Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

It took me hardly a chapter or two to determine that I liked Amor Towle’s A Gentleman in Moscow, and not many more to cherish it as a modern classic. The book was originally recommended it to me by the professor whose office is kitty-corner to my own. Despite teaching thermodynamics and studying colloids and interfaces as a career, this Professor also had an encyclopedic knowledge of history surrounding Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. I found out this fact when, after a German thermodynamics metaphor in his class, I related to him I was fluent in German. We have since them exchanged book recommendations and historical quips, and formed a rapport around a shared appreciation for a certain corner of history.

The protagonist in A Gentleman in Moscow in on Count Rostov, an aristocrat who survived the purges of the Russian Revolution all because of a poem he had written in his youth with revolutionary sentiments. The Soviets, not knowing what to do with this relic of another age, sentence him to a life confined within the walls of a hotel, the Metropol in Moscow. The book unfolds over a 30-year period of the Count’s residence in the Metropol, taking in such small scenes as getting a trim at the barbers, enjoying an ice cream cone with a rambunctious 6-year-old girl, and reading — and arguing with– Montaigne. Could one argue the book is slow? Well, yes, to some extent it is slow. But Towle is a master the scene, both with historical details and literary allusions, witty conversation, and development of characters you come to love. The first of which is Count Rostov. The first passage of the book is his interrogation by representatives of the Communist party:

I have no doubt, Count Rostov, that many in the gallery are surprised to find you so charming; but I, for one, am not surprised in the least. History has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.

Is charm nothing more than a luxury of the nobility that is best left behind? In a world of Important Things, Progress, and the Good of the Many, the sensibilities of the former aristocrats is at best, sentimentality, at worst pure hypocrisy. But you quickly find yourself drawn to this Count. It is more than just airs. It is goodness. For some reasons, I like A Gentleman in Moscow for the same reasons I like The Little Prince, and both use the era of princes and princesses to relate something our world has lost.

Who does he think he is, this Count Rostov? Pulling out chairs and whistling at dogs? Putting on airs and lookign down noses, is more like it. But by what right? Who gave him permission to pick up a blouse and hang it on a hanger? If I drop my blouse on the floor, what of it? It’s my clothing and I can treat it as I please!

The whole book is filled with literary allusions– and here’s just a sample:

Never had the chime of twelve been so welcome. Not in Russia. Not in Europe. Not in all the world. Had Romeo been told by Juliet that she would appear at her window at noon, the young Veronan’s rapture at the appointed hour could not have matched the Count’s. Had Dr. Stahlbaum’s children– Fritz and Clara– been told on Christmas morning that the drawing-room doors would be opened at midday, their elation could not have rivaled the Count’s upon the sounding of the first toll.

It’s hard to be able to summarize what exactly constitutes the Count’s charm in any single passage, but I love his habit of talking to animals and inanimate objects:

But as he delved back into that paragraph’s prose, the context seemed utterly unfamiliar; as did the paragraphs that immediately preceded it. In fact, he had to turn back three whole pages before he found a passage that he recalled well enough to resume his progress in good faith.

“Is that how it is with you?” the Count demanded of Montaigne. “One step forward and two steps back?”

But the Count isn’t the only character that rubs off on you. Little Nina is another:

“I would be ever so grateful,” Nina continued, “If you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.”

Philosophy

There are many themes and messages throughout the book, but one of the most consistent strands is how to survive in an era which has moved on without you. Count Rostov was labelled by the Communists a Former Person. It wasn’t just power that changed hands. The very way people thought and interacted with each other changed too:

For it is a fact that a man can be profoundly out of step with his times. A man may have been born in a city famous for its idiosyncratic culture and yet, the very habits, fashions, and ideas that exalt that city in the eyes of the world may make no sense to him at all. As he proceeds through life, he looks about in a state of confusion, understanding neither the inclinations nor the aspirations of his peers. For such a fellow, forget any chance of romance or professional success; those are the povenance of men in step with their times. Instead, for this fellow the options will be to bray like a mule or find what solace he can from overlooked volumes discovered in overlooked bookshops. And when hsi roommate stumbles home at two in the morning, he has little choice but to listen in silent mystification as he is recounted the latest dramas from the city salons.

This is much more than nostalgia. This took in a spiritual dimension. That everyone could be a man or woman out out of step with the times! That everyone could join the Confederacy of the Humbled:

Or, like the Count and Anna, one may simply join the Confederacy of the Humbled. Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are nto quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condescension with an inward smile.

Count Rostov seems confident that we all will at one point or another: What is inevitable is that Life will pay Nina a visit too. She may be as sober as St. Augustine, but she is too alert and too vibrant for Life to let her shake a hand and walk off alone. Life will follow her in a tax. It will bump into her by chance. It will work its way into her affections. And to do so, it will beg, barter, collude, and if necessary, resort to chicanery. Life will give us a chance to see the world anew, to find what is truly important, in sum, to repent.

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