Books

A Society With Its Hand on the Trigger: Vicki Baum's 'Grand Hotel'

Vicki Baum writes of a stir-crazy people living in a world that is both swiftly and slowly emptying of its meaning.


Grand Hotel

Publisher: NYRB Classics
Length: 288 pages
Author: Vicki Baum
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-06
Amazon

Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel, now nearly 90 years old, tells the story of how we humanize one another (sometimes very purposefully but often incidentally) in a life that can often encourage de-humanization. The interwar Berlin Hotel at the center of the book is the hub where these humanizing transactions take place, and the seat of transformations of both people and time -- and perhaps, the brief intermission of endurance between all-encompassing war.

To set the story in such a dehumanizing institution as a cavernous, modern hotel -- in which people become room numbers, guests become interchangeable, staff are known by little more than their role, and each room is a pocket of isolation -- makes the story's message even more natural and forthright. Throughout the book, paragraphs change perspective without notice, reminding the reader of the inseparability of the patrons and the trajectories of their lives.

The Grand Hotel presented to us is a nexus of desperation and yearning. Its occupants are besieged by the forces of their times and of all times: markets receding and businesses contracting; lives wasted in the wrong pursuits; moribund lives, fame, and businesses; and the struggle to find meaning in any of it. From the beginning, the characters' lives abound with a sense that everything is always about to come if not crashing down around them, then to a lonely and meaningless eclipse of light and life. The Hotel sits astride a series of changes as one decade and one generation moves into the next, but also as personal, professional and societal facades hang on the brink of collapsing.

Suitably to the setting, the instances of humanization occur in small acts, not large, and more often in acts driven at first not by altruism but self-interest. Behind many of the acts of kindness there's a predatory air, or at the very least, a sense of refined ambivalence. When, for example, Gaigern liberates Kringelein from his malaise, it is in hopes of cajoling him into sharing his imaginary wealth, to then alternatively liberate Gaigern from his debts.

Still, throughout the story, within each character's pursuit of their own self-interest is the sense that, in some way, it's all complementary. Yes, Gaigern needs to steal or persuade Grusinskaya to part with her pearls, but she's convinced herself that they're bringing her bad luck. Yes, Kringelein's excavation of Flammchen, at the end, could cynically be cast as another out-dated example of a woman discovering her worth only through the eyes of a man, but it might more optimistically be viewed as two people, formerly dead, discovering the meaning of new life defined not through the material sin qua non each had relentlessly pursued, but through the human. In this way, each becomes the ultimate fulfillment of Grand Hotel's endeavor to make humans out of bodies, to draw individuals out of masses, and to find meaning out of seeming randomness.

Grand Hotel is also a very sensory novel. For Gaigern, powerful scents predominate and help describe his experience: the elusive ingredient of Grusinskaya's perfume, the powerful unburdening scent of the tar fumes; for Kringelein, the transient parvenu, it's all the sensations he associates with his goal of the rich life: the silk fabric, the fine foods, the longing for sex so overlooked by his companions who insist on dragging him to ballets and boxing matches when all he'd really like is an orgy.

Both men's experiences climax in their quasi-hallucinatory and heady escapades at a bar as the ill Kringelein inches closer to his long-anticipated death: "Kringelein alighted on a mouth, as if on some incredible island of adventure. With his lips there, he lay stranded for a while. Little waves of drunkenness washed him away. 'Be nice, Bubi,' a voice was saying, meaning him. He became motionless, listening intently to his inner self. For the space of one dreamy moment he had his hands full of ripe red juicy raspberries from Mickenau Forest."

Baum writes of a stir-crazy people living in a world somehow both swiftly and slowly emptying of its meaning, of its reason, creeping toward something: toward Doctor Otternschlag's "suicide", of course, on a societal level. Her prescience is eerie, punctuating itself with Otternschlag's ruminations on (societal) suicide: "… As a rule you only see suicides after the event -- after they've already turned on the gas or pulled the trigger… To put it succinctly, I am a living suicide." Grand Hotel offers us Baum's glimpse at a society (or a world) with its hand on the trigger.

During a critical scene in the book, Baron Gaigern delivers a line neither Baum nor the Baron could have fully understood: "Then I was in the war for a bit. The war was fine. I felt at home in it. For all I cared it might have been a lot worse than it was. If there were to be another war, I'd be all right again." There's the underlying message of the book, as Baum surely intended it, characterized by endlessness, by the ennui of life and its banality. Then there's the message that emerges quietly from a book about Life on the precipice, set in a world not fully aware of the precipice into which it was itself about to fall so horrifically. Soon, there would be so little time for the lazy philosophizing of Doctor Otternschlag. The revolving door of the Hotel which Otternschlag imagined dumping us each out into the abyss at death would soon seem bitterly slow moving as millions were revolved through the door en masse.

Baum (we are told by the introduction) regretted having her fame as a novelist so inextricable from the fame of Grand Hotel, even later writing Hotel Shanghai and Hotel Berlin '43 as if to lose (or replicate) this one novel amid its successors or imitators. It's difficult, now looking back upon it, not to see some of her in the aging diva, Grusinskaya -- full of self-doubt and so certain that her fame's peak was behind her -- but the republication of the novel nearly 90 years after its initial serialization makes it clear that Baum's fame will continue to far outlive her.

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