This is a book by Vicki Baum. It is Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel in Berlin. In Berlin in the early 1920's. The culture, the city finding its way to continue survival post the Treaty of Versailles through the weighted demands made on the German nation in reparation for its provocation of World War I and before the Weimar Government was buried in the Hitler led National Socialist agenda - the rise of the Nazi party.
The events that happen to people in a big hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, complete and rounded off. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind the doors may signify much or little. They may be rising or falling in the scale of life. Prosperity and disaster may be parted by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door twirls around, and what passes between arrival and departure is nothing complete in itself. Perhaps there is no such thing as a completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings. Much that looks like Chance is really Fate. And much that goes on behind Life's doors is not fixed like the pillars of a building nor pre-conceived like the structure of a symphony, nor calculable like the orbit of a star. It is human, fleeting and more difficult to trace than cloud shadows that pass over a meadow. And anyone who attempts an account of what he sees behind those doors runs the risk of balancing himself precariously on a tightrope between falsehood and truth ...
In the Lounge, Doctor Otternschlag sat and talked to himself. "It's dismal", he said. "Always the same. Nothing happens. One's always alone, dismally, alone. The earth is an extinct planet - no warmth left in it.... Maybe I am dead and don't know it. If only something worth while would happen in this great big pub. But no, not a thing. 'Left'. And so it goes on. In-out, in-out-" ...
"Little Georgi, however, behind the mahogany table was revolving a few simple and extremely banal thoughts. Marvelous. Always something going on. One man goes to prison, another gets killed. One leaves, another comes. They carry one man on a stretcher by the back stairs, and at the same moment another man has a baby. Interesting if you like! But so is Life!
The revolving door turns and turns-and swings ... and swings ... and swings ...
In the GRAND HOTEL, we watch the doomed and the desperate, the predators and the prey who pass through the revolving doors of the most expensive hotel in Berlin ... and whose lives will never be the same again: The fading ballerina, Grushinskaya, who finds a new reason for living in a single night of ecstasy. The titled thief, Baron Gaigern, in search of rich pickings who chooses love instead of pearls. The middle-aged book-keeper, Otto Kringelein, determined to see life before his incurable illness takes its final toll. The stiff-necked businessman, General Director Preysing on the verge of a disaster and a girl, his secretary, Flammschen, with a body to stir a man's senses and destroy his reason.
This is to us readers and viewers of contemporary film and television a familiar genre of activity and character. But GRAND HOTEL written in 1929 created anew the genre of the whirly-gig of the environs of the temporary meeting place of many varieties of humanity. What surprised me was the quality of the writing with its intimate detail of human activity and the richness of observation that is beautifully restrained and yet wealthily triggering of what may be a memory of a personal fancy or a recall of passionate returning dreams.
The sexual encounter between the ballet dancer and the burglar Baron, in the hands of Vicki Baum, is marvellously salacious in its telling and still beautifully embedded in a poetic metaphysical point of view. This book is "classy" in its writing. No blatancy of the bodice-tearers of say a pop culture writer such as Harold Robbins (THE CARPET BAGGERS) or Jacqueline Susann (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). GRAND HOTEL has a depth of the tragic-comic. In its many story trails it connects to a metaphysical touchstone to the primal energies, emotions, of the human experience. A connection as old as the worlds of the Greeks that we have inherited in their surviving plays and books.
For instance what today is a story cliche of the downtrodden worker finding a path to a fling that will be a final gesture, before an incurable disease conquers him with death, of an adventure that will reveal and reward him with a sense of what LIFE could be - where he discovers that life is a mixture of fear and pleasure where the risk of choice is the best part of the thrill of being alive. In Ms Baum's hands this is simply not a kitch episode but one with the possibility of giving the reader a gently rewarding profundity.
Otto Kringelein, a book-keeper trapped in the machinations of a provincial city, Frederesdorf, both personal and professionally, has escaped with his hard worn savings to the Grand Hotel, Berlin, where he encounters a playboy derring-do survivor of the trenches of the World War, the handsome adventurer, Baron Gaigern. The Baron takes Otto under his wing - not without some plan of using him for aggrandisement, to have access to his new friend's money - and introduces Otto to some adventures out of the provincial ordinary.
One of them is a car ride with Gaigern:
Now we can let it rip," he said, and, before Kringelein understood what he meant, he had done so.
At first the wind grew colder and colder, and blew harder and harder, until at last it beat like a fist against his face. The engine sang on a rising note and at the same time something ghastly occurred to Kringelein's legs. They were filled with air. Bubbles rose in his joints as if they would burst. For several seconds, that seemed to last an incredible time, he could not breathe, and moment after moment he thought, Now I am dying. His chest caved in and he gasped for breath. The car swallowed up one object after another before it could be recognised, streaks of red, green and blue. A patch of red just became a car before it vanished into nothingness behind, and all the while Kringelein could not breathe. He now felt an unimagined sensation in his diaphragm. He tried to turn his head towards Gaigern. Strange to say he succeeded without finding it torn from his shoulders. Gaigern sat a little forward over the wheel and he was wearing his wash-leather gloves though they were not buttoned up.This for some reason was reassuring. Just what was left of Kringelein's stomach strove to escape at his throat, Gaigern's closed lips began to smile. Without taking his eyes off the Avus road whirling past like an unwinding spool, he pointed somewhere with his chin, and Kringelein obediently followed the direction with his eyes. Having some intelligence he realized after a guess or two that the speedometer was before his eyes. The little pointer trembled slightly as it pointed in 110. Good Lord, thought Kringelein, and swallowing down his fears he bent forward and gave himself up to the rush of speed. Suddenly the new and appalling joy of danger overcame him. Faster! cried a frenzied Kringelein within him whom he had never known before. The car complied with 115. For a few moments it kept to 118, and Kringelien finally gave up all thoughts of breathing. He would have liked now to whirl on and on into darkness, on and on in the shock of explosion, and to get right beyond and out of time. No hospital bed, he thought, better a broken skull. Hoardings still whirled past the car, but the spaces between began to alter. Then the grey ragged streaks beside the road became pine woods. Kringelein saw trees eddying more slowly to meet the car and stepping back into the wood like people as the car went by. It was just as it was on the read roundabout as Mickenau when it slowed down. Now he could read the names of oils, tyres and makes of cars on the placards. The rush of air relaxed and streamed in his throat. The speedometer sank to 60, trembled a little, then 50-45-and then they left the Avus by the south gate and drove along soberly between the villas of the Wannsee.'There-now I feel better'. said Gaigern and laughed all over his face. Kringelein took his hands from the leather cushion in which till now he had dug his fingers and carefully relaxed his jaws and shoulders and knees. He felt completely tired and comp;etely happy.
So do I," he answered truthfully.
To follow is a simple but elegant meal; a flight; a gambling den; a beautiful woman. Life and its adventures were laid out for Kringelein.
I guess I am an incurable romantic. In my long ago youth I was captured by a screening on our television of GRAND HOTEL (1932). It won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1932, Directed by Edmund Goulding and Produced by Irving Thalberg featuring some of MGM"S stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Later I began to realise that Garbo was also one of the great screen actors. I have always regarded Garbo's performance in CAMILLE (1936), as Marguerite Gautier ,as one of the greatest screen performances ever captured (She is amazing in QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) as well. In my estimate it was Meryl Streep's performance in SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982) that challenged it, or topped it. Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) is quite astonishing as well.
The screenplay by William Drake uses his adaptation of the enormously successful Broadway play, Directed by Max Reinhardt, of Vicki Baum's - an Austrian novelist - book: GRAND HOTEL (Menschen im Hotel - 1929).
Years later I found a dilapidated copy of the novel in a translation by Basil Creighton in a second hand store and bought it and left it on my shelf to one day read. Coronavirus has given me the time.
GRAND HOTEL is a wonderful read. It is a novel of some greatness and ought to be more appreciated than it is.
Another novel THE GOOD EARTH, by Pearl Buck, was made into a great film. I, too, bought the book in a secondhand store eons ago and have kept it on my library shelf until now. I shall let you know if I can encourage you to pick it up to have a good time.
Garbo in Ninotchka!
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