A Gentleman in Moscow
“When all was said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains) probably could have waited, while those deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention.”
Please, read this book. Amor Towles’ beautiful, simple writing evokes a feeling of sentimentality right from the start. I fell in love with the Count in the first 10 pages of this story. Following the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has been placed under house-arrest in the luxurious Metropol hotel, this novel is at times serious and dark while at others laugh-out-loud funny. Often, these contrasting moments come together in deeply touching ways, such as the moment when an attempt at suicide is thwarted by a swarm of bees and an enthusiastic handyman.
Because it takes place inside the hotel over the course of three decades, this novel is driven mainly by the characters that work at and live in the hotel. Nina, the serious 9-year old who befriends the Count, is a lovely character. A strong, intelligent and imaginative girl, Nina gives the Count an entirely new way of looking at his surroundings in the way that only a child can. She returns to the hotel at several points in her life but remains a passionate, single-minded woman who is sure of her cause. There is Marina, the hotel seamstress, who saves the Count in many ways on various occasions, and who teaches him to sew. Then there is is Anna Urbanov, a movie star who seduces the Count. Anna later returns to find friendship with Alexander due to a mutual fall from fame and fortune to the “Confederacy of the Humbled.” There is the talented but deeply sarcastic and pessimistic chef, Emile and the Maître d’, Andrey, who was previously a juggler in the travelling circus. There is Osip, an army colonel who enlists the Count to help him improve his language and diplomacy skills to France and Britain, and there is the Count’s oldest and perhaps dearest friend Mishka, who is so prone to pacing he frequently wears through the soles of his shoes and the carpets on which he walks. An early scene in which Mishka is distraught over having to remove one sentence of a collection of letters he is collating (because it mentions bread) later comes back in a deeply moving scene that left me in tears.
The Count himself is an incredibly endearing character. His many quirks, such as a bizarre fascination with the weather and the ways in which it affects the events of his life or the way he converses with the birds outside his window, the one-eyed lobby cat and a pair of escaped hunting hounds, have made him one of my favourite characters of all time. He also gently and humorously mocks the etiquette and precise manners of his time, especially when he is eating in or working as a waiter in the restaurants at the hotel. I liked the way Towles portrays Alexander’s ageing through the gradual reduction in the number of exercises he performs in his room each morning. It was sometimes difficult to remember how much time has passed, so this small detail was welcome throughout the novel as a reminder of his advancing age.
Towles is a master of metaphor. The passages in which he describes the passage of time as the turning of a kaleidoscope, or chefs as orchestra conductors, or a dropped bag of oranges moving the way convicts do during a prison break, bring the hotel to life in an intriguing and original way.
Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated was the footnotes. Throughout the book, Towles includes helpful footnotes such as those indicating which of the many Russian names will be important to memorize for later on in the story, or which acronyms for the secret police need to be distinguished from one another. I found these little notes to be quite charming and very useful to a reader easily confused by similar names and phrases.
Reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, A Gentleman in Moscow is perceptive and deeply funny. More than anything, this story is a heartfelt exploration of what it means to lead a full, meaningful life. After reading (and loving!) Towles’ earlier novel, Rules of Civility, last fall, this novel has cemented Towles as one of my favourite authors. The story culminates in a plot just as endearing as one would expect from the Count and, without giving anything away, I will say that the simultaneous ringing of all 30 telephones in the lobby of the hotel at midnight had me grinning from ear to ear. I finished this story and immediately ached for more, wanting to turn back to the beginning and read the entire novel again.