There’s a lot of insomnia going through the closed double-doors of a sleeping hotel.
Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum 1929 French / English title : Grand Hotel
I know, I know, I’m like two months late for German Literature month but I needed a lot of time to read Grand Hotel in good conditions. I didn’t want to ruin it by reading it a bad time and November was such a rush in the office that any evening was a bad evening to savour this book. I discovered Grand Hotel when Caroline reviewed it and I was immediately drawn to it and I wasn’t disappointed.
Grand Hotel describes a set of characters that stay in the eponymous hotel in Berlin. We’re at the end of the 1920s and Vicki Baum slowly introduces us to a crowd of lost souls. Preysing is here on business. He runs a textile company which is in a tough corner and is in Berlin to negotiate a merger with another company. He comes from the small town of Fredersdorf, just as Kringelein, who actually works for Preysing’s company as an accountant. They move into very different circles and when Preysing meets Kringelein, he seems vaguely familiar but he cannot remember why. Doctor Otternschlag lives in the hotel the whole year-round. He lingers in the salons, regularly asks the reception for messages that never come. He was badly wounded during WWI and never recovered physically and mentally from his years on the front. His face is totally ruined on one side and he doesn’t live but barely survives. I wondered what kept him alive. Curiosity? The Grousinskaja is an aging Russian ballet dancer, a star who has lost her shine. She still performs but her public is rare and she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she needs to retire before it’s too late. Baron von Gaigern is a ruined aristocrat who turned into a a con-artist to find money to keep his standard of living. He’s a Balzacian character, addicted to gambling, playing with women and unable to actually work to earn money. (Or marry a rich heiress). He’s a pleasant character though; nice to everyone, always joyful and polite. He’s the kind of entertaining parasite you’re bound to meet in such places.
All the characters are flawed and fragile and consequently rather moving. Preysing is the CEO of his company but still lives in the shadow of his step-father; the suit is too big for him. He struggles with the negotiation, isn’t shrewd enough for a business man. And the situation is so desperate that failure isn’t an option. Kringelein is dying and he decided to leave his wife, take all their savings to live in this posh hotel where he knows his boss stays when he’s in Berlin. Kringelein is seeking real life, not the poor and petty life he lived with his stingy wife. He’s seeking Life, with a capital L and takes advice from Doctor Otternschlag and Gaigern to show him the world.
This novel has the bittersweet flavor of the end of an era. Of course we know what will become of the Weimar Republic. It has the taste of the 1920s: tea dances, jazz, scars from WWI, an eagerness to live. It was written before the Black Tuesday and the Great Depression and yet you can see through Preysing’s meetings with his consultant that the economy has gone wild. Financial markets although less developed than nowadays have gone crazy. Businessmen are ready to manipulate the values of company shares. Everything and everyone rush headlong to their downfall, the people and the society.
I was fascinated by the pages where Vicki Baum describes the business meeting between Preysing, his lawyer specialized in M&A and the CEO of the acquisition target. Things haven’t changed that much. Meetings on neutral territories in hotels; selling the company’s results by doing a quick financial analysis, outlining the win-win situation of the merger without giving too much away. Deciding what to say and what to hide; balancing between giving information and thinking about its confidentiality if the deal fails. Absolutely fascinating. I wonder how Vicki Baum knew about that.
Kringelein’s story is easy to relate to. This is a man who realizes he’s going to die very soon and that he hasn’t enjoyed life. He throws caution to the wind now that he has no future and turns to frenzy of discovering the world. It’s interesting to see where the others take him to experience Real Life. He attends a show by the Grousinskaja, a boxing match, rides in a car, flies in a plane, buys expensive clothes. But he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for or what he means with Life.
I think Grand Hotel is a multilayered book. It’s very down-to-earth when it depicts the workings of the hotel, the rooms, the furniture, the habits, the staff. It portrays the German society of that time, as the hotel guests are a sample of this society. It reaches the universal with Kringelein’s quest (What is “living a full life”?), Grousinskaja’s angst (How do I cope with ageing?), Doctor Otternschlag‘s difficulties (How do I heal from a trauma?).
The French translation I have dates back to 1997, so it’s rather new. However, it sounds like the 1920s especially with the English words used in the French, words we don’t use anymore (Lift, sportsman, suitcase, jumper) but you can find some of them in Proust (especially Lift). This hotel seems midway between the hotel in Balbec and the one in Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, a few years later.
I’d love to include quotes in this billet, to share with you pieces of Baum’s marvelous prose but I didn’t find an English version and it’s too difficult for me to translate properly. I know this book is hard to find in English, it’s only available in used copy now. I fervently hope that a publisher will decide to republish it or that it will be available for ebooks. If you can read in German or in French, go for it, it’s worth reading.