Friday, January 18, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Source of book: I own this.

A Gentleman in Moscow was one of last year’s book selections for our book club. I was unable to attend that meeting (although my wife did), so I never got around to reading it. However, she convinced me that it was really good, so I took it along on one of our trips last month. 

First of all, my wife was, as usual, right. The writing is fantastic. There have been a few books I have read recently in which there were some passages that made me wince. Even books by serious authors. But this book was unique in that I kept finding myself letting scenes wash over me, and basking in the glow of the language. Towles is just a straight-up good writer.

A number of critics have been less rosy about the book, and, after I finished it, I read a few of the reivews. I think the problem is that critics want the book to be...a different book. They want it to have a deeper, darker theme, be more “realistic” about Soviet Russia, to tackle problems. Or something like that.

This is not what this book is at all, and it doesn’t need to be. And it is not what the author intended. As he put it, in answer to the question, “Does the book have a central theme?”

I certainly hope not. In crafting a novel, I do not have an essential message I am trying to communicate. Rather, I hope to create a work of art that, while being satisfyingly cohesive, contains such a richness of images, ideas, and personalities that it can prompt varied responses from reader to reader, and from reading to reading.
In essence, I want to gather together a pile of brightly colored shards of glass. But rather than assemble these shards into a mosaic with a fixed image, I want to drop them into the bottom of a kaleidoscope where, thanks to a glint of sunlight and the interplay of mirrors, they render an intricate beauty which the reader can reconfigure by the slightest turn of the wrist.

I think that is a fine description. And a good example of Towles’ way with words.

With a few exceptions, the book takes place in an extremely limited environment. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, is saved from the firing squad by his reputation as a revolutionary poet. (It turns out - spoiler - that he didn’t even write the poem.) Given his life, he is deprived of his liberty: he is to spend the rest of his life living in the Metropol hotel in Moscow, and essentially become a “former person,” with no identity. Evicted from his posh lodgings and confined to a former storage room on a top floor, his life changes dramatically. But the 30 year old Count takes it in stride, and finds a life for himself. He becomes the head waiter at the ritzy restaurant - after all, his greatest skill is in making seating charts and pairing wines - and forms friendships with staff, visitors, and foreign diplomats. Oh, and a young girl who later leaves her own daughter in the care of the Count.

The book unfolds over more than three decades: from 1922 through 1954. Towles chose an interesting, symmetric form for the book. In the first half of the book, the timeframe doubles each chapter. So the first section is one day after his arrest, the next two days, and so on, eventually giving a 15 year gap. At that point in the story, the narrative takes a dramatic turn, when young Sofia is dropped off by her mother - who never returns. From that point on, the reverse applies, with the times shrinking as they approach the final denouement.

Towles has said that he typically spends a couple years carefully outlining and plotting his books, followed by a rather rapid writing process. After this, of course, careful editing and revision is done, to polish the final product. I think this shows. I didn’t notice any plot holes, and nearly everything mentioned turns out to be important later. In this sense, Towles uses the careful technique of a mystery writer, but applies it to literary fiction.

There are so many things to mention, I am sure I will forget a lot of what I wanted to say as I was reading. (It doesn’t help that it is harder to take notes while traveling, or that it was hard to put the book down to do so.) However, I will do my best to hit some highlights.

First of all, the characters are great. They are memorable, believable, and human. I am a particular fan of books with good character-driven plots anyway. (My favorite Victorian is Anthony Trollope - true fans will understand why.) Count Rostov is, perhaps, a good bit better than the average aristocrat (and particularly than, say, the sort you find in most Russian novels), but he is no saint. He is as suave as they come, though, and is pretty admirable in the way he adapts to dramatically changed circumstances. I found him to be one of the more enjoyable characters I can remember from the last few years of reading.

There are others, too. Rostov’s friend, Mishka, the nervous, obsessive, and literary person never quite at home in the Soviet machine, despite his socialist beliefs. He is Rostov’s one friend from his youth - they were an interesting pair: Rostov the aristocrat, and Mishka the commoner.

The other members of the Triumvirate - Andrey, the maître d’ of the restaurant (without whom, the hotel would not run), and Emile, the cantankerous head chef - are also delightful. The whole idea of the behind-the-scenes meetings of Rostov, Andrey, and Emile to plan out the important dinner parties for visiting dignitaries - while sampling the creative cooking of Emile - was genius. As was their choice of the name.

The three main female characters are also interesting. Nina first appears as a precocious young girl. She befriends Rostov, and the two of them explore the bowels of the hotel using Nina’s pass key. Nina is studious and appears to have a bright future, but something goes wrong and her husband is sent to the gulag. She pursues him, leaving her daughter Sofia behind.

Sofia is every bit as smart as her mother, but quieter and less assertive. This makes it easier for her to blend in with Soviet values. It is Sofia, more than Nina, who changes Rostov and gives his life purpose.

The final woman is Anna, the actress. When we first meet her, she is young and at the height of her fame. She is also overbearing and arrogant, and doesn’t come off well. Nonetheless, she decides to have a fling with the Count, only to get completely pissed off when he picks up the clothes she has flung on the floor. (Apparently, Towles based part of this on an incident involving her own parents…) She comes around, however, and the two of them have an ongoing affair (if that is what you call a relationship between two unmarried people) for the rest of the book. Although first impressions are negative, she grows as a character, just like the Count. In fact, the two of them essentially grow together, losing their egos and adapting to the changes of life. (Let’s just say that it isn’t easy going from beautiful starlet to senior citizen actress - few have done it.)

Speaking of the affair, hats off to Towles for his understated sex scenes. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is brutally difficult to pull off a sexy sex scene in a novel. A horrible one? Sure. Or even a humorous one. But one that is actually sexy is harder. In my opinion, the more graphic, the worse it usually turns out. Sex is a heck of a lot of fun. But it is, in a way, kind of ooky if you think about the mechanics. Hence the difficulty of writing it well. The best part about Towles’ writing in this case is that he focused on the emotional component of what starts out as a purely physical one night stand. The fallout for both characters is what matters, and forms a believable foundation for what becomes - as it turns out - a pretty epic romance.

I should also mention the villain of the book: “The Bishop.” This is the nickname given to a bolshevik who starts out as a waiter, before being promoted all the way to hotel manager, despite his lack of ability. Towles shows a deft touch here, because one comes to loathe The Bishop before one even realizes he is a bolshevik stooge. He embodies all the annoying qualities of bad waiting - he is there when you don’t want him, isn’t there when you want him, pushes expensive wines and entrees despite their unsuitability together, misses social cues, and makes a blundering nuisance of himself. One or two of these are excusable in a basic restaurant - and I don’t nitpick college students trying to pay their way, or friendly diner waitresses who face rather different expectations. But all of these, in a waiter in a fine restaurant? From a person who exudes arrogance and refuses to learn? That’s unforgivable. This is why you know what kind of a person The Bishop is right from the start. That he turns out to be the worst kind of Soviet stool pigeon can be inferred from his character.

The minor characters fill things out well. The seamstress Marina, who becomes Rostov’s confidant and co-conspirator. Osip, the mucky-muck in the secret police (which changes names throughout the book, of course) who forms a bond with Rostov after he asks Rostov to tutor him in French. Richard Vanderwhile, the American diplomat. Abram, the handyman and beekeeper. And others.

I decided to include one scene from the book in this post, just because I think it is outstanding. Sofia has become a concert pianist, and will be performing. Marina has made her a dress which Rostov, being old school, doesn’t particularly approve - it is backless. He figures Anna is to blame.

“This dressless dress. No doubt it was drawn from one of your convenient magazines.”
Before Anna could respond, Marina stomped her foot.
“This was my doing!”
Startled by the seamstress’s tone, the Count saw with some trepidation that while one of her eyes had rolled toward the ceiling in exasperation, the other was bearing down on him like a cannonball.
“It is a dress of my design,” she said, “fashioned from my handiwork for my Sofia.”
Recognizing that he may have unintentionally insulted an artist, the Count adopted a more conciliatory tone.
“It is unquestionably a beautiful dress, Marina. One of the finest I have ever seen; and I have seen many find dresses in my time.” Here the Count gave an awkward little laugh in the hopes of clearing the air and then continued in a tone of fellowship and common sense. “But after months of preparation, Sofia will be performing Rachmaninov at the Palais Garnier. Wouldn’t it be a pity if, instead of listening to her play, the audience was staring at her back?”
“Perhaps we should drape her in sackcloth,” suggested the seamstress. “To ensure that the audience is not distracted.”
“I would never counsel sackcloth,” protested the Count. “But there is such a thing as moderation, even within the bounds of glamour.”
Marina stomped her foot again.
“Enough! We have no interest in your scruples, Alexander Ilyich. Just because you witnessed the Comet of 1812, does not mean that Sofia must wear a petticoat and a bustle.”

Later, Anna can’t resist rubbing it in.

“Is it true?” asked Anna, as she and the Count walked down the hallway after the fitting.
“Is what true?”
“Did you really see the Comet of 1812?”

This is just one well conceived scene, and one which fits in with the characterization. These are exactly the lines which Marina, Anna, and Rostov would have said, and by the time they appear in the book, they form additional examples of the characterization already apparent. I think this is one sign of good artistry: the characters aren’t there to do the motions of the plot. Rather, they act in accordance with who they are, in the world the author creates for them to act.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and strongly recommend it. No, it isn’t intended to have a deep message. But it is a literary work - a work of art, beautiful for what it is, not for its lack of a message. And really, there are themes in this book. Themes like loyalty, friendship, mutual compromise, adaptation, and so on. As Towles puts it, each reader may discover different ideas and gems in the book. And that is what good art does.


There are two scenes involving music. The first is where Rostov discovers to his surprise that Sofia has been taking piano lessons from the resident conductor (a man grossly underutilized by the Bolsheviks.) She is playing a Chopin nocturne. Specifically this one:

Definitely a beautiful choice.

Another fascinating scene involves Sofia’s choice of a piece for a competition. While everyone else chooses Russian composers, she goes with...Mozart - his first Piano Sonata, written when he was still a teen. It is an interesting choice, but it works for her, and she launches her career.


If you want to read a completely different take on Soviet Russia, you might try The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov - a writer mentioned in A Gentleman in Moscow.

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