I think there has been a good handful (and likely more than just a handful) of really good novels set in hotels. As a matter of fact, if done well, and I think Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel (Menschen im Hotel published originally in 1929, NYRB edition translated by Basil Creighton with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo) is really done well, they show hotel society as a microcosm of the larger world but played out on a much smaller and more intimate scale. A panorama of life, if you will. Vicki Baum's hotel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin of the 1920s. The Great War is over, life is literally a cabaret, and the drama of life is depicted in all it's vibrant hues. The cover illustration is very aptly chosen by the way!
It was easier to get caught up in the drama of some characters' lives more so than others, but then isn't that true of life in general. From the hotel staff to the guests who come and go through that revolving door (can't you just imagine a truly grand hotel with a revolving glass door attended by a nattily dressed doorman?), the guests are the wealthy and the dreamers, the downtrodden and the schemers. And the staff are called upon to serve them as their own lives play out downstairs and in back hallways--from the hotel detectives snooping on potential thieves to hall porters whose wives are soon to give birth.
Interestingly Baum had been creating these characters' lives in her imagination from an early age. Vicki Baum was born and raised in Imperial Austria, specifically in an affluent Viennese, Jewish family. Her first published story came at the age of fourteen, and she jotted down sketches of people she encountered on a trip as a girl when vacationing with her family. This notebook was returned to again and again over time. First came the inspiration for Herr Otto Kringelein, a bookkeeper in ill health, who comes to Berlin to finally get a real taste of Living (yes, capital L), leaving behind his wife in the provinces. He wants to get in as many experiences before he dies, with which the Baron will help him. Baron Gaigern, a handsome cat burglar, was plucked from the headlines some time later in a 1920s newspaper, as well as the haughty General Manager Preysing (who also happens to be the head of the company where Kringelein works). And a visit to the ballet in Berlin where she watched the "fading" Russian prima ballerina, Anna Pavlovna, brought the addition of Elisaveta Grusinskaya to the cast. Add in the WWI shell-shocked Dr. Otternschlag and hall porter Senf (husband of the expecting wife) and you have most of the guests and some of the staff of Berlin's Grand Hotel.
If you have ever stayed in a hotel and felt something of a voyeur as you people-watch, that's what you can expect from reading Baum's novel. There is lots of drama, what you might imagine really happening in a hotel. Think of a luxurious Baroque hotel in Weimar era Berlin, but cut away the facade and see into all the rooms. There is Kringelein trying to avoid the worst rooms of the hotel (216 and 218), and Gaigern slipping into Grusinskaya's room to steal her jewelry and then getting caught--wiggling out of his attempted thievery by seducing (and then falling for) the elegant, older Grusinskaya who still has her beauty no matter how faded she may seem. Otternschlag keeps checking the front desk for messages. And yes, there is the greedy Preysing wheeling and dealing as he tries to close his biggest business deal yet. Such naughtiness and goings-on in the Grand Hotel, but only what you would expect.
When Baum published the novel it was to much fanfare and acclaim, though it was not her first book. It was her tenth (talk about plugging away). She serialized the story initially over several months in 1929. Almost immediately it was adapted to the German stage, then translated into English, and when it was published in the US it spent months and months on the bestseller list. She would then move to Hollywood to help in the adaptation to the silver screen (how many of you have seen the film? It is now on my list of must-sees). The movie starred Greta Garbo, the Barrymore Brothers and Joan Crawford. And Wes Anderson's recent remake Grand Budapest Hotel was a cinematic homage to the story (I had no idea and missed it as well, so another one to watch). That seems quite a literary and visual, too (with the film adaptations) pedigree.
Vicki Baum ended up staying in Los Angeles when the Nazis came to power and never returned home and while she wrote a number of other books, I think none were ever as successful or as well known as Grand Hotel (how many other authors have been both lucky and plagued to have one such major hit that overshadows all their other work?). This is a story that has grown on me considerably the more I think about it after the fact. It was a good, albeit rocky, reading experience. I loved certain storylines but I must admit some of the business wheelings and dealings did bog me down and turned the story into an uphill read at times. I suspect matters were not helped much by the disjointed manner in which I read the novel. But it is a book I am happy to have read and I still think NYRB (this is one of my NYRB Classics subscription books) can't publish a bad book. Someday I think I need to revisit it with sharper attention to detail, the detail of the world of Weimar Berlin taking place in the background. It is quite a rich story, indeed.