A Gentleman in Moscow

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A Gentleman in Moscow
AuthorAmor Towles
LanguageEnglish
SubjectAristocracy, Social Class, Home Detention, Political Prisoners, Interpersonal Relations, Hotels, Moscow (Russia), History, Fiction
GenreNovel
PublisherViking Inc., New York, New York
Publication date
2016
Pages462
ISBN9780670026197

A Gentleman in Moscow is the second novel from Amor Towles, New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility and was similarly well received by critics. Thus, Kirkus Reviews found the book "In all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. This book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility."[1] While NPR opined A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel that aims to charm…And the result is a winning, stylish novel that keeps things easy. Flair is always the goal — Towles never lets anyone merely say goodbye when they could bid adieu, never puts a period where an exclamation point or dramatic ellipsis could stand."[2] However, despite the positive tone, the book is not uniformly upbeat and in his review on gatesnotes, The blog of Bill Gates, Bill Gates reported that one scene in the book made him “teary-eyed”.[3]

Background[edit]

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the chief protagonist of A Gentleman in Moscow was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia on the 24th of October in 1889. He grew up on the Rostov Estate “Idlehour” in Nizhny Novgorod. His godfather was his father's comrade in arms in the cavalry, the Grand Duke Demidov. When the Count's parents died of cholera within hours of each other in 1900, the Grand Duke Demidov became the eleven-year-old Count's guardian and counseled him to be strong for his sister, since “...adversity presents itself in many forms; and if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The young Count was devoted to his sister, Helena and the Rostov siblings would make social visits to nearby estates, even in mid-winter, travelling by horse drawn troika or sleigh.

As a young man, the Count was sent out of the country (as was the custom at the time) by his grandmother for wounding his sister's suitor, a cad who broke Helena's heart. Returning home from Paris after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Count was arrested.

The book[edit]

The novel concerns Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a man ordered by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow.[4] A Gentleman in Moscow was a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize in Fiction & Literature.[5] The book was also an International Dublin Literary Award Nominee (2018 longlist).[6]

The trial[edit]

The Count was charged with being a social parasite on the people before a Bolshevik tribunal, with the expectation that he would be found guilty and shot by a firing squad. Instead of debasing himself like lesser men who confess their crimes the Count remained unrepentant. Every utterance in court testified to the fact that the accused was a man of superior breeding, manners, education, wit and charm...

Prosecutor Vyshinsky: “Before I begin, I must say, I do not think that I have ever seen a jacket festooned with so many buttons.” Count Rostov: “Thank You.” Vyshinsky: “It was not meant as a compliment.” Rostov: “In that case, I demand satisfaction on the field of honor.” (Laughter in the gallery.) Vishynsky: “And your occupation?” Count Rostov: “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” Vyshinsky: “Count Rostov, you do not seem to appreciate the gravity of your position. Nor do you show the respect that is due to the men convened before you.” Rostov: “The Tsarina had the same complaint about me in her day.”

Because of a revolutionary poem attributed him the Count was spared the death sentence and ordered to house arrest for life at his current residence, the luxury Hotel Metropol in central Moscow.

The Hotel[edit]

The Count is escorted by military guard to the Hotel Metropol Moscow, where he was ordered to vacate his luxury suite and take up residence in the cramped servant's quarters on the sixth floor. A man of purpose, not prone to self-pity, the Count attracted and cultivated a social circle including an array of friends from his youth as well as selected residents, staff and customers of the hotel and its restaurants. These include a one-eyed cat, a young girl, a seamstress, a renowned French chef, a maître d'hotel and former circus juggler, a poet, a haughty actress, an underemployed architect, an orchestra conductor, a Prince, a former Red Army colonel, and an aide-de camp of an American General among others. All of these people are drawn to the charismatic Count and most will become friends, even confidants.

Because of his diminished circumstances and restricted freedom the Count has all the time for self-reflection and discussion. A brilliant conversationalist he can discuss wide-ranging topics from Evolution to Philosophy to Impressionism to Russian Writers and Poetry to Food to Post Revolutionary Changes in Russian Society and to Russia's contributions to the World.

An early acquaintance at the Hotel, a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova is the daughter of a widowed Ukrainian bureaucrat and is fascinated by princesses.

Nina: “How would a princess spend her day?” Count Rostov: “Like any young lady. In the morning, she would have lessons in French, history, music. After her lessons, she might visit with friends or walk in the park. And at lunch she would eat her vegetables.” Nina: “My father says that princesses personify the decadence of a vanquished era.” Count Rostov: “Perhaps a few. But not all, I assure you.”

Sofia[edit]

In 1938 an unexpected arrival resulted in a seismic change in the count's circumstances. Nina Kulikova, now a grown woman married for six years visits the count at the hotel. She confides in him that her husband, Leo, was arrested and sentenced to five years of corrective labor in Sevvostlag. Nina decided to follow her husband to Sevvostlag in the remote Kolyma region of the Soviet Union bounded by the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean. She begs the Count to accept temporary custody of her five or six-year-old daughter while she makes arrangements for the child to join her in Siberia where they can be near her father during his incarceration in the Gulag. This is the last time the Count sees Nina so the Count, at age forty-nine, becomes a surrogate father to young Sofia.

Sofia is a quiet child and highly intelligent. Her potential first manifests itself during games of hide-and-seek in which Sofia and the Count alternately hide a thimble in the Count's hotel room. Sofia invariably found the thimble in record time while the Count had to concede and admit that he has been bested.

Later, Sofia takes piano lessons from the conductor of the Hotel orchestra, Viktor Stepanovich Skadovsky, a Mussorgsky Medal winner. She surprises the Count by her astonishing sensitivity of musical expression playing one of the Chopin nocturnes (Opus 9, number 2, in E-flat major) after only a few lessons. It is clear to both the teacher and the Count that Sofia is a piano prodigy.

Analysis[edit]

Amor Towle's methodology in his novel A Gentleman in Moscow has been described as a “gorgeous sleight of hand” according to The New York Times which continues “Towles is a craftsman. What saves the book is the gorgeous sleight of hand that draws it to a satisfying end, and the way he chooses themes that run deeper than mere sociopolitical commentary: parental duty, friendship, romance, the call of home. Human beings, after all, “deserve not only our consideration but our reconsideration” — even those from the leisured class. Who will save Rostov from the intrusions of the state if not the seamstresses, chefs, bartenders and doormen? In the end, Towles's greatest narrative effect is not the moments of wonder and synchronicity but the generous transformation of these peripheral workers, over the course of decades, into confidants, equals and, finally, friends. With them around, a life sentence in these gilded halls might make Rostov the luckiest man in Russia.”[7]

This book is a testament to the idea enunciated in the book that “...adversity presents itself in many forms; and if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

Quotes from A Gentleman in Moscow[edit]

"All poetry is a call to action.”

"Thus did the typewriters clack through the night, until that historic document had been crafted which guaranteed for all Russians freedom of conscience (Article 13), freedom of expression (Article 14), freedom of assembly (Article 15), and freedom to have any of these rights revoked should they be “utilized to the detriment of the socialist revolution (Article 23)!”

"…how fine almost any human endeavor can be made to sound when expressed in the proper French….”

"With all due respect to poetic concision, the male of the species was endowed with a pair when a single might have sufficed.”

"Your excellency….Your Eminence, Your Holiness, Your Highness. Once upon a time, the use of such terms was a reliable indication that one was in a civilized country.”

"The only difference between everybody and nobody is all the shoes.”

"You may accuse a dog of eating without grace or of exhibiting a misplaced enthusiasm for the tossing of sticks, but you may never accuse one of giving up hope.”

"…an educated man should admire any course of study no matter how arcane, if it is pursued with curiosity and devotion.”

"Not only did the Bolsheviks seem to dwell on the same sort of subject matter day to day, they celebrated such a narrow set of views with such a limited vocabulary that one inevitably felt as if one had read it all before.”

“…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.”

“Stripped of their names and family ties, of their professions and possessions, herded together in hunger and hardship, the residents of the Gulag-the zeks-became indistinguishable from one another…, addressing each other as brother and sister and friend; but never, ever, under any circumstance, as comrade.”

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kirkus Reviews (21 June 2016). "A Gentleman In Moscow". Kirkus Reviews Online. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  2. ^ Annalisa Quinn (2016-09-03). "'A Gentleman In Moscow' Is A Grand Hotel Adventure". npr.org. Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  3. ^ Bill Gates (2019-05-20). "A Gentleman in Moscow has a little bit of everything". gatesnotes. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  4. ^ Amor Towles (2016). A Gentleman in Moscow. Viking. pp. 001–462. ISBN 9780670026197.
  5. ^ Kirkus Reviews. "2016 Winners". Kirkus Reviews Online Online. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  6. ^ Dublin Literary Award. "The Nominees". International Dublin Literary Award. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  7. ^ Craig Taylor (2016-09-23). "A Count Becomes a Waiter in a Novel of Soviet Supremacy". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 June 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Towles, Amor (2011). Rules of Civility. Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press. p. 579. ISBN 978-1-4104-4324-3.