A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to newly written novels coming out, preferring mostly to check out reprints or fresh translations of lost gems. However, one title which kept slipping into my line of vision and demanded attention was “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. I was a little uncertain about this, wondering if it would be a case of emperor’s new clothes and whether the author could capture properly the setting of Soviet Russia. However, I read so many good things about the book that I finally succumbed; and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.
The book opens with the gentleman of the title, one Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, appearing before a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. Normally, an ex-member of the aristocracy would be up against the wall and shot before you could say Lenin, but in this case Rostov’s life is spared, owing to a pre-revolutionary poem he wrote in support of the cause. Instead, the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he’d been staying until summoned. Escorted back to the building, he finds that instead of returning to his luxurious suite, he’s instead moved to a tiny garret room with as many of his belongings as he can squeeze in. Thus begins the new life of Sasha Rostov.
The Count tends to treat everything that comes at him with equanimity, and so he initially attempts to make the best of things by reading his father’s volume of Montaigne essays and settling into his new dwellings. And he finds a novel way to extend his room to give a little more space and comfort, as well as continuing with many of his routines – as he has a secret stash of gold to enable him to send out for whatever he wants, he can continue to dine in the restaurant, visit the bar and have his hair seen to at the barbers. It is the shaving off of his moustache after an encounter with a worker waiting at the barbers which in turn causes a pivotal meeting in his life – with Nina, a 9-year-old also confined to the hotel while her parents are in Moscow. Nina opens up the secrets of the hotel to the Count, showing him the below-stairs view, and his life will never be the same again.
… we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity – all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance … until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.
But, of course, a thing is just a thing.
The book spans several decades from the time that Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, becoming a Former Person, and cleverly Towles doesn’t attempt to cover each and every part of that period in one continuous narrative. Instead, he drops us into the Count’s life at strategic points where we can find out how his life has changed and developed, as well as observing what has been happening in the wider world and how it impinges on life in the Metropol. Each section of the book brilliantly captures the flavour of the times whilst never losing sight of the fact that the main focus is on Rostov’s story. I don’t want to give away specifics, but suffice to say that the Count manages to have a love life, a kind of family life, friends and a career, all within the confines of the Metropol Hotel. Rostov may be confined, but the hotel is a microcosm of the world, and life comes to him.
If it sounds like the plot has the potential to be a little restricted be assured it isn’t, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Towles’ writing is elegant and absorbing, drawing you into the story and keeping you firmly involved from the start. Secondly, the Count himself is a wonderfully realised character about whom you can’t help but care. Then there’s the constant changes taking place around him – despite his confinement he has numerous experiences and adventures proving that you can lead a rich and full life even if you are stuck in a hotel forever. He encounters during his life two small female children and, interestingly, his response is different in both cases owing to the circumstances in which he finds himself and the changes in the world around him. He also develops strong friendships with fellow hotel workers, as well as an unexpected romantic attachment, all of which are a joy to behold.
As the story develops, the Count’s past is gradually revealed, most often through encounters with his old pre-revolutionary friend Mishka; the latter is also a poet and has embraced the revolution with fervour, worshipping the quartet of Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Bulgakov. There is also the story of Sasha’s beloved lost sister Helena, and her story shows that the aristocracy had plenty to feel guilty about.
Yes, those were Elysian days, thought Mishka. But like Elysium they belonged to the past. They belonged with waistcoats and corsets, with quadrilles and bezique, with the ownership of souls, the payment of tribute, and the stacking of icons in the corner. They belonged in an age of elaborate artifice and base superstition – when a lucky few dined on cutlets of veal and the majority endured in ignorance.
Of course there is an undercurrent of threat at all times – despite the apparent flippancy of the Count and the seemingly lightness of the story, Towles never lets us forget that there is a totalitarian regime in control and that life hangs by a slender thread. KGB agents stalk the city, Communist leaders attend banquets in private rooms, one functionary relies on Rostov to educate him on the ways of other countries, people are shipped off to Siberia (or worse) and when a particular dramatic event occurs it becomes clear how closely the Count is being watched. The story builds to an exciting and perhaps unexpected climax, with the author and the Count saving plenty of twists until the end.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” turned out to be a wonderfully rich and involving novel; Towles’ writing is just excellent, full of clever touches and metafictional aspects. He often breaks the fourth wall with digressions and footnotes and occasional direct dialogue with the reader, all of which is entertaining and adds to the joy of the book. I found myself constantly appreciating the skill of the author with such little details as the fact that each chapter title consists of a word, or a number of words, that start with the letter A. And his description of the Count trying to read the worthy Montaigne and being unable to stay focused on it struck many chords with me! Towles also very convincingly stirs into the mix real historical figures, from the Communist leaders through to legendary American foreign correspondent Harrison Salisbury, which adds further to the authenticity of the narrative.
However, there *is* much more to the book than just high jinks and adventures in a hotel. There is a regular dialogue on the pros and cons of the revolution, the role of the aristocracy and whether the revolution was a good thing. Although many of the new people in power are seen to be insensitive and unintelligent, so are many of the aristocracy. The book is surprisingly even-handed and the Count is not condemnatory or judgemental of the regime; much like Yuri Zhivago, he accepts that the change is for the best and although he rues his lost way of life, he’s clear-eyed enough to see its flaws, and Towles allows one character to give an interesting viewpoint on the changes the revolution brought:
The Bolsheviks are not Visigoths, Alexander. We are not the barbarian hordes descending upon Rome and destroying all that is fine out of ignorance and envy. It is the opposite. In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate state in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden ploughs, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?
In fact, Rostov goes through a series of symbolic transformations, most significantly the shedding of his moustache early in the book, and the radical shift from aristocrat to worker halfway through. A late statement in the book that he has not had to access his gold hoard for some time is significant, and it seems that the Count has found life, work and fulfilment all within the confines of a hotel, which is obviously intended as a metaphor for the wider world. No doubt Towles intends that we should reflect on the adaptability of human beings, and certainly we can learn to survive in most situations.
It is a well-known face that of all the species on earth Homo sapiens is among the most adaptable. Settle a tribe of them in a desert and they will wrap themselves in cotton, sleep in tents, and travel on the backs of camels; settle them in the Arctic and they will wrap themselves in sealskin, sleep in igloos, and travel by dog-drawn sled. And if you settle them in a Soviet climate? They will learn to make friendly conversation with strangers while waiting in line; they will learn to neatly stack their clothing in their half of the bureau drawer; and they will learn to draw imaginary buildings in their sketchbooks. That is, they will adapt.
As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved this book. Ideal for reading in the anniversary year of the 1917 revolution, it’s a winning combination of good writing, clever plotting, wonderful characterisation and a fascinating subtext – would that more modern novels aspired to such quality. The blurb on the dustjacket states “He can’t leave. You won’t want to”, and while I try to resist most advertising, I have to say that I didn’t want this book to end and I was really sad to leave the company of the Count and his friends!
(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)