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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Creature of the Air - George Stewart's Storm

A recent succession of crazy winter storms in California has had me thinking of George R. Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm, a book I’d have been unlikely to pick up had it not been urged upon me by a bookstore owner eager to clear the shelves of his shuttering store. Its back cover featured an illustration of San Francisco from the air (encouraging: local interest); the dust jacket promised the story of a catastrophic storm slamming into the Golden State (also encouraging: I’d recalled once reading that among the most powerful hurricanes on record had occurred off California’s coast); and finally (amusing if not so encouraging) the blurbs on the back were of the subtly ambiguous sort one sometimes discovers to be backhanded: “I shouldn’t be at all surprised to see it set a new style in fiction;” “It’s marvelous that the effectiveness of the treatment equals the originality of the idea!”

Well, I thought, at least it’s about San Francisco. Perhaps it’ll be entertaining.

A quick visit to Wikipedia, however, gave me two more pieces of information I might hold against the book. First, Storm, featuring a Junior Meteorologist fond of naming storms after his girlfriends, directly led to the convention of using women’s names for hurricanes until the introduction of a non gender-specific system in 1978. It’s perhaps unfortunate that the “J. M.,” as he’s known in the novel, didn’t get overruled by his boss, the Chief Meteorologist, more inclined to reference conquering historical figures such as Hannibal, Marshal Ney and Genghis Khan - though one shudders at the directions that nomenclature plan could have taken. Second, the troublesome “J. M.” bestows upon the menacing storm of the book’s title the name “Maria,” which apparently inspired Lerner and Loewe to write “They Call The Wind Maria,” the popular ear-worm from their musical, Paint Your Wagon.

Once I opened the book, further disappointment: the two elements that had drawn me to the novel scarcely figure into it at all. Most of the action takes place in the Sierra Nevada, not in San Francisco. In fact nothing notable about the city even features in Storm, which might have been written by someone who’d never visited the place. Second, the colossal hurricane I’d expected never occurs. Maria is a big storm, and drops lots of rain and snow on California, which in most years the state needs badly. But having experienced big winter storms in California, I can attest that Maria is simply not that spectacular. In fact, there’s exactly nothing spectacular about it. I kept waiting for ruinous disaster. There’s always a mildly suspenseful hint of the possibility of things getting worse, but then – suddenly - nothing happens. If Irwin Allen had taken this approach, only a floor or two of his tower would have been an inferno, probably quickly extinguished by a competent and fast-thinking team of custodians.

“Custodians,” though, actually lie at the center of Storm – I mean, aside from the storm itself, which clearly serves as Stewart’s chief protagonist and antagonist. Narratively following in the vein of John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, Stewart’s novel is a montage of anecdotes arranged together to demonstrate how different people with different roles are affected by and react to disaster. Readers will also recognize this arrangement as one common to Hollywood disaster films: a set of stock characters populates the affected setting, whether it be a capsized ship, a damaged airplane, or a town threatened by earthquake, fire, tsunami, pandemic, zombie invasion, sharknado, or  [insert-calamity-here] .  In Storm these characters consist primarily of nameless workers whose jobs require them to battle the storm’s ravages: snowplow drivers, telephone switchboard operators, linemen, an airline pilot flying through the storm, an airport supervisor, meteorologists (of course), plus a panoply of “ordinary people” including someone named Max and someone named Jen - unmarried young lovers who drive from Reno to San Francisco and disappear on the way back as though in punishment for sinful contamination by the Barbary Coast. Stewart also conjures a few animal characters: an owl fried on an electrical line, a coyote that tramps through the snow sniffing unusual odors emanating from Man (this is the kind of novel in which “Man” must almost always be capitalized), and perhaps the best drawn figure in the entire book, one of the few to merit an actual name, Big Blue, a wild boar that gets swept into an overflowing creek, clogs up a drainage pipe, and causes the railroad to be washed out. This poor porker aside, most of Stewart’s portraits call to mind those featured on WPA murals or socialist-realist propaganda posters: heroic workers whose individual contributions serve the greater cause. The men are competent, courageous, burly (we glimpse one reading an issue of Ranch Life). The leaders among them hold titles like “the Chief” or “the General,” the latter a retired military man in charge of flood control in the Sacramento River Delta. Stewart seems largely uninterested in the women, who tend to fret a lot, and his attitude seems well summed up by the Chief Meteorologist’s declaration that “Storms are hussies!” Small wonder the J.M.’s sexist naming system achieved such traction.

Storm is written in a style that wears a lab coat and speaks with a philosopher’s voice. It’s marked by a slightly authoritarian and even more slightly, almost affably pedantic ponderousness concerning the condition of Man. Fortunately, Stewart limits his rhapsodizing about Man’s powerlessness against Nature mostly to the initial paragraphs of each chapter, one devoted to each of the 12 days from the storm’s birth in the western Pacific to its petering out over the U.S. east coast. Occasionally, though, his high-flung meditations turn on mildly provocative conceits: “As a crab moves on the ocean-bottom, but is of the water, so man rests his feet upon the earth – but lives in the air. Man thinks of the crab as a water-animal; illogically and curiously, he calls himself a creature of the land.”

Several other strengths balance out and even outweigh the book’s deficiencies. First, it’s a romp of a story; I gulped it down at one sitting. It is also, despite taking a wide-angle view, extremely well sourced. According to the jacket, Stewart spent a full two years conducting research for the book, particularly in meteorology, and as in a mathematics problem set, he has shown his work. In fact, Storm may well be the perfect gift for the Junior Meteorologist in your family. Stewart’s understanding of the formation of storms and of the globally linked series of phenomena that produce weather appears formidable, at least to a lay reader. Stewart fairly broadcasts understanding of this interconnectedness, that a winter storm in California is also part of a larger weather system that has no regional boundaries:

…even a perfect solution of the problem would unfortunately have brought no comfort to the sweltering people of Uruguay and Argentina. While Chicago newsboys were crying, ‘Six die of cold!’ twenty-two persons were treated for heat-prostration in Buenos Aires, and a man dropped dead in the Plaza Belgrano.

Stewart also offers up numerous fascinating descriptions of the interaction of air masses, reminiscent of the similarly granular and scientific descriptions of tides and currents in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands.

For those interested in regional history, Storm contains an impressive wealth of detail about communications, transport and emergency response systems in California prior to WWII. One will learn more than one ever wanted to know.

Finally, Stewart’s vocation as a Professor of Literature – he taught at Berkeley for years and wrote a study of Bret Harte - can’t help but poke its head into his narrative, with frequent references to writers and philosophers. Even Gertrude Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass, alas” gets turned to parody when “Seagulls on the grass, alas” indicates a menacing shift in the weather (though Stewart’s parody falls rather short compared to James Thurber’s expert milking of this phrase in  “There’s an Owl in My Room”).  

Storm is an entertaining and engaging contribution, and would likely have been better known had not its 1941 publication date coincided with the U.S. entry into that other great storm, World War II. Though Stewart employs metaphors of combat throughout, even explicitly acknowledging the role of the First World War in influencing the vocabulary around weather, a reading capable of finding direct metaphorical correspondence between the storm and the expanding war would appear tenuous. Put another way, Stewart is seriously interested in weather, and besides, the book’s themes of social cooperation and group effort in the face of calamity need no more explicit tweaking for a reader to conform them to historical context. But in the novel’s anticipation of “earth system science” – the holistic, stochastic view of natural forces at work - Storm is especially apparent and even prescient. Stewart displays a keen understanding of human interconnectedness and the absurdity and danger of holding narrow views that ignore it or that shun empirical evidence. If for no other reason than Storm’s depiction of this visionary approach, the novel’s contemporary relevance outweighs its dated aspects. But even those have their appeal; I could not help experiencing nostalgia for a period I did not live through in wishing that writers still produced novels like this one, fat with regional detail, defiantly optimistic, and cognizant of global interrelatedness and of the imperative of recognizing our entwined destinies. 30 years later, following what a more or less direct path from Stewart, another Californian, Stewart Brand, would emphasize and popularize these last themes through the image of the whole earth as photographed by the Apollo space missions.

Views of the earth from space today reveal tens of millions of dead trees in the Sierra Nevada, a result of the previous five years of drought, and since California’s dry season approaches, I may be ready by summer’s end to take on a subsequent George Stewart novel, with another succinctly encompassing title: Fire. If for some reason that doesn’t provide enough in the way of catastrophe, Stewart’s next, best known work, Earth Abides, is said to depict the apocalyptic end of civilization. Cheers.