Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

The endless appeal of the hotel novel

Fully booked

As Vicki Baum’s “Grand Hotel” is re-released, we examine why writers keep returning to the hotel novel and how it has changed

As Vicki Baum’s “Grand Hotel” is re-released, we examine why writers keep returning to the hotel novel and how it has changed

Boyd Tonkin | August 18th 2016

In Vicki Baum’s 1929 bestseller “Grand Hotel”, the character soon to be immortalised by Greta Garbo (above) does not precisely say “I want to be alone”. But it’s near enough. “Leave me alone everyone,” sighs the ageing prima ballerina Madame Grusinskaya, “I am not well. I can’t go on again.” The anguish of this falling star, still with the toned, trained body of a teenager but the mind of “a poor, delicate, tired old woman”, makes her easy prey for the gentleman thief Baron Gaigern (John Barrymore, above). He sneaks into her room at Berlin’s most luxurious hotel to lift her pearls, but carries off her heart instead. 

A new edition of “Grand Hotel”, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, deserves to unlock this influential novel for a fresh generation of guests. It first became a literary sensation in Weimar Germany as boom collapsed into bust. Baum took the emerging genre of the hotel novel and turned it into the setting for a pageant of inter-connecting yarns that reveal an entire society in miniature. Through that “revolving door” we meet the crooked tycoon and his dying book-keeper, the flapper and the swindler, the sardonic war veteran and the aspirational desk clerk: “People on the way up or on the way down the ladder of life”, flung together in this all-mod-cons nest of destinies where “prosperity and disaster may be separated by no more than the thickness of a wall”.  

In 1932, the director Edmund Goulding and his leading ladies, Garbo and Joan Crawford, turned the story into a Hollywood smash which won the Oscar for Best Picture. By then Baum herself, who came from a Viennese Jewish family, had moved – just in time – from Berlin to California. In America, she wrote screenplays and a dozen more novels but never quite recaptured the acclaim the book had brought. In 1953, she told the New York Times that she “didn’t want always to be the girl who wrote ‘Grand Hotel’.” 

Although she was the most successful she was not the first author to spot that the “palace” hotel that began to flourish in the cities, resorts and spas of late-19th-century Europe and America could serve as both stage-set and symbol for the dramas of modern life. As early as 1902, Arnold Bennett had transformed the Savoy in London – already a byword for elegant luxury – into “The Grand Babylon Hotel”. He peopled it with many of the types (the American millionaire, the mysterious German princeling) who would later troop through the lobbies of other people’s novels. In 1930, Bennett would return to a fictionalised Savoy with “Imperial Palace”. His devotion to the hotel is reciprocated in its dining rooms to this day through his favourite dish: omelette Arnold Bennett, a calorific tribute in eggs, smoked haddock and béchamel sauce to the long liaison between upscale hospitality and the literary imagination.

Since then the hotel has proved an endlessly accommodating setting that can host tragedy and farce, heroism and heartbreak. In “Vile Bodies”, Evelyn Waugh converted the actual Cavendish Hotel in Mayfair into the rackety Shepheard’s Hotel, where the Bright Young Things of 1920s London burn out in comic decadence. In the troubled middle Europe of the inter-war decades, the corridors and bars of seedy or splendid hotels witnessed all the restless anxiety of the epoch. Joseph Roth’s “Hotel Savoy” – this one set in Lodz, Poland – is home to a former POW returning from a Siberian camp after the first world war, who finds a world of hypnotists and dancing girls, revolutionaries and policemen. This is a topsy-turvy place where rich and poor are thrown together, those with money at the bottom, those without it at the top. 

With its fixed location and interlinked cast of characters, the hotel novel inevitably turned to crime. Georges Simenon sends Inspector Maigret into a variety of louche lodging-houses where imposture, passion and mayhem lurk. Try, for instance, the country hotel in Sancerre thronged with crooks in “The Late Monsieur Gallet”, where blackmail and fraud knot the fates of a travelling salesman and the local aristocracy. But there are also variations on the theme. You might consider Agatha Christie’s keynote Poirot mysteries – whether “Murder on the Orient Express” or “Death on the Nile” – as mobile hotel adventures. Swanky clinics also offer a residential course of secrecy and shock, as in P.D. James’s final case for Commander Dalgliesh, “The Private Patient”.
 
As hotels have changed, so has the fiction that thrives in them. In the work of J.G. Ballard, the traditional five-star citadel gave way to the modern, hi-tech complex or resort, from the eerie desert outpost in the story collection “Vermilion Sands” to the poisoned paradise of Estrella de Mar in his novel “Cocaine Nights”, both lavish but sinister places of anomie and savagery. Hotels have also evolved as places to do business. Vicki Baum’s General Director of a Saxon textile factory plots a profitable stitch-up with the down-to-earth cotton barons of Manchester. Now, more and more businesses and products are losing touch with solid ground. Take Dave Eggers’s recently-filmed novel “A Hologram for the King”. Here, a hapless American salesman quartered in a soulless Saudi Arabian luxury tower labours to clinch a deal for an arcane IT system with his ever-elusive local partners. As globalised commerce floats off into the digital ether, so the hotels that host it turn into weightless holographic copies of real places.

But whether the setting is an old-fashioned palace or a 21st-century desert skyscraper, the paradox at the heart of the hotel novel is just the same. These are places where outward sociability may mask deep solitude. As Baum warned in “Grand Hotel”, “Each in his own room is alone with his own ego.”

Grand Hotel New York Review Books, out now

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.