Translated from the German by Basil Creighton
I would never have heard of, much less read this superb novel had it not been for Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal – whose review sent me scurrying off to buy it. The fact that it has been recently reissued in this gorgeous NYRB edition with this wonderful cover was a bonus.
Grand Hotel is set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail.
Through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel come all kinds; the war damaged, the dying, beautiful ageing ballerina, businessman, thief. The hotel exists to provide the very best of everything for their guests, and yet there is a feeling that like some of its guests, the hotel’s best days are in the past. The porter on the front desk is a count, putting his ancestry behind him to serve the guests of the Grand Hotel.
Doctor Otternshlag, is the first of the hotel residents who we meet, a veteran from the war, half his face destroyed by a shell, he sits in the hotel lounge viewing the same scene as the day before, reading the paper, as does every day. He asks the porter if there are any letters for him, a telegram perhaps or a message, there isn’t – there never is, no matter how many times he asks.
Having just received a fatal medical diagnosis Otto Kringelein has come to the Grand Hotel in order to live – if only for a few days, really live for the first time in his life. An unhappily married bookkeeper from Fredersdorf, Kringelein is about to experience all the good things that have so far passed him by, before it’s too late. Intent on spending his savings, and life insurance, after years of very careful living, Otto has wads of cash in his wallet for the first time. When presenting himself at the hotel on his first day, he looks shabby and ill, and is shown eventually to an inferior room. Quiet, unassuming Otto Kringelein going against the habits of a lifetime, demands a better room, and gets it. A room costing fifty marks a day, with a bathroom he can use whenever he likes.
“Kringelein, obstinate now that he has run amok, insisted that he required a superior and a beautiful and expensive room, at the very least a room like Preysing’s. He seemed to think the name of Preysing was a name to conjure with. He had not yet taken off his overcoat. His trembling hands clutched the old crumbling Fredersdorf sandwiches while he blinked his eyes and demanded an expensive room. He was exhausted and ill and ready to cry. For some weeks past he had begun to cry very easily for physical reasons connected with his health. Suddenly, just as he was about to give in, he won the day. He was given Room No. 70, a first floor suite with a sitting room and bath, fifty marks a day. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘with a bathroom? Does that mean that I can have a bath whenever I like?’ Count Rohna without a tremor said that was so. Kringelein moved in for the second time. “
Kringelein’s boss, company director Herr Preysing comes to the hotel for a vital business meeting, desperate to secure a deal for his family firm which is not doing as well as he pretends. Hoping to secure a merger between his firm and another Berlin firm, the deal hinges on a potential contract with a third Manchester firm. Preysing, who has bullied Kringelein for years doesn’t even recognise his employee at first, so full of his own importance, Kringelein so far outside his radar. Doctor Otternshlag takes pity on Kringelein, briefly extending the hand of friendship, even accompanying him to the ballet, before Kringelein is taken up by a more glamourous seeming figure. Gaigern, handsome, athletic, baron and professional thief, whose accomplice – in the guise of his chauffeur is settled into the servants’ quarters. Gaigern is a man who turns heads, presenting himself as an elegant, wealthy and very correct.
“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. He patted pageboy No. 24 on his sleek head, stretched out his arm, without looking, over to the porter’s table for a handful of letters which he put straight into his pocket, taking out at the same time a pair of buckskin gloves.”
Grusinskaya is a fragile beauty, a famous ballerina fighting a battle with age. Her performances at the nearby theatre each evening playing to greatly reduced audiences, with no call for an encore. Her best days are behind her – and she knows, she’s is tired, the rigours of her art physically exhaust her. Accompanying her is her maid Suzette, to whom Grusinskaya says ‘Leave me alone’ the line which spoken by Greta Garbo became ‘I want to be alone’ in the film adaptation, and her very valuable pearls. Gaigern and his ‘chauffeur’ have their greedy eyes trained on the idea of those pearls. However, with the plans made, it is inevitable that not everything goes quite to plan. Finding out that Kringelein has money, presents him with a tempting alternative to his original purpose.
Meanwhile Preysing finds his head being turned by a young secretary generally known as Flämmchen or Falm the second (Flam the first being her elder sister). A beautiful young girl whose desire is only to make it into the movies somehow, longing for, glamour and the chance to travel. While Preysing is dissembling in business, lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter, Kringelein is starting to live. Spending money on clothes, dancing, gambling attending a boxing match, racing through the streets of Berlin in a car, flying in an aeroplane, he learns about exhilaration. Both he and Herr Preysing will find themselves, and their lives considerably altered by the time they leave the hotel.
The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity. Grand Hotel is a wonderful; immersive novel, which I am delighted to have discovered.