Amor Towles’ “A Gentlemen in Moscow” describes a big life in a seemingly small world and paints a vibrant picture of Soviet history from 1922 through 1954. In this beautifully written and captivating story, Amor Towles tells a tale of the triumph of goodness over cruelty and hopefulness over despair. This second novel is as enjoyable and engaging as his first, “Rules of Civility.”
In 1922, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat For Internal Affairs sentences Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to spend the rest of his life inside the Hotel Metropol for writing the poem “Where Is It Now?”, which brashly asked the question, “where is our purpose now?” In imposing the sentence, the prosecutor pronounced that the Count “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” Instead, the Count is sentenced to a lifetime in the Hotel Metropol, where he has previously resided in luxurious accommodations. Of course, when he is returned to the Hotel, he is removed from his luxurious accommodations and moved to a single attic room.
In trying to adjust to his new circumstances, the Count tells himself that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” and that “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” And so the Count adjusts to the 30 or more years that he ultimately spends in the Hotel. Of course there are some challenges along the way.
The Hotel Metropol is a grand hotel. It has a cocktail bar, the Shalyapin, one of the finest restaurants in Moscow, the Boyarsky (its chef is described as 5 foot five and 200 pounds), a more casual restaurant, the Piazza, a barbershop, a flower shop, a full time seamstress and a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms. There is a lot of life in all of these places.
The Count befriends a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova, who is temporarily living in the hotel with her father and who introduces the Count to all of the secrets the Hotel has to offer. In return, the Count shares with Nina his wisdom and a lifetime friendship begins. This friendship enriches the Count’s life in ways that I will leave for you to discover when you read this delightful novel.
In the meantime, the Count’s college friend Mischka shows up at the Hotel while he is visiting Moscow to help plan the inaugural Congress of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The arrival of Mischka causes the Count to look back at his life in simpler days and gives us some history and context for the changes in the country described throughout the course of the novel. Mischka shows up periodically throughout the story, always reflecting the changing political environment.
While living at the Metropol, the Count meets people from all over the world, begins a love affair with a famous actress, spends many years tutoring a former red Army Colonel about the west, works as the head waiter at the Boyarsky and makes friends and enemies with the various people who lead their lives either in or through the Metropol.
Throughout the book we learn a lot about the changes in Russian politics, sometimes through historical detail and sometimes through plot. My favorite example involves wine and the Boyarsky. The Count, a wine and food connoisseur, dines at the Boyarsky most evenings and is very selective about his wine. One evening in 1924, at the Boyarsky, the Count orders a bottle of Barolo and is told his choices are a red or a white. Asking for the restaurant manager, the Count is taken to the Hotel’s wine cellar, housing more than 100,000 bottles. “And every one of them without a label.” The explanation? “A complaint was filed with Comrade Teodorov, the Commissioner of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.” In 1930, “[T]hanks to a member of the Central Committee, who had tried unsuccessfully to order a bottle of Bordeaux for the new French ambassador, wines with labels could once again be found in the Metropol’s cellar.”
A lot of life and a lot of history takes place in this story, all told with humor, compassion and thoughtfulness. I leave it to you to discover. I finished the book wishing I knew more about Russian history and culture. The book comes out in September but I recommend you reserve it now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213160__Sa%20gentleman%20in%20moscow__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold