A Gentleman in Moscow
London, Windmill Books
‘Who would have imagined…when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.’
In A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles takes on a gargantuan task. The culture of Soviet-era Russia might not appear at first glance to be comfortable ground for a former investment professional. Towles, though, has an instinctive understanding of what western readers find interesting about the era and is not afraid of using footnotes to expand upon history. What results is the impression that Towles is genuinely fascinated with the evolution of the Soviet Union, a passion that quickly transfers to the reader.
The eponymous gentleman, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is not immediately apparent as a heroic protagonist. Privileged, aristocratic, and a member of what his prosecutors describe as ‘the leisure class’, Rostov is sentenced to indefinite house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow by a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922. As he comes to terms with his confinement, Rostov finds comfort in routine, however mundane. Dining at the same restaurant, keeping the same appointment at the barbers, and rearranging his modest apartment allow the count a semblance of order whilst endearing him to the reader.
In what might seem limiting scaffolding for a story encompassing thirty-two years, Towles progresses his narrative through exquisitely drawn secondary characters, from the forthright child Nina, to the irascible chef Emile. Typically for a hotel, some characters linger throughout the book, whilst others, seemingly integral to the plot, disappear heartbreakingly without trace.
Towles treats the major historical events of the novel with similar disparity. The second world war itself, an obvious set piece, slides by with hardly a mention, whilst the gulag is evoked in all its industrial cruelty and horror. It is in this flux that Towles brings his third novel to life. History leaves its mark on the Metropol, its staff, and its guests. Rostov, though, remains serene. It is only when the Soviet Union threatens someone whom he has grown to love that the Count seeks to change his fate rather than console himself to it.
On spec, A Gentleman in Moscow has the potential to be mawkish. It is no such thing. Towles’ lightness of touch makes the novel warm and rewarding, its characters complex and contrasting.