Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum
Doubleday Press, 302 pages.

Long out of print (even the reprint is out of print), Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel is mostly forgotten except to librarians, famed only to lovers of old films (two versions were made) and musicals (a Tommy Tune directed version swept Broadway in 1989). The novel itself seems to have been swept from our cultural memory and this is unfortunate: it remains a tightly conceived story of six disparate characters and the way their fates intertwine over the course of two days at the eponymous hotel. Both story and prose (translated by Basil Creighton) survive the ages and in some cases remain surprisingly relevant - most especially in the story of Preysing, the manager of a company, who is faced with the decision of whether or not to succumb to dishonest business practices just to make a buck.

The other narrative threads remain undated too: the secretary Flammschen could be any modern girl on the move while Baron Gaigern, the charming rogue of a thief, somehow manages to represent the American dream: no matter how bad things get, he remains optimistic, convinced that something better will come along. Mixed up with these two is the novel's heart, Otto Kringelien, the dying bookkeeper who cashes in his life savings and tries to live all the life he's never lived. There's also a morphine-riddled doctor and a fabled ballerina in the mix, but it's Preysing, Flammschen, Gaigern and Kringelein who dominate the narrative. They all exist in Berlin, 1929 but they might as well be living in Anytown, Today and for this reason Grand Hotel deserves to be rediscovered.

Count yourself lucky if you read the book without ever having seen either of the films (Grand Hotel, A Week-end at the Waldorf) or the musical; the narrative will be fresh and rewarding as it was for readers back in the 20s. Being a novel, it goes into far more psychological depth and is a great deal more risque - when Flammschen flees from Preysing's room, for instance, she is stark naked, which both clearly indicates her close call with prostitution and represents a rebirth: like a baby she emerges naked and (quite literally) crying and later decides to change the direction of her life. Kringelein also becomes far more complex: both the musical and the films eliminate the fact that his illness has led him to abandon a shrewish wife. And yet despite the fact that he loathes her, he approaches Preysing (his employer) to fight to ensure she is taken care of in his absence, all of which sets the scene for the novel's climactic events.

Elements of Grand Hotel have been mimicked and copied for decades - pretty much anytime you have multiple interweaving storylines you're in Grand Hotel territory - but there's something charming about returning to the original. Baum wasn't the first author to throw several narratives into one (think Les Miserables, for instance) but she does keep the story fairly constrained, focusing the action over a period of 48 hours and keeping most of it inside the hotel. As she herself states:
                 "The events that happen in a big hotel do not constitute entire human destinies complete
                   and rounded off. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces." (299)

She was not concerned with the epic narrative but rather took part of that literary movement devoted to telling only a part of a person's life and using that to elucidate the whole. The characters are transient and pass through both the hotel and the book, leaving us in the same position as the hotel staff: watching people come and go, never quite knowing what happens to anyone when they leave. It's entirely appropriate, then, that the fates of the characters (those who live anyway) are left entirely unknown: reading the novel is like working for a few days at the hotel itself with Vicki Baum doubling as the concierge who lets you poke around in everyone's rooms. 

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