Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I admit to some reluctance to picking up Amor Towles' "A Gentleman in Moscow." I can't say why for sure. Perhaps it was the weight associated with Russian novels. Maybe it was because the cover didn't speak to me. Whatever the reason, I finally gave in at the urging of friends whose opinions I trust. And I am so glad I did. It is a true gem of a book.

The story begins in 1922. The place is the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, where the 32-year old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has been living since his return to Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. The Metropol is where the Count will continue to live for decades, as he has been placed under house arrest for having "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class." He will be shot on sight if he sets foot outside of the hotel.

I was instantly enamored with the Count and his laissez-faire attitude towards his change in circumstances. He quickly learns he will no longer live in the lavish suite in which he was comfortably ensconced. Instead, his home will be three floors up in tiny quarters with one small window the size of a chessboard.

The Count's first task is to decide which of his belongings will make the journey with him. The rest will become the property of the State. The bellhops groaned at the prospect of moving his treasured desk. But the Count is unyielding. "A king fortifies himself with a castle," he observed, "A gentleman with a desk."

Amor Towles
As he departs his suite for the last time, the Count reflects on leaving a good portion of his belongings behind.

"From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and family. We see our parents and siblings off at the station...we marry, or travel abroad. It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well...

But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if we were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For...we carry them place to place...allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. This armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy...and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera...

But, of course, a thing is just a thing." 

And so the tone is set for a life the Count lives to its fullest within the confines of the Metropol.

He makes great friends. He falls in love. He raises a child. He finds satisfying work as a headwaiter. (Food plays a surprisingly large role in the book.) And he does this all with great dignity and kindness and a good dose of humor. He is the epitome of class.

Towles' writing of the Count's story swept me away. It is as elegant and clever as the Count himself.  And why wouldn't it be? I get the strong feeling that Towles is much like the Count. Having (subsequently) read his "Rules of Civility," it's clear he places a premium on good manners and charm, an increasingly greater rarity in this day and age. There's much to be learned from his approach. 

"A Gentleman in Moscow" is a book for anyone who loves good writing and a good story. For a truly charming trailer for the novel, click here. Happy reading! 






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