In Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.
Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.
His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.
It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.
The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?
The answer is unquestionably yes.
Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.
No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.” he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby; dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.
As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.
Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First, the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant. This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:
Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.
Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side. His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture. When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.
With the exception of twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters. I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.
About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.
Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:
Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings
Lisa at ANZLitLovers