Dec 07 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Not every fantasy features swords and sorcery, though most of them involve a mythical creature of one sort or another. Amor Towles names his in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow. In midsummer 1922, following a brief trial, Count Alexander Rostov is not ordered immediately shot as a class enemy. It seems that senior Bolsheviks value a pre-revolutionary poem that appeared under his byline, and so the usual punishment is held in abeyance. Instead, he is marched out of the Kremlin and ordered to return to the Hotel Metropol, where he has spent the previous four years. He is further ordered to remain inside the hotel for the rest of his natural life. If he sets foot outside of it again, revolutionary justice will take its course, and he will be shot.

The Party has left him his life, but it does not leave him the luxurious suite where he had lived since 1918. He is required to relocate to a small room in the attic, near the utility stairs. “Up they wound three flights to where a door opened on a narrow corridor servicing a bathroom and six bedrooms reminiscent of monastic cells. This attic was originally built to house the butlers and ladies’ maids of the Metropol’s guests, but when the practice of traveling with servants fell out of fashion, the unused rooms had been claimed by the caprices of casual urgency—thenceforth warehousing scraps of lumber, broken furniture, and other assorted debris.” (pp. 10–11) That small room is to be the Count’s indefinite home, the hotel the limit of his world.

The guards allow him to ask the hotel staff to bring some of his personal possessions up to the room, and the Count selects some furniture, all of his books and, last but not least, his desk. The bellhops object to its weight. “‘A king fortifies himself with a castle,’ observed the Count, ‘a gentleman with his desk.'” (p. 12) He has had to leave a great deal behind in the suite, which itself was the “product of a great winnowing” (p. 13) when he had closed up the family estate in the wake of the Revolution, and sent his grandmother, who was then Countess, out of Russia and himself onward to Moscow. But he is fortified with more than just the desk; he has put one over on the expropriators who neglected to tear through everything that was carried upstairs. The legs of the desk conceal a large fortune in gold coins. They enable the Count to continue to dine at the Metropol’s elegant restaurant, drink at the hotel’s bar, and otherwise keep up the life of a gentleman in unusual times, albeit with a circumscribed round of visiting.

And with that, Towles’ set-up is complete. The Count is in reduced circumstances, but still himself. A great deal of Soviet life passes through the Metropol, located as it is around one corner from the Kremlin and around another from the Bolshoi, and Count Rostov has a front-row seat. There’s a fair amount of formal cleverness in the book. Each chapter’s name begins with the letter A; Towles has said that he does not know quite why he did this. I think it’s one way he emphasizes the artificiality of the Count’s situation, the constructedness of both Soviet life and the Count’s relation to it. Towles also plays with the passage of time. More accurately, he carefully selects which parts of the Count’s story he chooses to show. The first few days in the hotel are shown in great detail, with the Count whisked to new quarters, and having to come to terms with a completely new life. Once that is established, Towles allows more time to pass between chapters, letting readers fill in what has happened in between, as when a new chapter starts and the Count not only has a job as headwaiter in one of the Metropol’s restaurant but has apparently had it for years. All of the novel’s main events take place at or around midsummer, a time of year when Moscow is at its very best. Toward the end of the book, Towles again recounts shorter periods of time in greater detail, mirroring the form of the beginning.

Count Rostov is a man out of time. He is a gentleman in a proletarian age. He embodies the best of what the old world had to offer, he is sympathetic to the aims of the revolution, and he has somehow missed out on the old world’s vices. He is a touch arrogant, sure, but he drinks moderately, he does not gamble, he is not violent or abusive. He is charming and funny, he is deft with people, kind to children. If he seems occasionally too good to be true, well, not all fantasies feature swords. In Towles’ telling, he is good company for nearly 500 pages and several decades of the novel’s time.

As part of learning all of the Metropol’s nooks and crannies (guided by a child he has made friends with), the Count discovers that the hotel’s collection of pre-revolutionary silverware is completely intact:

“For however decisive the Bolsheviks’ victory had been over the privileged classes on behalf of the Proletariat, they would be having banquets soon enough. Perhaps there would not be as many as there had been under the Romanovs—no autumn dances or diamond jubilees—but they were bound to celebrate something … Guest lists would be drawn up and shortened. Invitations would be engraved and delivered. Then, having gathered around a grand circle of tables, the new statesmen would not their heads in order to indicate to a waiter (without interrupting the long-winded fellow on his feet) that, yes, they would have a few more spears of asparagus.
“For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one too.” (p. 52)

The Bolsheviks bring in new people, but they have to come to terms with both the rest of the world and the realities of exercising power. The Count has seen it all before.

Towles sums part of it up, describing an afternoon when the Count is already in his eighth year of residence at the Metropol:

“When one experiences a profound setback in the course of an enviable life, one has a variety of options. Spurred by shame, one may attempt to hide all evidence of the change in one’s circumstances. Thus, the merchant who gambles away his savings will hold on to his finer suits until they fray, and tell anecdotes from the halls of the private clubs where his membership has long since lapsed. In a state of self-pity, one may retreat from the world in which one has been blessed to live. Thus the long-suffering husband, finally disgraced by his wife in society, may be the one who leaves his home in exchange for a small, dark apartment on the other side of time. Or, like the Count and Anna [a famous and temperamental actress, introduced some years previously], one may simply join the Confederacy of the Humbled.
“Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.” (p. 196)

Or as the Count puts it in a conversation whose page number I neglected to note, “It is the nature of the times to change. It is the duty of the gentleman to change with them.”

He gets plenty of good lines, too, whether in dialogue or narration.

“Since the beginning of storytelling, [Rostov] explained [apostrophizing to his late sister], Death has called on the unwitting. In one tale or another, it arrives quietly in town and takes a room at an inn, or lurks in an alleyway, or lingers in the marketplace, surreptitiously. Then just when the hero has a moment of respite from his daily affairs, Death pays him a visit.
“This is all well and good, allowed the Count. But what is rarely related is the fact that Life is every bit as devious as Death. It too can wear a hooded coat. It too can slip into town, lurk in an alley, or wait in the back of a tavern.
“Hadn’t it paid such a visit to [Rostov’s poet friend] Mishka? Hadn’t it found him hiding behind his books, lured him out of the library, and taken his hand on a secluded spot overlooking the Neva?
“Hadn’t it found [restaurant colleague] Andrey in Lyon and beckoned him to the big top? …
“‘Allow me to tell you what is inevitable. What is inevitable is that Life will pay Nina [the Count’s friend from the silverware expedition, now nearly grown] a visit too. She may be as sober as St. Augustine, but she is too alert and too vibrant for Life to let her shake a hand and walk off alone. Life will follow her in a taxi. It will bump into her by chance. It will work its way into her affections. And to do so, it will beg, barter, collude, and if necessary, resort to chicanery.
“‘What a world,’ the Count sighed at last, before falling asleep in his chair.” (p. 224–25)

Life does indeed pay Nina a visit, and that sets the second half of the book into motion that reaches its denouement not too long after Stalin’s death.

A Gentleman in Moscow is all of the things that the blurbs on the book’s cover say it is: witty, charming, engrossing, enriching. It’s elegant, wry in places, funny in many others, poignant. And it’s as much a fantasy as any book with a dragon on its cover.

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