“People in a hotel” would be a literal translation of Vicki Baum’s groundbreaking novel. It’s nearly a century old now, but when she wrote it, she invented a whole new genre.
What sort of people are staying in the hotel? Where are they from – they surely have dark pasts and brilliant futures? Do they know each other? Who’s sleeping with whom (or who wants to)? How do they get the money together to stay in the fanciest establishment in town? Why are they leaving so soon? When are they coming back?
You can see the potential for intrigue, drama and romance. There were lashings of all that available in 1920s Berlin. And Vicki Baum really knows how to write about it. I picked the book up in Berlin last year on my annual pilgrimage to Dussmann on Friedrichstrasse. I’d gone in armed with a list of classic German women writers I wanted to try, and Baum was the one still in print. Lots of her books. In paperback. People are still reading them. And now, so am I. You can read Grand Hotel in English too, published by NYRB in the translation by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.
One of the loveliest things about Menschen im Hotel when I finally got round to reading it a year later was that it took me not only to a place a love dearly, used to live in, and couldn’t get to easily in the last twelve months for obvious reasons. It also took me to a place in a time – Berlin’s golden age. In the book, the Avus Circuit and Radio Tower are new. The rich are getting richer and the poor have something to say about it. Politics is simmering over, but mostly, people are having a lot of fun. Until tragedy strikes. But in a city of fixers, the underdog might not stay down.
Who better to portray the intrigue, drama and romance of the Grand Hotel than Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford? The MGM movie of the book won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1932. You can watch the trailer above, and YouTube will take you to a video of the last scene, too. But don’t spoil the journey – go and read it. It’s a hell of a ride.