I am including this book review that I wrote last January, for a reading challenge I just found out about: When Are You Reading 2018.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Rating: 5 stars, BEST BOOK
Finished reading: January 5, 2018
This turned out to be a wildly popular book and last April a friend of mine and I attended an event at which he spoke, answered questions, and autographed books. There were hundreds of people crammed into a small junior high auditorium and many eventually had to be asked to leave, for safety reasons.
Before the event: The people on the stage were asked to leave.
After the event: Amor Towles signs autographs.
A Gentleman in Moscow takes place shortly following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1920s Russia (then being known as the Soviet Union). A young nobleman (the “Count” as he is mostly referred to in the novel, although his name is Alexander Rostov) is brought in front of the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, accused of writing a subversive (but acclaimed) poem, “Where Is It Now?” For this “crime,” he becomes a “Former Person” and is sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.
House arrest in this case is the Hotel Metropol, where the Count currently resides. At the age of 33, he is still a young man and such a sentence presumably confines him to a very restricted world. He can no longer walk in the park, enjoy the fresh air or scent of the flowers, or greet passersby with a friendly word. To add insult to injury, he is evicted from his elegant suite of rooms in the hotel and reassigned much smaller quarters on the sixth floor. This means giving up many of his treasured possessions, but he manages to transfer some of his most valuable furniture and other belongings into his crowded room. Since no one else seems to live on that floor, he devises a means to extend his quarters into the next room, which was empty, by carving a door into the back of his armoire. When he has been there for four years – it is now 1926 – he contemplates suicide, but just as he is about to commit the act of throwing himself off the roof, he is interrupted. He then resigns himself to his proscribed life, such that it is, and manages to live a fulfilling life.
You see, the Hotel Metropol turns out to be a more intriguing place than he expected, thanks in part to a young girl in a yellow dress, Nina, whom he meets while having dinner in one of the dining rooms. She explores the entire hotel, enters into salons during meetings by hiding in the balcony, and has managed to obtain a master key that opens every room in the hotel. Fascinated by her intrepidness, the Count follows her on these explorations, getting himself dirty in dusty balconies and testing the energy of his less agile body by squeezing into small spaces on his knees.
Eventually, Nina is sent away to school and he doesn’t see her again for many years. But one day, Nina reappears as a young woman and asks a very important favor. She and her compatriots are going to the interior to educate peasants (she and her friends having embraced the revolution wholeheartedly) but she has a young daughter and cannot take her with her. It would be dangerous and no proper life for a 6-year-old. She tells the Count it would only be for a short time; that she would come back to get the girl in the space of a month.
Reluctantly, the Count agrees. He has no knowledge of how to care for a child and at the beginning, their relationship is very awkward, with long stretches of silence on the child’s part. A month turns into several months, months into a year – in short, Nina never returns for her daughter and the Count ends up being a father to Sophia, who calls him “Papa.”
But she, too, must have an education. She is enrolled in a local Catholic school, but continues to reside with the Count in his small attic apartment. When she gets older, however, she begins to follow her passion of being a concert pianist, an unexpected turn of events for the Count. A series of circumstances ensue which cause the Count, in his love for his adopted daughter, to make some drastic decisions.
I loved the novel not just for the story but also the humor and INTELLIGENCE throughout the narrative, many interesting characters, and beautifully written scenes.
Some of my reflections and favorite passages:
p. 144, re the process of change: And suddenly, the Count has his own moment of lucidity…and now understood his place in the passage of time. As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored… At festive holidays, the recipes we pull from the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead. … The oriental coffee tables and well-worn desks that have been handed down from generation to generation [,] despite being “out of fashion,” not only do they add beauty to our daily lives, they lend material credibility to our presumption that the passing of an era will be glacial.
But under certain circumstances, the Count finally acknowledged, this process can occur in the comparative blink of an eye. Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress – any combination of these can cause the evolution of a society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self-assurance above all.
The Count had himself as a bridge between the past and this new society: In his heart of hearts, he had imagined that…these aspects of his life were lingering somewhere on the periphery, waiting to be recalled. But looking at the bottle in his hand, the Count was struck by the realization that, in fact, it was all behind him. Because the Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.
It was at this realization, in 1926, when he had been living in the hotel for four years, that he decided to “shed this mortal coil” once and for all. We of course realize he won’t go through with it, as this is only about a third of the way through the book!
p. 164 – re exile, abroad vs. in one’s own country: As long as there have been men on earth, reflected the Count, there have been men in exile. … 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 that 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 into exile at home.
…[I]n another country, a man might immerse himself in his labors, build a house, raise a family. That is, he might begin his life anew.
But when you exile a man into his own country, there is no beginning anew. For the exile at home…the love for his country will not become vague or shrouded by the mists of time. In fact, because we have evolved as a species to pay the utmost attention to that which is just beyond our reach, these men are likely to dwell on the splendors of Moscow more than any Muscovite who is at liberty to enjoy them.
pp. 297-8 – What price development? What did the USA and the USSR sacrifice to achieve their aims – “brushed the past aside instead of bowing before it.” The Count is in conversation with Osip, a man from the Kremlin that he has befriended, in which the Count expresses concern about “the burning of Moscow, and the toppling of statues, and the silencing of poets, and the slaughter of fourteen million head of cattle.” Osip says:
[D]o you think the achievements of the Americans – envied the world over – came without a cost? Just ask their African brothers. And do you think the engineers who designed their illustrious skyscrapers or built their highways hesitated for one moment to level the lovely little neighborhoods that stood in their way? … we and the Americans will lead the rest of this century because we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good. The Soviets “attempted” to evolve “in service of the common good.”
Russians had a proclivity to destroying what they created. The Count’s friend, Mishka, was right, but Osip said the destruction of monuments and masterpieces was essential to the progress of a nation (p. 301).
Former vs. Latter; Inward-looking vs. outward looking: What are “conveniences” and do they really matter? “…in the end,” the Count says, “it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.” (e.g. keeping appointments, having to make your own breakfast, lack of freedom of movement, raising a child, commitment to a partner.)