A Review of Amor Towles' "A Gentleman in Moscow"

June 15, 2017

 

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, saved from being shot after the Russian Revolution because a poem attributed to him expressed the People's views, is sentenced to lifetime house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. The grand hotel sits on Moscow's Theater Square, near the Bolshoi Ballet. The Count must move from his lavish quarters in the hotel into a tiny attic room, with only a few possessions. If he steps outside, he will be shot.

For the next four decades, the Count maintains his grace and dignity by making the most of life within the Metropol--a full-service hotel with a barber, a seamstress, two restaurants, and a bar. This aristocrat--this member of the hated noble class which has, according to the wisdom of the Revolution, denied respect and means to the working and peasant classes--finds friends wherever he turns, from the seamstress to the reception desk clerk. He builds long-term friendships and becomes a father figure for a young girl. 

I loved the concept of the novel--a man of former wealth and power spending his life confined to a hotel. I loved the beautiful, touching scenes and the dynamism of the Count's life and interactions despite his imprisonment. I loved the humor--with much aimed at the Bolsheviks' blundering ways but with even more interspersed in the depictions of the ways of a little girl. 

The novel is a satire of Bolshevism. But also of the pretensions of the upper classes. 

On dueling: "In Russia, whatever the endeavor, if the setting is glorious and the tenor grandiose, it will have its adherents. In fact, over the years, as the locations for duels became more picturesque and the pistols more finely manufactured, the best-bred men proved willing to defend their honor over lesser and lesser offenses. . . . [B]y 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until [duels] were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma."

While reminding me of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in its acute observation of human foibles, the book also reminded me of Orwell's "Animal Farm," with its display of one corrupt regime being replaced by another. The powerful social statements in this book come through seamlessly within the human drama in the microcosm of the Hotel Metropol on Theater Square, Moscow.

At his hearing before the Commissariat at the beginning, the Count is described by one of his interrogators as "a man without purpose." Rostov's response is, "I have lived under the impression that a man's purpose is known only to God." The reader should keep this statement in mind while experiencing this unforgettable novel. 

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