Sunday, October 30, 2016

Restoring a Sense of Order to the World: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I was eager to read Amor Towles novel A Gentleman in Moscow after reading rave reviews from my Goodread friends and enjoying the opening pages through the First Look Bookclub. I loved the writing and tone of those first pages. When I got my hands on a copy I read it in three days and was in happy tears at the end.

Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Member of the Jockey club, and Master of the Hunt is a Former Person, a member of the aristocracy slated for execution but for having his name linked to a 1915 revolutionary poem. Count Rostov is instead placed under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in the heart of Moscow. It is June 21, 1922. The Count is 33 years old. It is his luckiest day.

He will not return to his luxury suite stocked with priceless heirlooms and beloved books; he is moved into an empty 100 square foot room, former servant quarters in the attic. The Count chooses a few items to take with him. And when I read these following lines, I knew their truth from having moved many times and carried 'things' that brought a sense of home with them:

"...we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience...allowing memories to invest the with greater and greater importance...Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion. 
But of course, a thing is just a thing."

I found myself marking passage after lovely and insightful passage that elucidate the characters and our common experience.

The Count adapts to his new reality, mastering his circumstances. He takes a job as the head waiter in the hotel restaurant. He is befriended by Nina, a whimsical nine-year-old girl whose parting gift is a universal pass key to all the hotel rooms. Nina grows up, then leaves her daughter Sophia with the Count to follow her husband sent to the Gulag. The child is ignored by the police only because there was doubt about her patrimony. A Soviet official hires the Count to educate him in the culture of the West, and over fifteen years they develop a mutual respect. And Sophia grows to become an accomplished pianist. (Hear the music of the novel here.)

As the world the Count knew and loved is dismantled under the Bolsheviks, "who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased." The Count's university days friend Mishka has been struggling, asking, "What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction? " Mishka answers his question with his realization that self-destruction was not an abomination, but Russia's greatest strength, "We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them [The British, French or Italians] in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person."

Sophia asks the Count why he returned to Russia from Paris. His only answer is that, "Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol." And the last pages of the novel become comedy, a happy ending, a righting of things knocked over in the skirmish, "an essential faith that by the smallest of one's actions one can restore some sense of order to the world."

You may think a novel about thirty-two years living in the Metropol Hotel would be dull and without interest. The novel is episodic, skipping from one important time to another, but new people enter the hotel and affect the Count's life. Read the author's comment on the structure of the novel at

But I was mesmerized, charmed by the Count, drawn in by the slow revelation of his past and enticed by his plans for his future.

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