I could have never imagined that a work of fiction existed that would inspire me to read more Russian history. I have found it, though, in “A Gentleman in Moscow” (2017), the fascinating and touching novel of American writer, Amor Towles. His first novel, “Rules of Civility,” was also an award-winning bestseller.
It’s 1922 and the Bolsheviks have taken over. At the close of his trial, Count Alexander Rostov has avoided the firing squad or Siberia through a combination of connections and charm. Instead, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, the plush Moscow hotel across from the Kremlin where he had lived as a student and wrote the anti-revolution poem that made him suspect. Their message to him is clear—step outside, and you will be shot.
And, here you have it in a nutshell: a substantial novel, covering decades of one man’s life that takes place in one building. But don’t despair, readers. Towles shows us from the start that he will make us smile, and care deeply for this man we will follow. At the trial that opens the story, the Count is questioned about whether he left his second home in Paris and returned to Moscow to take up arms against the Revolution. No, “those days are behind me,” he tells them. “I missed the weather.”
Aside from the intelligent and witty Count, Towles has filled his story with delightful characters. Towles says in interviews that, as he wrote, the hotel kept opening up to him, just as it did for the Count. His protagonist befriends another permanent resident. Towles says, “For the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide…Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil…. “In the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova.” He has met his match in this bright, verbal child.
A willowy, auburn-haired actress Anna Urbanova, is a returning guest, very much welcomed by the Count. The chemistry between them grows as wine is consumed, and over the years their relationship changes in surprising ways. Emile the cook, and his sous chef Andrey become the Count’s best friends, and, also, his colleagues, when the Count takes on the job of head waiter.
Virtually everything in the Count’s world becomes a character—the miniscule room he inhabits, the aged wine he has stowed there, the hotel cat who monitors his comings and goings, and especially, the luxurious Metropol itself (an actual Moscow hotel built in the same mold as other grand hotels constructed around the world at the turn of the century).
This rich novel might require one to occasionally stretch the imagination, but the joy of becoming immersed in the Count’s world and his rich thoughts is certainly worth it. I say without hyperbole, it is one of my all-time favorite books, and I recommend it without reservation.