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Review: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
Viking, 2016. 462 pp. $27

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov goes before a Soviet tribunal in 1922, he’s not sentenced to death as an aristocratic bloodsucker, which surprises more than a few people, himself included. Rather, because he penned a famous poem in 1913 that the new powers believe presaged the revolution, Rostov will now spend the rest of his life where he’s lived the past few years, in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Of course, the authorities kick him out of his old suite and take most of his property, which comes as a shock.

The attic cubbyhole they’ve allowed him causes an even greater shock, for it has no view of the city and is barely large enough to turn around in. As a Former Person, Rostov must understand that he has no rights, which is to say that if he steps outside the hotel, they’ll shoot him. They’re watching, waiting for him to crack, rather like scientists who’ve designed a social experiment. They’ve assumed that the aristocratic bubble he’s always lived in, represented now by the grand hotel, will pop, and he’ll asphyxiate.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow, as it appeared in 2007 (courtesy NVO, via Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, the Soviets have it wrong, though that’s not immediately apparent. At first, Rostov supposes that survival means hope, and that he can foster the will to survive like other outcasts before him by mastering his physical circumstances:

Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair, the Count would maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Having dispensed with dreams of quick discovery, the world’s Crusoes seek shelter and a source of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study the island’s topography, its climate, its flora and fauna, all the while keeping their eyes trained for sails on the horizon and footprints in the sand.

But that can’t be enough, and A Gentleman in Moscow pays full tribute to strong narrative and “no–and furthermore.” Towles constantly ups the ante, to remarkable effect, considering that Rostov’s world is so circumscribed–further proof that tension lies within the mind, not in grand plot points. So it is that one day, Nina, a nine-year-old who always dresses in yellow, approaches the count’s restaurant table and boldly asks him why he shaved off his mustache. From that moment, his journey takes a different, higher trajectory, during which he learns to embrace his captivity and turn it into rich emotional and intellectual experience–a life well lived. Despite official expectations, the Former Person has found social oxygen and breathes deeply once more, a true triumph of the spirit.

Towles goes further, however. A friend tells Rostov that he’s the luckiest man in Russia, because, though captive, he’s insulated against the seemingly random terrors the regime inflicts on its citizens. The true genius of A Gentleman in Moscow is how Towles melds the two stories, Rostov’s and Russia’s. Rostov’s search for how to live a good life mirrors that of his country crawling out from under centuries of serfdom, bloodbath, and destruction, much of it self-inflicted. As he works through trying to cope, how to interpret life, how to treat people, what happiness means, and problems brought about by change, he also represents Russia in its myriad facets; the personal stands for and becomes the political, the social, the national.

Tolstoy, anyone? Not to go overboard, but there’s no doubt that A Gentleman in Moscow is an ambitious attempt at a Russian novel, including the discursive discussions about every theme under the sun. It’s also mostly successful, I think, its sole failing a tendency to make Rostov’s adventures a little too marvelous and therefore incredible; this is Soviet Russia, after all. Nevertheless, Towles’s love for literature triumphs, for his is a literate and literary book, with legitimate roots in the Russian masters. Not only is the scope, discursiveness, and person-as-universe Tolstoyan, Count Rostov calls to mind his namesake in War and Peace, a genial but feckless soldier, a good-time boy who turns devoted family man. Other Russian literary references abound; for instance, Nina’s yellow clothes evoke Crime and Punishment, in which Dostoyevsky uses that color to symbolize imprisonment, literal or figurative.

If you’ve read these writers, you’ll chuckle often at A Gentleman in Moscow, as when you meet Marshal Kutuzov, the hotel cat named for the general and Tolstoyan character who defeated Napoleon (both cat and human have one eye). And even if you haven’t read its predecessors, A Gentleman in Moscow will still be great fun and thought-provoking. Towles has set the bar very high.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.