Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: An Exchange

Dorian and I wanted to try something a bit different for discussing Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and a bit last minute decided to send a few thoughts to one another and then post those with the other’s responses. I’m grateful that Dorian was kind enough to go first; I’ve now reciprocated, following his pattern here and grouping a few observations around some general topics to which he has responded. (Other bloggers who have joined in reading Bassani's novel are listed at the end of this exchange; I'll put up links to any others as they appear). 

Looking forward, Scott! I’ll write my responses in italics below yours.

I want to start by focusing on some narrative and stylistic elements lying a little outside my emotional response to the work, which – perhaps especially on the second reading – was significant. I was moved by the ending, by the vacuum it created that then allows the weight of all that Bassani has so cleverly kept “off stage” throughout the novel - by his homing in on the ways in which the characters largely go about their lives as though the mounting intolerance and oppression will pass – to collapse in on itself like a black hole. The “Garden” of the title is obviously an Edenic paradise, one that is even enclosed – literally – by a wall of angels, the “Mura degli Angeli.” I kept wondering where the serpent hid in this metaphor, perhaps in one of the garden’s many trees that Micòl catalogued and loved so well. More precisely, though, when, exactly, is the moment of the loss of this Eden?

Paradises are definitely made to be lost. I hadn’t noticed the reference to the angels! But if you were to keep to this metaphor, would Micòl be Eve? That would make me uncomfortable. She might be presented as a temptress earlier in the novel but by the end he rejection of the narrator is carefully thought-through.

One particular stylistic element that leapt out at me in the novel is Bassani’s notable treatment of:


Dorian, you’ve written about the distinctions Bassani makes within the small Ferrarese Jewish community. One gets such a sense in the remarkable synagogue scene of how Bassani uses the temple’s space to highlight those distinctions, through the relegation of women to an upstairs space enclosed behind a grille to the arrangement of benches used by particular families that suggest an arrangement according to status and class. Similarly, Bassani uses the walls and long paths of the Finzi-Contini estate to emphasize its isolation from the rest of Ferrara. I was struck repeatedly by how space in the novel takes on fluid, relativistic qualities. For example, one can never quite get a sense of the garden’s layout, nor of that of the house. They are more like dream-spaces, idealized as though infinite even within their confines. We are treated to many strange interiors, and many more small “compartments”:  the communicating study and library of Professor Ermanno; Alberto’s close and almost timeless room, with its refined aesthetic; Micòl’s bedroom with its glass menagerie; the living room in which the narrator’s father sleeps; the garden hutte, the subterranean chamber by Ferrara’s walls; even the Finzi-Continis’ tennis court itself, the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest. Bassini gives us some striking descriptions of interiors, for example of Micòl’s room and of Professor Ermanno’s study – even of the elevator that (rather surreally) takes the narrator up to Micòl’s room. What to make of this? I’m struck by how unusual it is to find in a novel a combination of such a careful and granular, almost geometrically crafted approach to the spaces the characters inhabit and pass through (apparently Bassani revised and reworked the novel extensively and intensively) and at the same time a narrative that feels so deeply and emotionally rooted in personal experience. There’s something nearly classical about it.

Love these thoughts—smart and helpful. The novel’s use of space is, as you say, striking. Sometimes so carefully and clearly articulated, and at other times vague and hard to make sense of. In his essay “The Uncanny” Freud connects, through his reading of the great Hoffmann story “The Sandman,” architectural space with psychological states. And I wonder if a similar connection isn’t happening here. You spurred my thoughts in this regard by your brilliant observation about the tennis court, “the roughly defined dimensions of which seem, as the threats to its existence as a haven close in, to push out as though in protest.” The idea that space is changeable indeed seems to reflect or correlate to the changing political circumstances the Jewish characters find themselves in—and to the corresponding changes in mental state.

Following this way of thinking, do you think we could consider the architecture of the Finzi-Contini home—which as you note is at once described with great precision and oddly vague (how the hell do all those rooms connect to each other?)—as a form of resistance to the restrictions being placed on its inhabitants and their fellow Jews? Of course, that resistance is ultimately futile—the idyll is breached, the inhabitants of Eden ejected and murdered—so maybe this idea isn’t particularly effective. But I wondered if Bassani, through has oddly imprecise use of space at strategic moments, was trying to keep something in reserve, as it were, some magic, for lack of a better word, that the Germans couldn’t destroy. After all, the vagueness seems deliberate, given the precision offered elsewhere—an instructive comparison are Malnate’s rooms, which are rendered much more clearly, transparently: we could draw a floor plan if we had to, which I don't think we could do with the Finzi-Contini home.

On another note, I loved the elevator scene. It reminded me of the ones in Proust, with the narrator in the hotel at Balbec. I don’t think Perotti is like the lift-boy—he’s not trying to cruise the narrator, for one thing—so I’m not sure if there is anything more to this comparison than, “Hey, I know another book with an elevator in it.” In Bassani, the elevator is another emblem of the strange relationship between elitism/specialness/separateness and modernity. Perotti admires it but also distrusts it because it’s American. The elevator reminds me of the telephones: a modern technology that at least promises to connect people, but that sits uneasily with the Finzi-Continis rejection of modernity.

BTW I love the Glass Menagerie connection. I bet Bassani knew it.


This novel is full to overflowing with literature; I can scarcely begin to catalog Bassani’s references. Despite my having largely focused on reading Italian authors the past couple of years, Garden left me acutely aware of how little I know on the subject. One of the frustrations in reading the novel in translation and as an outsider is not being able to piece together all of the Italian references, and in particular to get a clear sense of the meaning of the narrator’s literary interests. For Micòl, with her choice to write on Emily Dickinson, this appears a bit easier, given that despite her extroversion and the glow of life she carries about her, she herself is a rather Dickinsonian figure, ensconced away in the highest room of a remote mansion in the center of a seemingly infinite park.  I had a harder time understanding the narrator’s decision to focus on Enrico Panzacchi as his dissertation topic: a minor late 19th century poet about whom, unfortunately, I can find very little in English. Curious too is his decision to shift from what appears from his description to have been a more well thought out idea for a dissertation on several 16th century Italian painters, though this appears to be tangentially connected to the growing anti-Jewish sentiment, which has apparently resulted in the art historian at the University of Bologna – “one of the leading figures of Italian Jewry” - losing his post (to be replaced by the famous – and goy – art critic Roberto Longhi, another instance where Bassani’s fiction hews closely to real events). I wondered if this might be a subtle way of revealing the damages wrought by the laws, that they change the narrator’s course of study from what is arguably the greatest explosion of artistic talent in Italian history to a concern with a minor writer little known outside academic circles. The uses to which Bassani puts literature are manifold; beyond that one must also see Garden as not just a story of Fascism intersecting with young love, but also of the development of a writer, of a “vocation of solitude.”

Again, very interesting and beautifully put. I barely know anything about Dickinson and nothing about Panzacchi. But I think you are right about “minor-ness.” In the 1930s Dickinson was probably not the force, intellectually speaking she is now, especially not in Italy, I would think. But it seems fitting that Micòl goes for the more famous figure. The narrator’s marginality is on display here. That makes me think of the conversation about “Bartleby” in which the narrator ends up taking the side of the lawyer, and Micòl reproaches him for his conformism and lack of imagination. I don’t know how to square that with his later resistance work, but I am reminded of an earlier exchange with Professor Ermanno. The Professor mentions his work on the inscriptions on the graves in the Jewish cemetery in Venice. His research led him only to write “two slim essays” in which he “merely expound[ed] the facts… without venturing any interpretation on the subject.” A couple of pages later, the narrator admiringly references a book by another scholar, a book that “confined itself merely to touching on the subject: masterfully, but without exploring it deeply.”

I’m not sure how to put all this together, but I think it’s significant that the narrator’s scholarly work is connected to superficiality. Another commentary on his character? Or should we take him seriously when he (and the Professor) values the circumspection of staying on the surface?

Remembrance and Witnessing

I group the following thoughts around this heading in part to elicit your thoughts as a professor of Holocaust literature and as someone versed in its varieties of remembrance. Among the most powerful elements of Garden for me was the manner in which Bassani portrays the incremental quality of Fascism’s effects on the community, and the ways by which the characters adjust and adapt. In focusing on the bright lives that go on, playing, within the Mura degli Angeli in the Finzi-Contini’s paradise, Bassani keeps the outside world’s events off on the periphery (another example of his structural use of space, a kind of concatenated solar system with Micòl the sun at its center). Yet those events nonetheless intrude from time to time into this little garden of Eden, drop by drop like a water torture, creating an increasingly intolerable accretion. Interestingly, the first drop may be the narrator’s memory of a Passover seder in 1933 coinciding with the infornata del Decennale, Fascism’s tenth anniversary, where the narrator recalls seeing in his father’s face, despite his father’s approval of Fascism’s rise, “a shadow of chagrin…a stumbling block, a little obstacle, unforeseen and unpleasant.”  The first sign of a concrete deprivation is not even the letter informing Jewish members of the Villa d’Este tennis club that they are no longer welcome, but the rumor of such a letter. Later, we learn in the margins about a Finzi-Contini uncle dismissed from his job with the state railroad; the replacement of the Jewish art historian at Bologna; two young Jewish tennis players who, on the verge of winning a championship match, have the game called with the excuse of oncoming night serving to prevent the embarrassing situation of their being declared winners. Such events reach the chief characters too, as Micòl relates her tale of a Fascist on her dissertation committee objecting to the proposal that she be bestowed honors, and the narrator recounting his having been ordered out of the library reading room he’d considered “a second home.” Almost none of these incidents is presented directly; all are recounted to others, with the exception of the narrator describing to the reader near the novel’s end his having been threatened and called a “dirty Jew!” after making sarcastic comments in a cinema. One is left with hints of an almost ghost narrative, allusions to events outside those at the novel’s bright core, conveying a closing in, an inevitability of the catastrophe vouchsafed in the prologue. An aspect of the well-regarded film version by Vittorio de Sica I disliked is de Sica’s failure to respect these deliberate omissions by Bassani. For instance, de Sica shows the Finzi-Continis being rounded up, even shows them in a detention center awaiting deportation. He even shows Micòl in the hutte with Malnate, the narrator watching through the window, whereas Bassani leaves ambiguous the question of whether the narrator, in his petty jealousy, has completely invented this relationship.  

I found this depiction of the slow removal of liberties, the gradual chipping away at the Jewish community, to be the most powerful element in the novel. Among the most central questions pertaining to the Holocaust is: “How did this happen?” Bassani may not seek an encompassing answer to that question, but he is certainly interested, as an artist, in depicting and questioning the characters’ reactions to these small events, in the inquietude, denial, acquiescence, contempt and other responses with which they confront each new indignity (one response is, of course, to write, and the narrator is the one figure in the novel we know to have begun as acquiescent to Fascism – he’s noted as having won a young Fascist writing contest - to a rejection and renunciation of those who seem resigned to it). Bassani strikes me a one of the few writers of the Holocaust (Aleksander Tišma is another) who convey so well the moment when such restrictive measures reach a tipping point, and the brutal knock on the door represents the abrupt culmination of a force that has been building in plain sight but which, for reasons including the above reactions, was not stopped. What Bassani achieves so beautifully and heartbreakingly at the end of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is to leave the reader sitting quietly with the events described, contemplating and conjuring the vital, intelligent, beautiful Micòl and, around her, all the exuberance of life, the aspirations and unfulfilled loves that Fascism and Nazism snuffed out. Perhaps the least prominent but most important character in the novel is the innocent young Giannina from the novel’s prologue, the “extraordinary tenderness” of whose comment about the Etruscans having been “also alive once” sets the author’s motion in memory, and provides the long view of history, of the many peoples who have lived and have passed, of the almost instinctual and constitutional importance of remembering.

Again, nicely put. So much to think about here. Your last comments—and I agree the child’s statement is crucial, but I did find it a bit heavy-handed—make me wonder how we’re to understand the relationship between history and memory. Is there a difference between things that happened in the past a long time ago to people we don’t know and those that happened more recently to those we did? Another way to get at this would be to wonder why it is that the narrator can only start to tell his story when he can think of it as history rather than as memory? Why does it take the Etruscans for him to tell the story of the Jews of Ferrara?

As to the slow drip of menace that leads to a tipping point: absolutely. In his famous history of the Shoah, Raul Hilberg distinguishes between the stages of European anti-Semitism. For many centuries, he says, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us as Jews (i.e. forced conversion). Later, especially in the early years of National Socialism (it’s not a precise time-table by any means, but still useful), non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live among us (i.e. forced emigration). And then, as codified at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 but not decided there, non-Jews said to Jews: You cannot live (extermination). The point is that most historians of the Holocaust are functionalists rather than intentionalists—the Holocaust is a function of many events, not the result of Hitler’s/the Nazis’ intention.

At the same time, I would note that the drip-drip quality you note in Bassani (and your close readings of the mediated quality of the news are so brilliant) has a lot to do with the particular historical situation. For many Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, the Holocaust came much more rapidly, especially in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. The situation of Jews in Italy was a bit different, since fascism there wasn’t anti-Semitic to any great extent until quite late in the 1930s. None of this is to take away from what you’re saying—it’s just to point out the particular situation. And to be sure there are many texts by or about Jews in Germany and Austria in particular that describe the same kind of chipping away of life that Bassani offers us here. Ruth Klüger’s amazing memoir Still Alive is just one example.

The more I think about Bassani’s novel, the more I think about it as a portrayal of a survivor, in which the guilt, depression, and deadened affect so many felt (Levi writes about this so well) is being retrospectively displaced on to the narrator’s pre-war life. If I think about it this way, I’m able to take the narrator better than I otherwise can. But I still wonder: why that displacement. Part of me thinks a fundamental conformism inheres in the narrator, despite his work for the Resistance.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Scott, and for letting me respond. We can keep the conversation going in the comments, I hope. And I’d love for others to join in.

Among those who have already joined in are Jacqui, Meredith and Grant of JacquiWine's Journal, Dolce Bellezza, and 1streading's Blog, respectively. Please read their reviews/commentaries on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in the links!

Images by Filippo de Pisis, b. Ferrara 1896, d. Milan 1956

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

“…an eye open at the top of the most profound helplessness” – Laudomia Bonanni’s The Reprisal

An impressive literature has grown up around Italy’s partisans, those resistants who, particularly after the September 1943 ascension of Marshal Badoglio in Rome and the flight of Mussolini’s government to the town of Salò in the north, took to the hills to fight against Germany’s ferocious response to these events and against the Fascists who helped the Nazis along. Warfare under these circumstances became largely a series of attacks, raids and brutal reprisals against civilians, a civil war within the larger conflagration engulfing Europe.

Laudomia Bonanni’s short novel The Reprisal (La Rappresaglia) is as direct an approach to this subject as its title suggests. Bonanni, who grew up in the mountainous Abuzzo region where she sets her novel, goes for a particularly harrowing example of the types of reprisals that took place during the winter of 1943-44. A woman carrying hidden arms is seized by a small group of Fascist men and an adolescent boy hiding out in an abandoned monastery near the end of the war; discovering that she is in the late stages of pregnancy, they elect to delay her execution until she can deliver the child.

This is not a new literary topic, the examination of emotions and moral questions transpiring between the condemned and their accusers, but Bonanni’s choice of protagonist allows her to explore a range of issues around female independence and assertiveness; male attitudes towards women, sexuality and maternity; the complicity of the Catholic Church in the conflict; and above all the struggle to find dignity and meaning in a world ripped apart by war pitting neighbor against neighbor. In addition, The Reprisal is a rare work that attempts, albeit over only a few of its 140 pages, to deal with the suspicion-filled postwar co-existence of persons so recently committed to killing one another. Bonanni also cleverly evokes an image of the Holy Family, sans Joseph, the woman’s bare monastery cell echoing the simple manger where the Christ child was born, a fixed point to which other visitors are drawn: the monastery’s priest, a couple of wandering shepherds, two passing German soldiers, and two of the Fascists’ wives, who arrive with supplies. These last, complicit but at the same time aware enough to know that their husbands’ decision will haunt them the rest of their lives, serve to underscore Bonanni’s themes of an endless cycle of reprisals, the participants inescapably linked “by a chain,” and of the potential of women to break the cycle and chain.

Bonanni’s story makes for a close and intense reading experience. Her characters stand out starkly, as though conceived for the stage. Most memorable, certainly, is the woman herself, La Rossa, a paragon of fierce defiance who, by driving a wedge directly between her male captives’ divergent views of women as sexual objects and as revered mothers, exposes their weaknesses. Through caustic, pointed barbs and lengthy remonstrations, she strips the men of their pretentions to morality and compassion, leaving their violence and inadequacy raw and exposed. And yet Bonanni never allows La Rossa to become a caricature; her own weaknesses and vulnerabilities are on full display. When the oldest among her captives, Babaro, refuses to hand her over to the Germans because of the deal they have all made to spare her child, La Rossa responds with a searing mixture of contempt, sarcasm and palpable desperation:

“The child, eh, they pass the buck. Your good conscience is anxious for the innocent. You have captured me, kill me then. Go ahead, hand me over to eh Germans. They do not make a fuss, those people. They kill quickly. I want you to hurry up.” She was shouting now. “C’mon, riddle me right away. You have to shoot here, make a sieve of this whore’s belly with everything that’s inside it. Man’s semen, ha-ha. I’d like to use my nails to tear out the fruit of your filthy race of male hypocrites.” She was crumpling her skirt, panting as if her belly were fatally weighing her down.

Bonanni reveals this male hypocrisy again and again, for example through the Fascists’ risible attempt at a Christmas celebration and the priest’s insistence on ritual and absolution while the sentence against the woman hovers above all their futile attempts to live beyond the length of the chain that binds them. As the birth approaches, one of the men, Annaloro, anxiously exclaims, “We need boiling water. When my wife is giving birth, I am always given the job of boiling water.”

“Just to get you out of the way,” La Rossa teased, recovering in a moment of temporary relief. “Are you afraid I might get an infection in the next world?”

The adolescent boy, himself a victim of the war, his legs burned by a fire set by partisans, serves as foil and contrast to the older men around him, poignantly and painfully taking on their worst excesses yet retaining the emotional immaturity of a child. At once the most vicious and vulnerable of the males in the story, he plays a critical role in developing Bonanni’s themes regarding innocence and the responsibility of the world towards children.

What distinguishes The Reprisal from many other stories of partisan warfare is not only its focus on female experience, but also its employment of a highly imaginative narrative strategy. First Bonanni offers the conceit of a hidden story, proclaimed in the novel’s first lines: “These facts have never been revealed. No one has ever breathed a word. Everything buried. Soon the last shovelful of dirt will drop, so to speak, since I, the last, am old.” She also parcels out her difficult tale in small chunks, ten chapters divided into six numbered sections each that the translators, in their introduction, liken to cantos. Given the intensity of the story, one is grateful for this manner of structuring that, akin to the Kaddish in Jewish liturgy, provides an almost ritualistic and rhythmic quality for sustaining one’s engagement with difficult subject matter.

The most striking feature of the novel, though, one which only gradually reveals itself, is Bonanni’s unusual use of first person narration. Her narrator, already in the first lines announcing his role, slips in and out of the story. Sometimes he is present and referred to by the other characters – chastised at times by the woman, for example, and explicitly called by her “a witness here, our assiduous schoolteacher.” At other times he appears so detached an observer that one questions his existance as a living being, as he does himself: “But was I there? Maybe I wasn’t.” All we know for sure is that he is described as a teacher who has accompanied the Fascists to the monastery, “assigned to surveillance…alone and suspect” and “the only one who had refused a weapon.” He also clearly operates as an explicit literary invention of the author, serving as witness not simply to observe events but also as a literary vehicle for the telling of the tale, in this latter role functioning as a locus for the novel’s overarching theme concerning the responsibility implicit in the act of witnessing. Through this alternating presence and ineffability - and especially through the narrator’s behavior at a critical moment - Bonanni brilliantly entwines the reader in her witness’ responsibility, forces the reader’s own moral self-examination. Not content merely to tell a riveting war story, Bonanni never loses sight of her narrative as an explicitly literary enterprise that calls attention to how a tale is told and to the responsibilities involved in telling it. Adding additional complexity to these themes, Bonanni alludes to a notebook La Rossa has kept to recount her own story, a missing text with which the witness - and the reader - must reckon.

Bonanni, who published her first stories in 1927 and rose to fame due to winning a writing contest and to having been cheered along by poet Eugenio Montale, did not live to see The Reprisal published. Rejected when submitted for publication in 1985, the novel did not appear in Italian until 2003, nearly 20 years later, and evidence exists that Bonanni had worked on the manuscript since the end of the war – a span of some forty years. 70 years later, readers of English can be grateful to have access to a classic of World War II literature. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Invitation to Join in Reading Giorgio Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Image from Vittorio De Sica's film version of Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970)

Dorian (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau blog) and I have been discussing for some time a group effort at taking on Italian writer Giorgio Bassani's 1962 novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This work is the most well-known of Bassani's novels, which collectively form his "Ferrara Project," an interlacing narrative cycle about his native Ferrara, each volume of which nonetheless stands on its own. 

The story centers on Ferrara's Jewish community during the 1930's, and in particular around the middle class narrator and his increasing fixation on Micòl, daughter of the aristocratic Finzi-Contini family, whose garden and tennis court become a sanctuary for several of the city's young Jews under Mussolini's Fascism and the Race Laws of 1938. Bassani's intensely personal novel - his own father was among the nearly 200 Ferrarese Jews deported to concentration camps in 1943 and murdered there - stands among the most powerful acts of witness to the Holocaust. 

Three English translations of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis exist, by Isabel Quigley, William Weaver, and Jamie McKendrick. Dorian and I will both be reading the Weaver translation. We plan to post about the novel the week of May 22, and invite all of you to join in reading the book with us. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In and Out: Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel

One night, too many years ago, I successfully battled my parents to be allowed to stay up to finish watching a movie on TV that had me completely mesmerized. I’ve never forgotten the world that film opened, but it’s taken me decades to get around to reading the novel on which it was based: Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (1929). Enthusiastic reception to the book by bloggers Jacqui, Caroline and Dorian, however, led me to pick it up at last.

The distance between my childhood fixation on the film and my middle-aged encounter with the novel is more than temporal. Watching the film again for the first time in all those years after finishing the novel, however, I saw reasons for its having made such an impression: Greta Garbo’s over-the-top melodramatic acting; a character so drunk he stumbles all over his room then falls onto a bed and off of it, entwined entirely in a satin bedspread; a scene exciting to a ten year old of a thief jumping from a high balcony to another above a busy street. I recalled being especially transfixed by the hotel’s revolving door.

This revolving door provides the organizing principle of Baum’s novel, a simplistic one summed up in the novel’s final line: “The revolving door turns and turns – and swings…and swings…and swings…” Elsewhere Baum is more explicit; her omniscient narrator compares the Grand Hotel, “not inaptly,” to “life in general.” The guests, coming and going, ensconced in their separate rooms, inhabit separate solitudes. Yet the Grand Hotel serves as a crossroads. The diverse guests make fleeting acquaintances and liaisons at times intersecting the “downstairs” employees and breaching social codes that govern the world outside. A porter’s wife has a child; at the same moment, a murdered man is carried out of the hotel through the hotel’s ever turning, revolving door.

Baum achieves her task - to make of this simple conceit something interesting - by populating her novel with grand characters. Although they give the impression of having begun life as stock figures, Baum adorns and supplies enough complexity to keep the reader engaged with them: Grusinskaya, a famous ballet diva well aware of her shelf-life; Baron Gaigern, a goodhearted and debonair thief; Herr Preysing, a rotten-hearted provincial businessman desperate to please a domineering father-in-law; and Flämmchen, an attractive young typist intent on a career in film. Grand Hotel is most certainly a novel with its eye on nascent Hollywood, where the Jewish Baum, invited there to write the film’s script, would spend the last half of her life due to Hitler’s rise. Serving as the center of the novel’s action is Kringelein, a terminally-ill accountant determined to acquire a modicum of dignity after 27 years of servitude in Preysing’s factory and to live out his remaining days in the splendor in the Grand Hotel, and whose acute awareness of mortality shakes up the rigidities of the social mores and upstairs/downstairs class dynamic that govern the hotel’s guests and employees.

The ready-made setting and the explicitness of its operative metaphor feel pat; the character development feels slightly additive. Still, Baum’s strong writing sustained my interest. She throws into her narrative an attempted jewel theft by Gaigern that serves to amplify suspense and gives the novel a “Pink Panther”-esque caper element, milks Kringelein’s carpe diem moments for all they’re worth, and, astonishingly, even manages to make Preysing’s drawn out business meetings engrossing. In addition, in inventing the whole genre of the hotel novel, she cleverly uses a zoom effect (perhaps also advertising the novel’s cinematic consciousness), in giving her characters intense close-ups then pulling her camera back to reveal not only their commonality, but also a hint of their temporal replication, as new guests will arrive to replace the ones we’re allowed to see over the action’s brief span of a few days, and who have themselves replaced previous guests (a conceit presented literally in kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train, a “cheap motel” take on Baum’s “Grand Hotel” genre). Through Grusinskaya, Baum also alludes to other hotels in other cities of the world – a universal multitude of way-stations.

But it’s really the historical context and the small details that count here. Like Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, the confined setting serves as a microcosm for issues of class, station and gender. Baum’s Grand Hotel of 1920’s Berlin also slyly manifests the residual and still fresh scars of the First World War. In one understated example, the one-armed elevator operator is replaced by the subsequent shift’s one-armed elevator operator. Baum also casts an eye on devastated Germany’s crippled efforts to greet the future, as seen in a corrupt lie told by Preysing to save himself from economic ruin. Floating through the novel like a symbol of Germany caught between the past war’s wreckage and whatever the future may bring, is one other curious figure, Doctor Otternschlag, who literally holds life and death in his hands since he carries about morphine both for medical emergencies and for his own anticipated suicide. He has two faces – also literally – as one side, neatly divided from the other, presents a ghastly war wound into which is fitted a glass eye. A cinephile may make of that what he or she will.

Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film adaptation, seen now from my middle-aged perspective, improves upon Baum’s novel by confining the action to the hotel, whereas Baum wanders unnecessarily beyond its revolving door, for example by putting Grusinskaya on stage and by having Gaigern take Kringelein on a fast drive and up in a airplane. The film uses two clever visual devices to convey this concentration, one a stunning image of the hotel’s cylindrical atrium and the other an overhead panning shot of hotel switchboard operators busily connecting guests to one another and to the outside world. But the film lacks the subtlety of Baum’s characterization, and its rendition of the Baron’s encounter with Grusinskaya, for example, comes off as downright clumsy compared to the psychological elaborations present in Baum’s nuanced treatment.

As a vehicle for demonstrating its characters’ aspirations and desires, heightened by the hotel’s lending of glamour to life, as well as of their painful, sordid, corrupt fallibilities, Grand Hotel has its charms as well as something beyond charm, a poignant and troubling glimpse of Europe between the wars and of Berlin’s internationalism, a convocation of open-ended possibilities before the sanitizing iron heel of the thirties would come along to quash them. Little of all of that had been apparent to the ten year old watching the film, nor, reading Baum’s novel as an adult, did I experience the kind of immersive fascination I’d had way back when. Even so, one would be hard put to enter Baum’s glimpse of glittering, complicated lives passing through her Grand Hotel without experiencing a youthful yearning to be a part of its in and outs, ups and downs, and myriad goings-on -  as well as a more mature and dark, intractable and too human sense that one has, like it or not, already checked in.