Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929) translated from the German by Basil Creighton (1931) with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo (2016) NYRB Classics (2016) 270 pp
My knowledge of Grand Hotel came solely from Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment. Near the beginning of that film, Jack Lemmon’s protagonist C.C. Baxter goes home alone after work and sits down to unwind with dinner and a movie. The movie the television promises is Edmund Golding’s 1932 film Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore, and Baxter settles contentedly into his chair. This seems to be the first good thing to happen to him all day. He never does get to watch the film, though, because it’s starting time is delayed again and again by commercials. That’s all I knew of the 1932 film, let alone Baum’s original novel upon which the film was based. Now that I’ve read the novel, though, which has just been published by NYRB Classics, I can see that Wilder was not simply referring to a favorite film. Grand Hotel is an excellent reference to make in The Apartment, and not just because they share titles based on dwellings. Baum’s Grand Hotel is an exceptional explorations of severe loneliness and lack of fulfillment, in which suicide rears its ugly potential in a comic set-piece. It’s easy to see why Baxter would find solace in such a drama.
The Grand Hotel from the title is the most expensive hotel in Berlin in the 1920s. Here people come and go, barely leaving a trace before someone else comes and occupies the very bed recently abandoned, as in life Baum suggests. Here people are lonely despite being surrounded by crowds. Take, for example, the damaged veteran Dr. Otternschlag:
Whatever he took up turned to dust. The world was a crumbling affair not to be grasped or held. You fell from emptiness to emptiness. You carried about a sack of darkness inside you. Doctor Otternschlag lived in the uttermost loneliness — although the earth is full of people like him . . .
Dr. Otternschlag lives at the Grand Hotel, though he keeps his bags packed, figuring his exit could happen any day. He’s not the only lonely soul in the hotel. There’s also disaffected but still searching Kringelein. Kringelein is not wealthy, but he recently discovered he is about to die. His boss is due to visit the Grand Hotel, so Kringelein decides to use his money to live as his superior does. Only, it’s not quite as wonderful as he’d hoped, and Dr. Otternschlag is there to help with the disillusionment:
“But,” [Kringelein] went on, “where is real life? I have not come on it yet. I have been to a casino, and here I am sitting in the most expensive hotel, but all the time I know it isn’t the real thing. All the time I have a suspicion that real, genuine actual life is going on somewhere else and is something quite different. When you don’t belong to it it’s not at all so easy to get into it, if you see what I mean?”
“Yes, but what’s your notion of life?” replied Doctor Otternschlag. “Does live even exist as you imagine it? The real thing is always going on somewhere else. When you’re young you think it will come later. Later on you think it was earlier. When you are here, you think it is there — in India, in America, on Popocatepetl or somewhere. But when you are there, you find that life has doubled back and is quietly waiting here, here in the very place you ran away from. It is the same with life as it is with the butterfly collector and the swallowtail. As you see it flying away, it is wonderful. But as soon as it is caught, the colors are gone and the wings bashed.”
Kringelein’s boss is the General Director Preysing, and he has his own issues as he visits the hotel during a week of increasingly pessimistic business meetings. Each of these characters eventually mixes with another group of seemingly disparate characters: the aging dancer Grusinskaya, who is on the verge of a breakdown before she is “saved” by Baron Gaigern, a formerly wealthy man who is now rather kind-hearted jewel thief. When Grusinskaya discovers him in her room, he claims this is the not the first time he’s been in her room: he is an ardent fan. He’s in love with her. And Gaigern himself begins to believe this.
But all this kind-heartedness on the surface of the novel itself frequently blows away, and we see that it covered darkness and dread and even brutality and death, a mode of tonal shift used to great effect by Wes Anderson in his own homage, the 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Grand Hotel is a dark and yet delightful book. It questions our ability to find meaning in life, all the while celebrating the strange joys we find as we phase in and, eventually, out of space and time.