A Gentleman in Moscow is a charming novel by Amor (long A) Towles that is not meant to be taken seriously as historical fiction, but as a delightful celebration of life well lived. In Towles’ words, “Let us concede that the early thirties in Russia were unkind.” Some will react to that understatement in anger. They miss the point. This is not a serious story about Soviet repression and it is foolish to judge it by that metric. This is a story about magic.
By magic, I mean the magic that truly exists, friendship, art, imagination, creativity, kindness, and love. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a “former person”, has been sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol, the Moscow luxury hotel where he had been living with the clear warning, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.” He’s no longer in his magnificent Suite 317, but in a 10 by 10 room in a storage area, but on the bright side, it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on his reading, too bad the book is Montaigne.
Rostov is a gentleman, well-educated, well-mannered, and well-behaved. He is an aristocrat in a society where they have been erased, but living in a hotel that grew up to cater to aristocrats. He earns the friendship of the staff because despite his high rank, he treats everyone with respect until they do something to lose it. He is befriended by a young girl named Nina, the daughter of a Soviet official staying in the hotel. She asks about being a princess and he tells her the story of a princess who offered a ride in bad weather to an old peasant woman, discovering that it would take her miles out of her way and make her late for a party. She still accompanied the woman, even staying to supper when the woman offered her dinner as it was the polite thing to do…to treat the woman with dignity even though she was a peasant. This was honorable in his eyes and governed his own way of living.
The story covers about 30 years from 1922 to 1954, years of suffering, famine, repression and war. During that time, Rostov acquires many friends including a powerful Soviet official, a famous actress, an American “reporter”, and of course, most of the staff of the Metropol. He also acquires a daughter, Sophia. Nina grew up, married, fell in love and her husband was sentenced to the Gulag. She went there to be with him, leaving Sophia in Rostov’s care, remembering his kindness when she was a child. She never returned.
I loved A Gentleman in Moscow. It was nothing like what I expected, but then the cover should have been a clue. The man in the cover is looking out at the world with interest, his hands behind his back. There’s a sense of delight in his pose. This should tell the reader this book is full of delight, and it is.
Take for example, the decision that all hundred thousand bottles of wine in the fabled Metropol cellar must have their labels removed.
“A complaint was filed with comrade Teodorov, the Commissar 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.”
It’s ludicrous, yes, but an example of how ideology and bureaucracy can merge in extremely stupid and petty ways. The writing and the ideas that fill A Gentleman in Moscow are also delightful, for example, Rostov once says. “I admit that I do not spend a lot of time imagining how things might otherwise have been. But I do like to think there is a difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it.” That is a distinction with a profound difference.
There are so many turns of phrase and quips that I could go on forever. Instead, I will suggest that you read it yourself. It is a pleasurable book about a delightful man and his many friends who makes a life, finding joy in what he has rather than mourning what he has lost. Rostov is the most fully-developed character and a few of the others can see a bit written to purpose, but that is what happens in fantasies and this is a fantasy.