A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published by Windmill Books, tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution. The Count becomes a “former person“, losing his land and most of his wealth, but never his class or his charm. Rostov, because of certain connections inside the ruling party, doesn’t lose his life like so many other aristocrats at the time, but only his freedom, being confined to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for the remainder of his life. In the opening pages we read in a hearing transcript,
“But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside the Metropol again, you will be shot.”
This is a complex, finely written story with several complementary narratives at work layered over the backdrop of the Count as a former person. How does he maintain his composure given the circumstances? How does he preserve, if not his lifestyle, then at least who he is in the face of this most recent change of fortunes?
As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. From primitive tribes to the most advanced societies, someone has occasionally been told by his fellow men to pack his bags, cross the border, and never set foot on his native soil again. But perhaps this was to be expected. After all, exile was the punishment that God meted out to Adam in the very first chapter of the human comedy; and the He meted out to Cain a few pages later. Yes, exile was as old as mankind. But the Russians were the first people to master the notion of sending a man to exile at home.
Like most of us, the Count’s thoughts initially turn to what his life would be like if things were different, but quickly reminds himself that,
…imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.
Then, just as quickly,
Having acknowledged that a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them, the Count thought it worth considering how one was most likely to achieve this aim when one had been sentenced to a life of confinement.
And so our story settles into its first act, where Count Rostov makes the Metropol his home, establishing routines about when and where he drinks and eats, when he visits the barber and when he retires in the evenings. He even overcomes being summarily dismissed from his suite to a room in the attic that was previously used for storage. The Count successfully masters his circumstances, which in novels and in life, is usually an invitation for Fate to intercede.
During lunch one day at his usual table in the Piazza dining room, the Count is interrupted by a precocious young resident of the Hotel named Nina. Nina is well mannered and thoughtful, but also about six years old, possessed by the questions and charm of children of that age. Needless to say, this clashes with the Count’s well regimented life. And yet, Nina is just what Rostov needs. Although improbable, their friendship blossoms and allows us to see the world through Nina eyes while we experience the growth of the Count in so many ways.
Throughout the novel we continue to learn what it is to be a gentleman, as it isn’t just a trite word in the title of the book. Yes, we experience the Count racing through the Hotel halls and ducking behind potted palms with Nina, but in all things and everywhere, Rostov is who he is. This is manifested in acts of kindness and gentility, as well as frustration and outrage at those around him who view the world in less civil ways as when sitting at his table in the Piazza and overhearing a young couple at a nearby table.
…what’s more, the young man, having adopted an expression as serious as hers, was clearly out of his depth. Were he to venture his own opinion now, he would almost certainly be revealed as a poseur, as one who was inadequately informed on the crucial issues of the day. From there, the evening could only get worse, and he would end up dragging his hopes behind him in the manner of a chastened child who drags his stuffed bear thumping up the stairs. But just as the young lady was inviting him to share his thoughts on the matter, the accordion player began a little number with Spanish flair. It must have struck a chord, because she interrupted herself in order to look at the musician and wonder aloud where that melody was from.
“It is from The Nutcracker,” the young man responded without a thought.
“The Nutcracker…,” she repeated.
Given the prevailing sobriety of her expression, it was unclear what she thought of this music from another era. As such, many a veteran would have counseled the young man to proceed with caution – to wait and hear what associations the music held for her. Instead, he acted; and he acted boldly.
“When I was a boy, my grandmother took me every year.”
The young lady turned back from the musician to face her companion.
“I suppose some think music sentimental,” he continued, “but I never fail to attend the ballet when it is performed in December, even if it means attending alone.”
Well done, lad. The expression on the girl’s face softened noticeably and her eyes displayed a hint of interest, that here was an unexpected aspect of her new acquaintance, something pure and heartfelt and unapologetic. Her lips were parted as she prepared to ask a question –
“Are you ready to order?”
It was the Bishop leaning over their table. Of course they are not ready to order, the Count wished to shout. As any fool can see! If the young man were wise, he would send the Bishop packing and ask the young lady to go on with her question. Instead, he dutifully picked up the menu. Perhaps he imagined that the perfect dish would leap off the page and identify itself by name. But for a hopeful young man trying to impress a serious young woman, the menu of the Piazza was as perilous as the Straits of Messina. On the left was a Scylla of lower-priced dishes that could suggest a penny-pinching lack of flair; on the right was a Charybdis of delicacies that could empty one’s pockets while painting on pretentious.
The young man’s gaze drifted back and forth between these opposing hazards. But in a stroke of genius, he ordered the Latvian stew. While this traditional dish of pork, onions, and apricots was reasonably priced, it was also reasonably exotic; and it somehow harkened back to that world of grandmothers and holidays and sentimental melodies that they had been about to discuss when so rudely interrupted.
“I’ll have the same,” said our serious young lady.
The same! And she glanced at her hopeful young acquaintance with a touch of that tenderness that Natasha had shown Pierre in War and Peace at the end of Volume Two.
“And would you like some wine to go with your stew?” asked the Bishop.
The young man hesitated and then picked up the wine list with uncertain hands. It may well have been the first time in his life that he had ordered a bottle of wine. Never mind that he didn’t grasp the merits of the 1900 versus the 1901, he didn’t know a Burgundy from a Bordeaux. Giving the young man no more than a minute to consider his options, the Bishop leaned forward and poked the list with a condescending smile.
“Perhaps the Rioja.”
The Rioja? Now there was a wine that would clash with the stew as Achilles clashed with Hector. It would slay the dish with a blow to the head and drag it behind its chariot until it tested the fortitude of every man in Troy. Besides, it plainly cost three times what the young man could afford. Here had been an ideal opportunity for a waiter to fulfill his purpose. By recommending a suitable wine, he could have put a young man at ease, perfected a meal, and furthered the cause of romance, all in a stroke. But whether from a lack of subtlety or a lack of sense, the Bishop had not only failed in his purpose, he had put his customer in a corner. And the young man, clearly unsure of what to do and beginning to feel as if the whole restaurant were watching, was on the verge of accepting the Bishop’s suggestion.
“If I may,” the Count interjected. “For a serving of Latvian stew, you will find no better choice than a bottle of Mukuzani.”
Leaning toward their table and mimicking the perfectly parted fingers of Andrey, the Count gestured to the entry on the list. That this wine was a fraction of the cost of the Rioja need not be a matter of a discussion between gentlemen.
Instead, the Count simply noted, “The Georgians practically grow their grapes in the hope that one day they will accompany such a stew.”
The young man exchanged a brief glance with his companion as if to say, Who is this eccentric? But then he turned to the Bishop.
“A bottle of the Mukuzani.”
“Of course,” replied the Bishop.
And thus was see a bit of foreshadowing, for in A Gentleman in Moscow, years and sometimes decades pass, all within the confines of the Metropol. In the next act, Count Rostov has simply become Alexander Rostov, headwaiter of the Boyarsky.
It is as headwaiter that we see Rostov truly come into his own. Imagine how mentally painful it would be to be locked in a hotel for years without any real purpose. Yes, for an aristocrat like Count Rostov it must be a humbling experience to become a waiter, but Rostov treats it as his calling and we are reminded of the joy and fulfillment that comes from a job well done and from being of service to others. Through it all we are reminded of the value of manners, kindness, and friendship. In short, we are reminded that a man is not a gentleman because of his means or his social status, but because of the way he views himself and the way he views others. Throughout the book I found myself inspired by Rostov’s class to stand a little straighter and be just a little more polite, a little more thoughtful.
In the next act we meet Sophia, daughter of Nina, the original little girl in Rostov’s life. Yes, years have passed but more importantly, we see how the years and experiences that preceded this moment prepared Rostov for what is to come. Where with Nina, Rostov was “Uncle Alexander”, with Sophia he becomes “Papa” and once again fulfills a calling he didn’t know he had.
Alexander Rostov was neither scientist not sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve – if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.
There is much more to the novel but I’ll not take the risk of revealing more than I already have except to say that as with any good Russian novel there is tragedy, intrigue, humor, deception, and love.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is one of the best, most fun and enjoyable novels I have read in some time. Throughout its pages I continually pictured myself in the Metropol Hotel, sitting at a nearby table or eavesdropping on Rostov’s conversations at the bar. I cannot recommend it to you enough.
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