Translated by Basil Creighton (1930)
When Caroline reviewed Vicki Baum’s most famous novel during the inaugural German Literature Month, I decided I’d like to read it too. It’s taken some tracking down but I did eventually find a copy. I’m also starting two new reading projects. 1) To read every novelist included in the book German Novelists of the Weimar Republic (due to my new-found love of all things Weimar) and 2) a themed read of Berlin through the ages as a follow-on from Rory Maclean’s brilliant history of Berlin. Let me start then on both projects with the entry for Berlin in the 1920s.
It was a bit of a challenge. I’m not a fan of foxed books and this copy from 1948 is more than slightly foxed.
Also post-WWII production values leave something to be desired. (As is to be expected.) There were quite a few pages where the print was blurred. Still after about 30 pages I found that Baum’s story-telling abilities had drawn me in sufficiently to be able to ignore both of these hurdles.
The setting is as opulent as the title suggests:
Here the jazz band from the tea-room encountered the violins from the Winter Gardens, while mingled with them came the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, a soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving too and fro.
Through the revolving doors comes a microcosm of society, colourful characters, one and all: Doctor Otternschlag, a man with a disfigured face and a glass eye (injuries from World War One); Grunsinskaya, an ageing and fading ballerina; Preysing, from the provinces, in Berlin to broker a business-saving deal, hopelessly out of his depth; the good-lookng and charming Baron von Gaigern, thief and con-man, living on his uppers; the secretary and part-time good-time girl, Flämmchen, and finally, arguably the main character, Kringelein, a employee of Preysing’s with terminal cancer, who has quite independently of his employer, withdrawn his savings, left his miserable wife and job and fled to the Grand Hotel to discover life before it is too late.
Do you notice a connection here? All, with the exception of Doctor Otternschlag, a harbinger of doom, who spends his days staring at the revolving doors, are pretending to be something they are not. As indeed is the hotel.
In the corridor an electrician was kneeling on the floor, busied over some repair to the wires. Ever since they had had those powerful lights to illuminate the hotel frontage there had always been something going wrong with the overworked installation of the hotel.
Is the hotel an allegory for the Weimar Republic itself? A state, in 1929 when the novel was originally published, aspiring to be a haven of security for its inhabitants but struggling against the currents that were to overwhelm it in the early 1930’s? I’m not fully conversant with the history of the Weimar Republic (I am working on it), but I suspect this may be the case.
Kringelein’s backstory is one of deprivation and drudgery. Yet he has life savings to squander in his final fling search for happiness. Proof that this is pre-currency crash, even if there are signs of economic instability. Flämmchen, too, displays traits of the decadence which was to characterise the Weimar Republic.
All this is an implicit imterpretation. Baum in no way labours the point. The interactions of the main cast during their three-day mini-break are entertaining, engaging and life-changing. Burglary, love-affairs, downfall of the stalwarts of society, murder in a meticulously planned novel. The faulty wiring from page one plays a very consequential role. When all is said and done, however, and the cast has departed, Doctor Otterschlag remains in the lounge, a stone image of loneliness and death and
The revolving door turns and turns – and swings …. and swings … and swings ….
(Perhaps a third reading project is called for: to read the many books I have purchased on the recommendation of my German Literature Month co-hostess.)