The critical community is always suspicious of a novel that enjoys the sheer commercial impact of Grand Hotel. In its global appeal (it has been translated into more than twenty languages), its staggering sales, and its translation into a variety of media (a hugely successful stage play; an Academy-award winning film; and, more than four decades after its initial publication, a popular stage musical), Grand Hotel is often cited as the first best seller of the twentieth century. The critical community, however, traditionally looks askance at a novel that finds such a wide appeal, certain that a novel this popular, read by so many people, could not also maintain the integrity and requisite thematic density of “serious” literature.
Vicki Baum struggled publicly against the idea that she wrote middlebrow popular trifles, but there is no denying her appeal or her productivity. For decades, she was a name brand, and her books were marketed with savvy professionalism by her publishing house. By the mid-1930’s, Baum was the best selling German-language author in the world. She emigrated to the United States in 1932, in part to avoid Nazi persecution—her fiction, however, was never political, and her Jewishness was not a part of her writing. Rather, she emigrated mostly because of the appeal of the American market, specifically the work in Hollywood. Even as she maintained a resilient commercial appeal (more than fifty titles, most of these best sellers), she disparaged her own status, often calling herself a first-rate second-rate writer.
It is a credit to Baum’s ingenuity, however, to have devised a plot structure that quickly became a genre unto itself, and to have created an enduring (and reliable) formula for generations of both highly successful novels and commercially successfully films. In a single grand setting, in a compact space of time, she brings together a small cross-section of characters from different economic classes, generations, and backgrounds—strangers to each other. She structures a series of accidental encounters often involving romance or crime among these characters. As a result of these encounters, each character confronts inner demons and private conflicts; some are destroyed by the experience, a few achieve a life-altering epiphany. Thus, her works have no plots as such; rather, they display episodic encounters that create a kind of suspense as the action moves toward some single catastrophic event that the characters share: a massive fire, a murder, a natural disaster, some type of horrific transportation accident. All of this is related by an omniscient narrator who maintains a scrupulous objectivity.
This sort of plot structure suggests the innovative nature of Grand Hotel. By developing a plot that involves realistic characters drawn from everyday life, whatever their income, whatever their back stories, and that collectively renders an authentic picture of Baum’s contemporary Germany, Baum consciously rejects the inherited extravagances of expressionism. Expressionism had sought in literature to tap into the eccentric, often lurid world of the subconscious and the emotions. It also radically expressed individual anxieties and fears through often wildly suggestive symbols. Grand Hotel, by comparison, is grounded in the immediate.
Indeed, Baum worked for six weeks as a hotel chambermaid to give her novel verisimilitude, and part of this groundbreaking achievement in realism is Baum’s frank treatment of sexuality. For example, the night the baron and Grusinskaya spend together is rendered with candor, and their incendiary attraction for each other becomes an element of their intrigue. Flämmchen offers a vivid portrait of the new liberated woman who is confident in her body, willing to use her smoldering sexuality for her own advancement and negotiating its worth for...
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her own financial and professional security.
Most important, however, Grand Hotel pioneered the introduction of cinematic techniques to narrative. With its quick-changing scenes, its clipped and conversational dialogue, its sense of detailed setting (indeed, in many ways, the hotel itself—a big, impersonal modernist structure—is actually the story’s main character), and its focus on an ensemble of characters, Grand Hotel imports techniques particular to the nascent film medium. The plot moves through a series of quick-cut scenes, the voice-over maintains a kind of narrator-omniscience, and characters make quick and vivid impressions. They resist the sort of complicated depth that traditional novel characters receive. They come to readers more as types: the hedonist (the baron); the business failure (Preysing); the street-smart career woman (Flämmchen); the aging artist (Grusinskaya); the world-weary philosopher (Otternschlag); and the unfulfilled drone (Kringelein).
Ironically, as Baum’s formula was worked into films and scores of imitation novels, audiences would come to identify quickly with such types. They also would become involved emotionally in the melodramatic action. As Baum indicates in her autobiography, written shortly before her death, she had intended just the opposite: to deploy cutouts, remove exposition, and to offer a gallery of one-dimensional types as a way to deflect sympathy, to maintain a critical distance from her ensemble, and to see them more as artifacts, abstract and impersonal, whatever humanity they might possess. Indeed, the novel’s subtitle translates loosely as “a trashy novel full of stereotypes,” as Baum acknowledges her technique. That the opposite happens, that the reader feels for the aging ballerina or finds hope in the closing affirmation of the dying bookkeeper testifies to a narrative that transcends its own irony and makes for an involving and affective read.