Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

published 1929

translated from the German by Basil Creighton, revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo

excerpt from book:

[Baron Gaigern and Flammchen are going dancing]
He looked down into her kittenish eyes with a polite smile. She was wearing a thin blue silk dress, a cheap necklace of cut glass and a neat little close-fitting hat bought at a sale for one mark 90. She looked enchanting in this finery, a girl with her own way to make in the world.
They went on dancing in silence. A moment later he drew her body a little closer to his own. He felt her back yield to his hand.

comments: I’ve been meaning to read this since uncovering the much more obscure joys of Vicki Baum’s 1946 book Mortgage on Lifesee blogpost here, where I read the book, critiqued the title, consulted my own translation experts, and found & watched the film that was made of the book. That post contains info about her life, if you are interested in her.

I said in that post that with this book, ie Grand Hotel, Baum created a whole genre – the novel following a group of varied people, who didn’t hitherto know each other, combined in one place over a period of time, from high to low and from comedy to tragedy. I have to say, now that I’ve read it I’m not claiming there’s much comedy. It’s a great book, very engrossing, but it’s not at all the cheery read I was expecting. No spoilers, but happy endings not guaranteed for everyone.

They have all gathered in the Grand Hotel in Berlin in the 1920s…

One of the key characters is the aging ballerina Elisaveta Grusinskaya. She is allegedly based on Anna Pavlova, and the role gave Greta Garbo an excellent role in the film (the character in the book says ‘I wish to be alone’). ‘Gru’ is no longer a top star, and does not attract the crowds she once did – the scenes at the theatre are excruciating. But I like that Baum doesn’t really make it clear whether or not she can still dance well – the ballerina certainly thinks so, but is she self-deluding? The scenes where we follow her thoughts about her life are among the best in the book, and very affecting.

The picture shows Anna Pavlova arriving at a railway station (in this case Sydney Australia) on tour with her entourage, exactly as in the book. (photo by my great favourite, Sam Hood, from the Library of New South Wales.) There is also some discussion over whether her male co-star should wear tights to dance – taking us back to one of the all-time great blog discussions, on ballerinas keeping up their stockings, and the followup post here.

There is poor Dr Otternschlag, disfigured in World War One, ‘who had never, over a stretch of untold dreary years, heard anyone describe him as kind, and who for ten years had scarcely spoken to a living soul.’

Kringelein is a provincial clerk trying to make one last grab at a few happy days.

In the excerpt above we have the dubious Baron Gaigern, charming but surely not to be trusted, and the young secretary Flammchen, who explains the economics of posing naked for photographs. And wears a hat while dancing in the hotel – the second picture was the nearest I could get to that. (Both pics are sheet music covers of the era). And in one of the most memorable sentences in the book, says that having sex with the unfortunate businessman Preysing ‘felt like having a tooth filled by a singularly incompetent dentist.’ I think that will make me laugh forever.

There are a couple of sections that deal with Preysing’s extremely complex business negotiations, and I skimmed those chapters, but apart from that it is a marvellous book: affecting and memorable, and full of turns you are not expecting. There is something very European about it (as I said also about Mortgage on Life) – a way of looking at life, a lack of puritanism. It should be better-known and more highly rated - and I am about to make my usual complaint that this may be because of her gender. I bet if a man had written it, it would be rated as up there with, say, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s Sound and Fury – both published in the same year of 1929.

I am of the opinion that you would never read the line about dentist-sex in a book written by a man.

My friend Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery is, I think, hoping to read Grand Hotel this year, and I look forward to hearing her verdict.

Elisaveta wears a black, gold and ermine cloak - a signature look, along with her pearls. I liked this one to represent it, this seems how it might have looked:

woman in the black and gold cloak, a picture by Francis Cadell.

But then I came across this picture and had to use this one too. The photo is a publicity shot by Madame d’Ora, and Anna Pavlova signed copies and gave them out to adoring fans, which is how this one was preserved.


  1. Those 'ensemble' books can be excellent, Moira. It takes a deft hand to be able to guide the reader through the various characters' lives, etc., so that the whole story can be followed. But, that said, this sort of story can really draw the reader in. And what a time period to capture! Formative, memorable, the whole thing. That's not to mention, too, the hotel itself, almost a character in its own right. Little wonder you found a lot to like.

    1. Thanks Margot - that's a good summing-up of what I liked about the book, and I do recommend it - Vicki Baum must have been a woman with a good understanding of people and of life.

  2. I am glad you read this book and have motivated me to read it soon. I have already pulled it off the shelf. And sampled a few paragraphs from the first page, which pulled me right into the book. I love the two images of Anna Pavlova that you have used.

    1. I did answer you - but it seems to have disappeared. Looking forward to your review - knowing you are going to read it did set me on my way too, so we are doing mutual encouragement!
      Anna Pavlova always looks amazing in photos, I always get lost in them when I find her. She has this incredible posture - whatever and whenever the photo is - and the most compelling gaze, very faraway and mysterious. What a fascinating person she must have been.

  3. " would never read the line about dentist-sex in a book written by a man." Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh?

    I loved this book - read it after seeing the film.

    1. I thought I had seen the film but I'm now not sure I have. Is it good?
      I will give you Waugh, he is the only male writer I could conceive of writing that.

  4. How fascinating. I love the sound of this, especially the ballerina. It takes skill to successfully juggle the lives of characters in an enclosed setting like this, but Baum obviously pulls it off.

    1. Yes, I was very impressed with this, and it was much more a literary novel than I was expecting - nothing formulaic about it at all. I suppose if she started the genre she didn't have anyone to copy!

  5. One I can probably skip I think.


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