Reviewed by Annabel
Amor Towles’ debut novel Rules of Civility was one of the best books I read in 2011. Although Towles graduated in English back in the late 1980s, he worked as an investment professional for over twenty years before publishing that first novel, a dazzling portrait of life in Manhattan before WWII in a Gatsby meets Mad Men kind of style. I’ve been hoping that Towles would produce another book ever since.
That second novel is A Gentleman in Moscow and it couldn’t be more different from his first, although its period setting pushes the jazz age buttons again – this time tempered with Russian revolutionary zeal. I’ll say up front – there are no second novel worries for fans of his first here; for me, A Gentleman in Moscow narrowly surpasses Rules of Civility – it was utterly entrancing.
The year is 1922, and Moscow is in the flux of change. Count Alexander Rostov has been residing in a suite of rooms in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel for four years; however, in the prologue to the novel we find him in the dock and found guilty of writing a counter-revolutionary poem, (which prefaces the prologue). Prosecutor Vyshinsky announces the verdict:
Alexander Ilyich Rostov, taking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is It Now? 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. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of this committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.
Thus sentenced to house arrest, Count Alexander Rostov is marched from the Kremlin across Red Square into the nearby Hotel. He will have to find a new way to live his life. The first change is that he has been evicted from his suite of rooms with one of the best views in Moscow to a tiny attic in the former servants’ quarters. He has to downsize his life and his possessions.
Tis a funny thing, reflected the Count as he stood ready to abandon his suite. From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family. […] But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn’t welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends.
A sentiment that all bibliophiles will agree with! It’s not just his possessions though: the Count needs to find other interests to keep him stimulated and not feeling imprisoned. He begins to make friends with the hotel’s staff, the bartenders, the waiters, the chefs, the seamstress, not forgetting the hotel cat, Kutuzov. He also makes friends with other guests – including nine-year-old Nina, who is residing there with her governess. Nina needs a father figure in her life, and over the ensuing decades, as Nina grows up, comes and goes from the Hotel, the Count will become that surrogate for her.
Then there is Anna Urbanova. The Count happens to be in the foyer as the willowy actress arrives with her Borzois, who instantly chase Kutuzov before trotting over to the Count who scratches them behind the ears.
‘Thank you,’ she said (with a smile that presumed to launch armadas). ‘I’m afraid that they are quite ill bred.’
‘On the contrary,’ replied the Count, ‘they appear to be perfectly bred.’
The willow made a second effort at her smile.
‘What I meant to say is that they are ill behaved.’
‘Yes, perhaps ill behaved; but that is a matter of handling, not breeding.’
It’s not a good start to a relationship that will become a tender love affair that lasts the decades. Anna can’t resist the Count, nor he her. Again, like Nina, she will pass through his life many times.
Day to day though, it is the hotel staff that provide friendship and stability for the Count, who finds that a life lived well is as good, if not better, than a life lived with no expense spared (although not all of his riches were confiscated). The Metropol has several restaurants, and the Count begins to wait tables at the smartest of them, working with chef Emile and maître d’ Andrey. The Count’s long-cultivated knowledge of Emile’s cuisine, the wine list and his skill for seating customers in the best arrangements are much valued.
Although under house arrest, the Count remains a man of interest to the Party. One day in 1930, a former colonel seeks his help. Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov wants to understand the West, and for years they dine together monthly in a private room discussing Western culture. Inevitably, they become friends; even amongst this enemies, the Count can’t help but make friends.
A Gentleman in Moscow spans the years from the revolution up to Khruschev being in power, ending with the Count in his 60s. Will he ever escape from his house arrest? I couldn’t possibly say!
Towles has written a beautiful novel full of exquisite detail. It is also full of humour without being a comic novel, particularly in the occasional explanatory footnotes, e.g.:
*Established in 1923, the OGPU replaced the Cheka as Russia’s central organ of the secret police. In 1934, the OGPU would be replaced by the NKVD, which in turn would be replaced by the MGB in 1943 and the KGB in 1954 On the surface, this may seem confusing. But the good news is that unlike political parties, artistic movements, or schools of fashion – which go through such sweeping reinventions – the methodologies and intentions of the secret police never change. So you should feel no need to distinguish one acronym from the next.
I may have concentrated on Towles’ light touch above, but this is also a novel with plenty of emotion and drama too. For instance, the darkness surrounding the Count’s old friend Mishka, a fan of banned poet Mayakovsky, gives contrast, as do Nina’s difficult years and we are touched at their predicaments and the effect upon the Count who can’t do much to help, imprisoned as he is.
This is not a short novel, being nearly 500 pages long, but it is so beautifully written, I loved every page – superb!
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Windmill Books, 2017). 978-0099558781, 480pp., paperback.
BUY A Gentleman in Moscow from the Book Depository.