Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Yes, I know, this is a film not a book but for lovers of Stefan Zweig everywhere, I have to bring it to your attention.   Having been told about it and urged to see it by a good friend I was completely taken with it.  

It is directed by Wes Anderson with an extraordinary cast - Saoirse Ronan, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton - and headlining the credits at the end of the film is the legend, 'based on the writings of Stefan Zweig'.   And indeed it takes its cue from one of Zweig's favourite formats in his novellas, that of the narrator striking up an acquaintance with a stranger while staying in an hotel and being told his or her life story.   In this instance, it is an elderly man, Zero, who tells the story of his life as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel, under the patronage of the legendary concierge, Gustave H. during the thirties.   

We not only have the story and his experiences as a lowly page boy in this middle Europe hotel but also an entertaining escapade involving a stolen painting and a vast fortune with a lot of humour reminiscent of the silent movies and so peculiarly appropriate to the period.   All of the action takes place against the backdrop of the unsettling rise of fascism and the approaching war.

This was an issue that particularly occupied Zweig who was born in 1881 in Vienna and was living in Salzburg in the thirties.   Being Jewish, the rise of fascism disturbed him greatly and he left Austria in 1934 going first to London, then New York and finally Brazil where sadly in 1942, he and his wife committed a double suicide.

Zweig is perhaps best known for his novellas and we have Pushkin Press to thank for not only expert translations but publishing them in very beautiful editions.   He wrote two novels, Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl.  But to really capture the man and the time and place he grew up in, one should read his autobiography The World of Yesterday.   He lived in the golden age of literary Vienna, numbering among his friends Joyce, Rilke, Yeats and Gorky and the book is described as 'both a recollection of the past and a warning for future generations'.   Given its title, it is not inappropriate that Zero says at the end of his story in the film, 'I think M. Gustave lived in a world that was already past'.

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