” On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov–recipient of the order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt–is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.
Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.
Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?”
This passage is found on the back cover of the edition of author Amor Towles’ second and most recent novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, that I’ve just finished, and it serves very nicely as an introduction to the story, setting the stage, as it were.
But beginning in 1922 and concluding open-ended in 1954, A Gentleman in Moscow is much, much more than the tale of a life without luxury. In fact, while reading through its four-hundred plus pages, it struck me that the novel’s most rewarding irony–it is a wonderfully ironic tale–is that by condemning the Count to imprisonment in the Hotel Metropol for the rest of his life, the EMERGENCY COMMITTEE OF THE PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT FOR INTERNAL AFFAIRS inadvertently made him perhaps the only person in Russia assured of living in a bubble of old world luxury, as insulated as possible from the bulldozing effects of the Bolshevik revolution and later, of brutalist and brutal Stalinism.
When I began reading the book, I felt a pang as soon as it became clear that this gentleman, Alexander Rostov, was well and truly trapped, permanently, inside the gilded cage of the Metropol. It made me uncomfortable to cast my imagination forward to the middle and final sections of the book, wondering how on earth Amor Towles was going to be able to keep his story going without it becoming claustrophobic, but I needn’t have: he pulls it off with gusto.
Knowing that the first half of his novel would be dedicated to establishing all of the elements necessary to bring the reader to his—and the Count’s—chosen destination, the author spent several years meticulously planning every aspect of its plot, characters and setting before completing the writing of the first draft in 18 months. In his words:
“When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed.”
Readers most assuredly do both.
After the Count himself, perhaps the brightest star of the novel is language. The notion of “linguistic register” comes to mind here, because it’s what’s being played with throughout the novel and shapes the latter in fascinating ways. Towles’ use of English is reminiscent of PG Wodehouse, whom the Concise Cambridge History of English Literature opined had “a gift for the highly original aptness of phrase that almost suggests a poet struggling for release among the wild extravagances of farce.”
Well, there is much of that in Towles’ book. A Gentleman of Moscow is written in the language of another century. It is the language of another mindset. Towles explores the elegance of language—language as an expression of social class; as an instrument of humour, of diplomacy and of self-protection. In the Count’s case, rarely do his interlocutors know what hit them until it’s too late (clever fellow), as in a scene from the first half of the novel. Having overheard a conversation between a Brit and a German at the hotel’s bar, in which a German claims that the only contribution the Russians made to the West was the invention of vodka, the Count steps in and says:
“Excuse me, gentlemen. I couldn’t help but overhear your exchange. I have no doubt, mein Herr, that your remark regarding Russia’s contribution to the West was a form of inverted hyperbole—an exaggerated diminution of the facts for poetic effect. Nonetheless, I will take you at your world and happily accept your challenge.”
After which, in a delicious scene, the Count goes on to make an unimpeachable case for Russian literature, classical composers and…vodka, while drinking his bar mates under the table. There are times, however, when Towles’ choice of register makes his characters seem needlessly supercilious or pompous, and thus less real to the reader, but mostly, his writing is a delight (and, I imagine, a joy to hear in audio book format).
This tale of confinement is told in a manner that might, at first, lead you to think that the Count is as superficial as a pastry chef’s glaze. He is anything but that. A story spanning so many decades allows the reader to become acquainted with so many more layers of the Count, but also with all of the other characters who work or live at the Metropol, especially the Count’s lover, Anna Urbanova, the actress; Master chef Emile Zhukovsky; Andrey Duras the Maître d’ (and master juggler) ; Marina, the Hotel seamstress; Mishka (Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich), the writer and passionate, tragic, broken-hearted Bolshevik and best friend of the Count. There is also the Count’s nemesis, Comrade Leplevsky—mostly referred to as The Bishop by the count and his friends—a weasel and bureaucratic zealot who squirms all the way up the ladder to become the Hotel’s manager—and who obliges the happy reader by playing his part on the Count’s mental chess board to a tee.
Finally, there’s Nina Kulikova, whom the Count meets when she is still of grade school age, living at the Hotel with her guardian, and with whom he forms a lasting friendship. Though an improbable pairing, the thirty year-old count learns to see the world through Nina’s intelligent and curious eyes. Nina has somehow gotten her hands on a Hotel passkey, and has explored every inch of the Hotel, including its hidden rooms and passages. She quickly initiates the Count into this secret world she moves through. Before leaving the Hotel after a very long stay, Nina entrusts her passkey to the Count.
Nina’s impact on his life doesn’t end there. Roughly two decades later (in the second half of the novel), she will return to the Hotel, undercover and deadly serious, to leave her daughter Sofia, just five years old, in the Count’s care, hoping to retrieve her in a month or two. Perhaps the most affecting part of the novel’s second half is the love that grows between the Count and this small, serious little girl, whom he comes to care for as his own daughter.
Different shapes and metaphors came to mind as I read the book, one of them I share with Towles himself, which is that of an accordion, because the narrative starts small and very specific in both time and space, progressively opening up and taking bigger leaps through the years, until finally closing in on itself at last, down to an almost minute-by-minute dénouement.
But while reading, I thought, too, of the matryoshka doll—those lovely painted wooden dolls that fit one inside the other until the most deeply hidden one, exactly like the others in every detail, is as small as a nut. There is that, too, in the story of the Count’s existence in a tiny attic room inside a Hotel, in the city of Moscow, in a country in the grips of radical transformation, on the cusp of a second transcontinental world war.
Filled with meticulous and acute observations about human behaviour, the recounting of the journey of Count Alexander Rostov through time, if not space, is a wonder. And though it was published in 2016, it was also eerily prescient. Of course I was struck by the irony of reading a story about someone in lockdown, while in lockdown. And then, as I turned the pages, the walls fell away, and what mattered was that within the confines of the Count’s life at the Hotel Metropol, there was food, warmth, conversation, work, friends, family and ultimately, so much love. How can this not resonate with readers here, now?
“I fear I have done you a great disservice, Sofia. From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the four walls of this building. We all have. Marina, Andrey, Emile and I. We have ventured to make the hotel seem as wide and wonderful as the world, so that you would opt to spend more time in it with us. But your mother was perfectly right. One does not fulfill one’s potential by listening to Sheherazade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den. One does so by setting forth into a vast unknown—just like Marco Polo when he traveled to China, or Columbus, when he traveled to America. (…) For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.” -Count Alexander Rostov from A Gentleman in Moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow is apparently being made into a limited series for television.