Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles
Random House 2016
489 pages            Literary

House arrest. We often read those words in newspaper articles about political leaders being placed under house arrest pending a trial—for instance Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma—but we seldom  understand what house arrest must be like for the person under arrest. It was with this premise that Amor Towles conceived of his brilliant novel. A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an aristocrat, was placed under house arrest in 1922, ostensibly because he wrote a poem critical of the revolution, but more likely he was placed under arrest because he remained an aristocrat in a time of revolution. When asked in his trial about his occupation, he replies, "It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations." With that unsatisfying response (unsatisfying to the court, apparently, but immensely satisfying to the reader), Rostov is placed under house arrest for having "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class." With the greatest of ironies, however, he is confined to the grand Moscow hotel where he has lived for the last several years, the Metropol, which by the way, is a real Moscow hotel. In his early 30s at the time of his incarceration, he remains in place in the hotel for more than 30 years. If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

Thus begins a most incredible novel with the slimmest of premises: an aristocrat stuck in a hotel (albeit a grand hotel) for 30 years. One of my book club friends called it "the most charming book she had ever read." And I have to agree with her.  Rostov is the most masterful of gentlemen, convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.” There are conflicts; there are constraints; there is love; there are children; there is despair.  But through it all, Rostov remains himself—a perfect gentleman.

Until the end. The last chapters are so ingenious and breathtaking that I closed the book and sat stupefied and wordless. There are no words to describe the ending because I had become so entrenched within the walls of the hotel that I could not imagine the potential of an ending. 

The Metropol Hotel, itself, is one of the major characters of the book. And it is a marvelous character—from the kitchen to the grand dining room to the suites that became a little seedy during the Stalinist years to the tiny little rooms where Rostov sleeps. There even is a little girl being raised in the hotel—modeled after Eloise at the Plaza, the author says. The Metropol is a glorious setting full of colorful characters, wonderful food, and plenty to drink. This hotel character, indeed, is the most incredible in the entire cast of characters because it never gets boring and it seems much more spacious than it actually is.

The reviewer in the Washington Post describes the Count as a Slavic Alexander McCall Smith, and if I take a good look at the picture of the author, Amor Towles, I can see a resemblance between the author and my vision of the Count. Before Towles retired to write A Gentleman in Moscow and his previous novel, Rules of Civility, he traveled a great deal for business. Every time he would return to certain hotels, he would see some of the same people, and he began to imagine what life would be like if a person was confined to a luxury hotel. 

I do have to mention that our book club had a wonderful time discussing A Gentleman in Moscow, made all the more delightful by the addition of a vodka toast, rye bread, and beet salad. One of the things we laughed about was the amount of alcohol that is consumed in the novel, but we also spent a great deal of time discussing the obscurity, but also the profound meaning, of the ending—made all the more obscure and profound with the addition of the vodka. 

The review in The Washington Post.
An interview with Amor Towles about A Gentleman in Moscow.

No comments: