Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.)

This is a stylized, studied novel, about a stylish gentleman, written in elegant style. It has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, of events passing and times moving on, and of the struggle to adapt to changes or stay in the previous era. Towles conjures up a romantic and fascinatingly intricate pre-WWII-era hotel in Moscow, the “Metropol Hotel”, in which the main character, “Count Alexander Rostov”, lives. The Count is a surprising character – he is a gentleman and a gentle man, yet he can handle a gun and is not afraid to use it (which is a hugely enjoyable moment!), nor is he afraid to pull strings and do a bit of theft and smuggling on the side. He is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the rest of the gallery of charming rogues working in the hotel. Readers will find this novel very entertaining and suspenseful – and the best bit, I can assure you, is the ending, and in order to understand it, you will have to remember what you read right at the start of the novel. 

The hotel is a kind of bubble in which time has been suspended, but it also represents the city in miniature. Outside the hotel, the world moves on in Communist Russia, but inside, tradition and the lifestyles of the wealthy travellers remain – from seamstresses and flower shops and bars on site, labyrinth rooms and corridors, vast expanses of marble and gilt, to immaculate, superbly well informed and experienced waiters in the restaurant and bar. Change creeps in subtly – the ballroom is now not used for debutantes but for political meetings, and Party officials replace the management. There are many themes woven through the novel – Russian music, art, literature, poetry, freedom of expression, classic movies, the founding of the USSR, and since the book covers the period 1922 to 1954, it is also a view on the history of the city and the changes in society.

The Count is a likeable character, a gentleman of leisure who has – unrepentantly – fallen out of favour with the Bolsheviks, and who has some handy gold coins stacked in the legs of one of his pieces of furniture with which to maintain his lifestyle. As a former member of the aristocracy, he is under house arrest in the hotel for the rest of his life. Into this hot-house scenario, people come and go – a little girl, Sofia, her mother, Nina, employees, guests, lawyers, lovers, reporters, political agents and secret police. The Count treats them all with the same old-world civility which is the mark of a true gentleman. How does it end? Does the Count ever get out and into the real world? Does he die in the garret they have given him in the hotel? Read it to find out.

Hotel novels and setting

Above: Photos of the actual Metropol Hotel and surroundings.

The Metropol Hotel, a five-star establishment, does actually exist, located exactly like where it is described in the novel, opposite the Bolshoi Theatre, and if this were a way of promoting the hotel, it was cleverly done. I suspect devoted readers will be making pilgrimages to it, like they do to Kurt Wallander’s Ystad, but unlike the Grand Budapest Hotel, this one is real. Reading this brought to mind the famous “hotel” novels I have read such as Eloise, a series of children’s books written in the 1950s by Kay Thompson, set in a hotel, and the short stories of Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the children’s series Madeline, who wrote hilariously about his adventures in the hotel world, particularly When you Lunch with the Emperor. And also, of course, the sadder side of grand hotels like in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and with that, the mysteries of concierges and hotel managers.

Towles depicts the interior, inner workings and systems of the hotel with so much detail, so consistently, so clearly and so convincingly that it seems as though he must have either researched such an establishment very well or lived in one. He refers to obscure things that great houses and hotels used in those Tsarist days, like a “summoner”, which is a small silver statuette of an ornately-dressed lady with a bell under her skirt, which was placed on a table beside the seat of the hostess who would ring it to summon staff for a change of course or clearing of plates. Who’d have known?

He portrays the hotel, which is almost a character in itself, as beautiful, glamorous, intriguing and a refuge for all kinds of people. Moscow as described by Towles is a place of consummate beauty and “Russianness”, at which Rostov stares from various windows in the hotel, and where he cannot go. There is something both desirable and nostalgic about Rostov’s Moscow and Russia. The hotel, like the city, and the country, and perhaps his state of mind and ties to the past, are actual and mental prisons from which Rostov cannot escape, but perhaps his daughter can.

“Before him lay the ancient city of Moscow, which, after waiting patiently for two hundred years, was once again the seat of Russian governance, Despite the hour, the Kremlin shimmered with electric light from every window, as if its newest denizens were still too drunk with power to sleep. But if the lights of the Kremlin shimmered brightly, like all earthly lights before them they were diminished in their beauty by the majesty of the constellations overhead.” (p.125)

Above: Photos of Moscow and Russia at their most beautiful by Mike F. O’Brien (2006).

The theme of time

In Towles’ Metropol, the systems run like clockwork. So does the Count, who lives by strict punctuality – there is time to have a drink, a time to sleep, a time to walk, a time to sit and think. When the precocious child, “Sofia”, is left with him, his schedule is thrown awry – but they seem to be birds of the same feather.

“Later that night, as he sat alone on his bed, the Count mulled over his visit to his old suite. What had stayed with him was not the sight of his family’s clock still ticking by the door, nor the grandeur of the architecture, nor even the view from the northwest window.

What had lingered with him was the sight of the tea service on the table beside the folded paper. That little tableau, for all its innocence, was somehow suggestive of exactly what had been bearing down on the Count’s soul. For he understood every aspect of the scene at a glance.

Having returned from some outing at four o’clock and having hung his jacket on the back of a chair, the room’s current resident had called for tea and an afternoon edition. Then he had settled himself down on the couch to while away a civilized hour before it was time to dress for dinner. In other words, what the Count had observed in suite 317 was not simply an afternoon tea, but a moment in the daily life of a gentleman at liberty. “ (p.62).

And of course, the Count is not at liberty. He can only have appointments and “go out” within the confines of the enormous complex of the hotel. Very often Towles refers to “one”, or “the resident” rather than “he” – which is a distancing technique that causes the reader to imagine that the narrator is talking about someone other than the Count – and perhaps people in general (or maybe it is just a more old-fashioned choice of words): “Nothing can compare to the awe one experiences when at one in the morning a woman rolling on her side utters unambiguously: ‘As you go, be sure to draw the curtains.’” (p. 123)

The Count longs for his childhood days, when he was a happy boy in Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian city with a glorious setting. “So as the summer sun began to rise, the fire began to die, and the bees began to circle overhead, the two men spoke of days from their childhoods when the wagon wheels rattled in the road, and the dragonflies skimmed the grass, and the apple trees blossomed for as far as the eye could see. “ (p. 128)

But whether the count will ever get back to this place and escape the hotel, or whether Sofia, his adopted daughter and musical prodigy will, creates a suspenseful plot.

Time and the rigorous accounting of it is both the Count’s enemy and his greatest asset:

“Well, since the day I was born, Sofia, there was only one time when Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol. And I would not accept the tsarship of all the Russias in exchange for being in this hotel at that hour.” (p.421).

The book covers the period 1922 (and the Count’s youth prior to that) to more or less 1954, so it is also a view on the history of the city and the changes in Russian society. The novel is blessedly without overt sex and violence, which made a nice change, but there is a definite sense of Weltschmerz, and lingering sadness and regret at the Count’s observance of the passing of time, his own aging, and the loss of childhood friends and family. Even the book’s ending is a play on time, drawing us back to the first pages of the novel, with a reference to a mysterious “willowy woman”.

The Rules of Civility

The author raises the question of what makes a man a gentleman. The title of Towles’ previous novel, The Rules of Civility, might as well be the sub-title of this novel. The Count is the ultimate gentleman, because he treats everyone – Bolsheviks, actresses, waiters, cleaners and children – the same; with civility, putting them at their ease, and with impeccable manners. When a Colonel and Party officer asks the Count what makes a gentleman his response is; “It isn’t any one thing,” the Count said after a moment. “It is an assembly of small details.” “Like in a mosaic.” “Yes, like in a mosaic.” (p.210).

The Count’s good manners only failed him once in his life, when he made a point of humiliating his sister’s unfaithful suitor, and as a result, the man died – eventually. The Count shot him but made a point of just winging him because he was a crack shot. This showed the man that the Count knew of his brutishness, but in in showing off his marksmanship, the Count was no gentleman. And this moment tainted the rest of his life. (p.163)

About the author

Amor Towles (New York Times)

“Amor Towles lives with his family in an elegant Victorian townhouse near Gramercy Park, a circumstance his fans would, no doubt, find eminently fitting. After all, Mr. Towles’s 2011 debut novel, Rules of Civility, takes place amid the haunts of cafe and Nescafé society in 1930s Manhattan. With its beautifully restored staircase and moldings, its marble fireplaces and French doors, its adroit mix of antique and Art Deco furniture, Mr. Towles’s home could have been one of the soignée settings for his best-selling book.” (Extract from New York Times article by Joanne Kaufman.) Mr. Towles looks very Russian with his beard and curly moustache – in fact he looks like Tsar Nicolas II. His own website pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him.

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