draw readers into each personal drama. Whether it’s watching a bland bureaucrat become truly corrupt or seeing people who had been mere performers in their own lives discover genuine feelings, it’s hard to resist being pulled into the separate stories as they become tightly linked.
These characters are, of course, living in Germany just before the rise of the Nazi party. Neither they nor the author could’ve known what would happen to the country (and the world) soon after the events of the novel, and this element of the book–its existence as a sort of cultural time capsule–makes it even more fascinating. Grand Hotel offers a peek at the growing class resentment bubbling beneath the surface of polite German society in the form of a lovable underdog who spends his final days living big, and this awareness of social stratification is explicitly referenced at several other points as well. A character who is a part time typist, part time nude model, part time concubine (partly out of financial necessity and partly out of a desire for new frocks) plays upon social anxieties about the New Woman without becoming a morality play. The perspectives of the hotel workers pepper the narrative, offering a behind the scenes look at the banal day-to-day operations that make it possible for the wealthy playboys to dance to jazz and drink Louisiana Flips and humanizing figures often relegated to the background or treated as human props.
Baum also captures the strange liminality of Weimar milieu through fascinating snapshots of transition and artful tonal shifts. People get stuck between coming and going, and the novel stops to notice when the music has stopped and not yet started again. The old high-class entertainments like ballet are being supplanted by lowbrow pursuits like boxing; those who try to cling to the past find the world they knew is slipping away, but people immersed in this new culture are unfulfilled, lonely in a crowd, and caught between a past that’s not quite gone and a future that has not yet arrived. At The Grand Hotel, the present is an uncomfortable wait in the lobby as the revolving door send people to unknown destinations and brings in new customers from parts equally unknown. There’s always a feeling that “the real thing” is happening somewhere else, or has already happened, or is yet to come. Knowing, as a reader, exactly what is to come for Germany makes this tension even more striking and uncomfortable.
The novel isn’t all uneasy modernity and meditations on mortality, though. The novel’s darkness rests beneath witty banter between hotel guests, charming vignettes, and dashes of light humor. There are passages full of adventure that marvel at the novelties of the age, like airplane flight and the spectacle of flashing neon. While Baum ultimately ends her book with a reminder that even the honeymoon couple faces “an abyss of loneliness,” the moments of meaningful connection between characters and wonder at the small joys in life prevent it from being a dreary read. Playful enough to be fun while serious enough to have substance, Grand Hotel is both an excellent example of fiction from its own time and a timeless classic.
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo, introduction by Noah Isenberg (NYRB Classics | 9781590179673 | June 7, 2016)