Home > 1920, 20th Century, Austrian Literature, Baum Vicki, EU Book Tour, Novel > There’s a lot of insomnia going through the closed double-doors of a sleeping hotel.

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.

Baum_Grand_hotelGrand 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.

  1. January 6, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Emma: when I saw this in your sidebar some time ago, I ordered a copy. I have a fondness for books set in hotels, holiday camps, caravans, tents etc. Glad to hear you liked it.


    • January 6, 2013 at 12:44 am

      You’d like this one and Hotel Savoy as well.
      Have you read The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim? Funny.


      • January 7, 2013 at 10:23 pm

        I haven’t Emma. I read her Enchanted April was wasn’t crazy about it


  2. January 6, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Interesting that you observed that the story has the feel of an end of an era. As the book was written in 1929 the author could not know the future. However things were changing already, I wonder how much Baum sensed.


    • January 7, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      She’s a very clever writer. I think she felt things had gone wild and that the downfall was lurking behind the colourful jazz notes.
      In a way, Grand Hotel could be Hotel Savoy 10 years after. The aftermath of the war is still there but people have moved on, have been involved in various activities, enjoying life and now they’re on the verge of another drama.


  3. January 6, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Thanks, for the link and I’m very glad you liked it.
    I think Baum was a very perceptive writer and one of those who left Germany very early. I’ve bought her biography and would like to read it soon. Everyting she wrote was a success and when she moved to the States she still was succesful. I suppose that’s why she is sometimes seen as a genre writer but I find that’s not doing her any justice. She was a woman and had a very entertaining style that’s part of the perception but she can do more than just entertain. She is a fine analyst.
    I think it would be worth reading others of her books. Love and Death in Bali has been reissued and it could be a matter of time until this and other books will be reissued as well.
    I agree, the hotel is somewhere betweem Balbec and Roth’s Hotel Savoy. I think reading Roth and Baum together works quite well. It seems you liked this even better than the Roth?
    When I read it last year I thought you would enjoy the descriptions of the meetings and I was surprised myself to see how little has changed.


  4. acommonreaderuk
    January 6, 2013 at 10:34 am

    I have never heard of this book and am disappointed to find that it is now out of print – perhaps it is time for a publisher to take a chance on a new edition. Your description of it makes it sound a little like Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain – a self-contained, artificial world populated by unusual characters.


    • January 7, 2013 at 11:08 pm

      It is a pity that it’s not available in English. Perhaps you can find it at the library?

      I haven’t read Thomas Mann. Too daunting. But perhaps Caroline could help you on that one.


      • January 8, 2013 at 9:51 am

        It’s nothing like Thomas Mann. Baum is much more down to earth. It’s just the microscopic view that sounds imilar but in stlye, tone, themes they are very different.


        • January 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm

          Thanks Caroline, I knew you could answer Tom.


          • January 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm

            Yes but you never answered my question. 🙂


            • January 9, 2013 at 9:53 pm

              Did I prefer Grand Hotel to Hotel Savoy? Not sure. It’s a difficult question. They’re both great for different reasons and the atmosphere is different because they were written a few years apart. (Not sure this is good English) I wonder what kind of hotel Roth would have depicted in 1929 and what kind of hotel Baum would have described in 1924.
              I wish Max or Guy read the twos books in a row, starting by the Roth. It’s what I should have done.


              • January 10, 2013 at 8:01 am

                That’s pretty much what I did. In German the style is very different, I wonder if they got that in the translations.


  5. January 7, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Thank you for reviewing this book, Emma. LIke Guy, I’m quite interested in books/movies set in confined spaces, hotels and trains in particular. They allow some serious experimentation with the characters and their actions


    • January 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm

      It’s a great book. You’d have to read it in French though. (Don’t worry, it’s easier than Céline. :-))


  6. January 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I would love to read this, even more so after your description, but have yet to find an English language version. How very frustrating.

    The M&A part sounds particularly fascinating. I’ve negotiated M&A deals of that sort, so it would be interesting to see that represented in fiction. Generally though it just sounds excellent.

    There must be an English translation somewhere. What copy did you order Guy?


    • January 7, 2013 at 10:12 pm

      I’ll have to dig it out, Max. It’s just an old used copy.


      • January 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm

        Just found a lot of used copies on abe books.


    • January 7, 2013 at 11:15 pm

      You’d enjoy this novel too, Max. Perhaps you could find a copy in a library? There are some used copies on Amazon US.

      The M&A part was interesting, at least for me. I’ve been in datarooms and worked on small companies valuations, so I know a little bit of the process.


  7. January 8, 2013 at 4:36 am

    MAX FYI: My old hardcover was 1 cent plus shipping . printing date = 1940 and translated by Basil Creighton.


    • January 8, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      Guy, brilliant, found it.


      • January 8, 2013 at 10:46 pm

        That’s great Max. I’m looking forward to reading you review.


        • January 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm

          Yup, once I have a copy (probably a while after actually) I’ll back to back it with a reread of Hotel Savoy as you suggest above.


  8. November 21, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    What a wonderful review! I’m so glad you loved this one as well. You’re absolutely right about all of the main characters being flawed and a little bit fragile – with the possible exception of Flammchen, they’re all bruised and damaged in some way.

    I love what you say about the M&A elements too – in many ways, the whole negotiation felt very relevant, even in today’s world. There’s often an element of bluffing and talking up the prospects in these processes.

    Isn’t it great that NYRB Classics have picked this up for publication? Your closing wish has been granted. 🙂

    By the way, I’ve been reading Soseski’s The Gate to tie in with your book group’s choice of I am a Cat. With any luck my review will be up next week. I’m looking forward to seeing how you got on with Cat (The Gate was excellent, really glad I read it).


    • November 21, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. It was a great book.

      Re-M&A: The modernity of the discussions and the transactions surprised me. I had the same feeling with Claudel’s correspondance from America from 1927 to 1930. The globalization was already there and we have forgotten it. It’s just in a different form.

      I loved The Cat. I’ll try to publish my billet next week. What a sense of humour and how observant he was.


  1. November 21, 2016 at 12:44 pm

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