Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness Challenge
I’ve been itching for an excuse to read A Gentleman in Moscow for a while, so I was pleased when it came up as one of the reads for the March Madness Challenge over at The Reader’s Room. I was even more pleased when my local library accepted my request for it to be added to their stock. It only arrived on Thursday, though, so I didn’t have much time to read it in. Fortunately, it was gripping.
Now that I’ve read some Zweig, every time I think a novel reminds me of a Wes Anderson film, I’m going to remind myself that it’s Zweig I’m thinking of.
The beginning of A Gentleman in Moscow made me think of Zweig. Moscow in 1923. The early days of the Bolshevik regime. Sasha Rostov, who may or may not have been on the side of the revolutionaries before they brought down the bourgeoisie, finds himself firmly viewed as an opponent of The People, if not quite their enemy.
Rostov is a man of independent means. He has lived a life of luxury. He has been able to indulge himself in living the sainted life of a poet. But now that has been taken from him. Where his poet’s life had no need of a garret, now he finds himself banished to a tiny attic room at the top of the luxury hotel where once he held a suite of rooms.
Rostov is loved. He has friends. And so, even though he has lost his physical freedom, he still enjoys the company of visitors to his tiny home. He has memories of a life well lived that enable him to leave his attic and walk the streets of Moscow in his memory.
Part of me didn’t want to like Rostov. The romanticisation of privilege irritates me. I detest the idea that the loss of privilege is somehow a tragedy when that privilege is what keeps others trapped in the far more tragic position of never having had enough, and somehow being blamed for it. And yet. I love the Rostovs and Bolkonskies in War & Peace. I love Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. I love Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, Mr Bingley. I am a bit of a sucker for a flawed romantic hero from a good family if he proves himself to be a decent human being at heart.
Rostov is a charmer. He reminded me most of M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but also a little of Hercule Poirot. He has a strong belief in maintaining a certain standard in life. Despite his currently reduced circumstances, Rostov is determined not to let things slip. So he keeps his weekly appointment with the barber. He continues to dine in the hotel restaurant. He finds ways to have delivered to his garret the luxury items he can’t live without.
On one visit to the restaurant, Rostov is befriended by Nina, a 9-year old girl with an interest in what it takes to be a princess. Rostov indulges her and, it has to be said, himself with tales from his days at the Russian court. He’s frequently pleased with himself, and Nina frequently pops his bubble of self-satisfaction with her confidently held opinions.
Nina is similarly captive within the walls of the hotel. Her father has been sent to Moscow on business but doesn’t know how long the business will take, so he hasn’t enrolled Nina in school. Instead, she is in the care of a governess and barred from leaving the hotel to explore the city in case disaster befalls her. Nina becomes a challenge and an awakening in Rostov’s life. She shows him the secret life of the hotel and, through their adventures spying on the people who frequent its private rooms and public spaces, Rostov begins to change.
Nina is an old child, aged from spending too much time among adults. She is quietly brilliant. When she learns that she’ll finally be attending school, she’s not thrilled, and responds to Rostov’s attempt to persuade her it will be fine with the disdain it deserves.
“So,” said the Count, “are you looking forward to your visit home?”
“Yes, it will be nice to see everyone,” said Nina. “But when we return to Moscow in January, I shall be starting school.”
“You don’t seem very excited by the prospect.”
“I fear it will be dreadfully dull,” she admitted, “and positively over-run with children.”
The Count nodded gravely to acknowledge the indisputable likelihood of children in the schoolhouse; then, as he dipped his own spoon into the scoop of strawberry, he noted that he had enjoyed school very much.
“Everybody tells me that.”
“I loved reading the Odyssey and the Aeneid; and I made some of the finest friends of my life…”
“Yes, yes,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Everybody tells me that too.”
“Well, sometimes everybody tells you something because it is true.”
“Sometimes,” Nina clarified, “everybody tells you something because they are everybody. But why should one listen to everybody? Did everybody write the Odyssey? Did everybody write the Aeneid?” She shook her head then concluded definitively: “The only difference between everybody and nobody is all the shoes.”
Nina returns periodically, a symbol of the political progress outside the hotel’s doors. As the Bolshevik regime grows in confidence, so does Nina. As Communism increasingly finds the old world irrelevant and yet acknowledges that The People remain disconcertingly fond of it, so Nina views the Count. She isn’t the only woman who gives Rostov a new perspective on the world. There is also Anna, the actress who has escaped life in a fishing village on the Black Sea to become a celebrity. She teaches Rostov that it’s fine to let a confidant woman take the lead, and it’s fine to be dismissed by her once she’s had what she wanted, but it’s not fine to be abandoned by her. It’s a subtle irony. And then there is Sofia, who changes Rostov’s life irretrievably.
It’s not just women who flavour Rostov’s new life. He encounters others who pass briefly through the doors of the hotel, bringing with them a taste of how the world outside is changing. And Rostov has to adapt to that new world, as the diktats of the Politburo make their way into the sanctuary of the hotel. Rostov is one of life’s survivors, though. He’s like a George Clooney character in a film. There’s enough about him that speaks of a life not without its sorrows, but he carries with him an air of genial slightness that lets you know that he will always be okay. Rostov takes us through four decades of Russian history, experiencing with him the transition from feudalism to communism at a remove. It’s a retelling of history from a personal perspective that has echoes of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared.
A Gentleman in Moscow is the second novel by Amor Towles. I read his first, Rules of Civility, back in 2013. I loved it. Towles writes with a love of language that stretches me as a reader. Words that aren’t encountered regularly any more pop out from the page, the perfect choice for what Towles is describing. His writing style captures the style of the era he’s writing about convincingly. I’ve read reviews where readers claim to find this precious or over-egged, but I think they’re wrong. It’s a self conscious trick sometimes, but it’s done with a joy in the style he’s emulating.
There was a tad too much sentimental softness around the Count for me at first. I spent a lot of the book thinking it was an enjoyably frothy piece of escapism, before I realised that it hides an astute reading of a specific period in 20th century history. There are moments that pulled me up to think again, such as Towles’ use of wine appreciation as a symbol of how ignorant autocratic regimes can be. The threat that understanding and knowledge pose to those in power who lack those attributes isn’t limited to autocracy on the Left. It can be seen in the autocracy of the Right that currently holds power in Towles’ native land. Anna’s eventual fall from grace as a film star also allows Towles a critique of the arbitrariness of Stalin’s favour. His identification of cheap entertainment as a means of keeping the majority dulled enough to prevent them from keeping those who govern to account hints that Towles holds opinions. It’s in Nina’s story that Towles comes closest to what I wanted, though. I found myself wishing that the book had been about her. In a sense, it is. She comes and goes and draws the novel together as she steps through the pages. I would have liked to follow her beyond the doors of the hotel, though, and heard more of what she made of the world. On the evidence of both his novels, Towles writes resourceful women well. In this book he has placed them alongside a man who mostly trips through his life, reacting more than participating.
The other thing that crept up on me about it was that Towles has written a beautiful tale of what people will do for love. This is exemplified by the story of Rostov’s friendship with the poet Mikhail Fyodorovich Mindich. It takes the whole book for Towles to reveal that this is a relationship that underpins Rostov’s existence. He unfurls its quiet beauty slowly and almost incidentally. There are other examples, but this is the one that affected me most, through its lack of showiness.
A frothy piece of escapism, then, but one that has hidden depths.