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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Book review: Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum (1930)

This book was originally published in German in 1929 and was brought out the next year in England in English. It was made into a film by MGM that was released in 1932. Baum was an Austrian Jew who ended up living in California. Her publishing career, first in German and later in English, was long and she died in 1960 of leukemia, or blood cancer.

With a history like this you might have expected a novel of some note if not brilliance, but the latter most certainly does not apply here. Except for the fact of its vintage it would be stretching the truth to say that this book is even worthy of remark. The plotting is as creaky as an antiquated lift and the characterisation is as stale as week-old bread. The narrative is merely episodic, like a picaresque novel left over from the 18th century where one thing happens after another in a raw sequence and there is little development. The concept sustaining the novel relies for its vigour on the wisdom of focusing, in turn, on different occupants of a hotel: visitors and staff.

The hotel is reputedly a fine one that is located in the heart of Berlin and it is one that attracts businesspeople, members of the nobility, and actors, among other guests. But only one character in the part I read exhibited any sign of life. This was Doctor Otternschlag, a WWI veteran whose face has been terribly ravaged by the violence of combat. In one scene that managed to scrape together a few scraps of readerly emotion, Otternschlag gets Rohna, the head reception clerk, to find a vacant room for a strange man named Kringelein who appears one evening at the front desk looking for accommodation.

No-one in the lobby that night knows it but Kringelein is in Berlin due to an illness that we writes to his solicitor with information about, and he has left his wife, who he despises, back home in Fredersdorf. Kringelein knows about the hotel because his boss, an industrialist named Preysing, is due to arrive any day, and he, Kringelein, wants to stay in a hotel suitable for that eminent personage. We are meant to sympathise with Kringelein but no reason is given to us that would justify such an emotional investment.

There are other characters who inhabit the hotel but over all of them lies a blanket of sheer mediocrity that stifles the emergence of anything like personality or even of life. These characters are all dead. If there can be said to be a theme that survives the desultory progression of scenes that appear in this novel it would have to be that no-one in the hotel cares about anyone else and that practically the only thing that motivates anyone to do anything at all, is money.

Except for the general poverty of imagination that people often betray by making some books, and not others, into commercial successes, the enthusiastic reception the novel received when it was first published is something that, having read part of the novel, would be utterly beyond comprehension.

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