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15 November 2018

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A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles (Viking $27)

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov, whose family estate has been nationalized, and who has been living at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol deciding what to do next, is sentenced to indefinite house arrest in that hotel for penning a politically ambiguous poem.

As we become acquainted with Rostov, we realize he is a dinosaur: one of the last Russian gentlemen of his era. He is a symbol of the Elysian days that one character says “belonged in the past... with waistcoats and corsets, with quadrilles and bezique, with the ownership of souls, the payment of tribute, and the stacking of icons in the corner.”

Indeed, this is the only world the young Count knows or can imagine, and so it is not such a horrific fate for him, being imprisoned in this opulent hotel like an insect in amber. Yet soon enough he realizes he cannot ossify here, but must adapt in order to survive. He resolves to master his circumstances (lest they master him) and, “like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair,” to “maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities.”

The Count remakes himself into the best headwaiter the hotel could have imagined. His constant cheerfulness (“the surest sign of wisdom” a la Montaigne) and several unexpected talents soon make him the pivot point around which the history of the hotel swings. He cannot leave the hotel, but soon enough the world comes to him. As he reflects on his sixth-floor garret room late in the book (though he is surely speaking of the hotel more generally): “It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone.”

He is befriended by the nine-year-old daughter of a rising apparatchik also living there, and the two become fast friends (as if Eloise of the Plaza teamed up with the airport-bound Tom Hanks), exploring every cranny of the hotel, their lives increasingly intertwined and enriched.

And there is the actress Nina Kulikova, the poet Mishka, the cinephile Chekist Osip, and a multitude of other very rich characters, all of whom divert their streams of history through the Metropole’s doors, to influence and be influenced by this erudite man.

Towles is a beautiful writer and he spins a wondrous web of a story, with just enough veracity to block out the improbability of the brutal history taking place outside rarely breaching the hotel’s walls, so that we can enjoy the unfolding of this world, of these lives. His central plotting device is brilliant: time double-skips forward (three months, six months, one year, two, four, eight) with each section, until we reach a mid-point near Stalin’s death, when it slows down by the same increments, halving, in order to build to an exhilarating climax in the final days.

But of course there is more. Because Towles uses the Count’s confinement in the heart of Russia’s twentieth century maelstrom to ruminate on Fate and circumstance, on what it means to be Russian and cosmopolitan (without one excluding the other), on how one person’s actions, even if that person is confined to a prison or palace, can ripple out to the wider world. Indeed, the Count shows how one man, in mastering his circumstances, can restore a sense of order to the world he touches, even if that world is extremely off kilter.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2017