A Gentleman in Moscow is a Charmer

By Amor Towles
Viking, 480 pages

If ever a novel deserves to be labeled "charming," A Gentleman in Moscow is such a book. Amor Towles, whose 2011 debut Rules of Civility probed the world of New York society in the 1930s, once again allows us to dine among the upper crust, but within a very different setting and set of circumstances: Russia shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks famously shot the Romanov royal family as they did many  other aristocrats, but not all of them—some actually participated in overthrowing the Romanovs and were dubbed heroes of the pre-revolution.

In Towles' novel, Count Alexander Rostov is such a hero and might have eventually risen in party ranks—had he not been accused of writing a poem deemed critical of life in the new Russia. Rather than execute or exile him, the Soviets place him under a very odd house arrest–he is condemned to live out his days within the confines of the luxurious Hotel Metropol, which was already his Moscow address. Not that he will live the life of a count; his suite is confiscated and Rostov is assigned a small room into which he can barely fit his bed, desk, wardrobe, and books. The government declares Rostov a "Former Person," a form of shunning, and advises him he will be shot if he so much as walks into the street. Not that Rostov particularly wishes to leave his gilded cage. From the start we are offered a dilemma unlike most we encounter in novels: How does a man of refinement, manners, and culture live in a world of affected plebeian presentation, bluntness, and non-sophistication?

Interior of the Metropol
Insofar as Rostov is concerned, you can rob a count of his title, but you can't make a count into a peasant. He has resources his tormenters don't know about, so he continues to live as he always had: dining on fine food and wine in the Boyarsky Restaurant, chatting with visitors at the Shalyapin Bar, and conducting himself with dignity at all times. Does he get bored? Rostov was a count, so it's not like his former days were filled with activity. In a quiet way, though, he's the most radical man in Moscow–a person untouched by the revolution. Because the Bolsheviks need the Metropol–it's their glitzy showcase for outsiders–Rostov is there to charm them all­: his poet friend Mishka, an American traveler who might be a businessman or a spy, apparatchiks, foreign dignitaries…. Two are special: precocious nine-year-old Nina and cynical actress Anna Urbanova. Nina grows to be a dear friend and Anna something more. Decades later, Rostov becomes the unlikely surrogate father to Nina's daughter Sofia, when Nina follows her husband into Siberian exile.

Rostov might also be the luckiest man in Moscow. The novel covers the years in which Josef Stalin was in power, a time in which the Bolshevik promise became a Solzhenitsyn nightmare. The count survives by behaving as if the Bolsheviks were more of a faux pas than a social revolution. Rostov neither denounces nor praises them—he simply continues to be himself, even when he is forced to become a waiter in the very restaurant in which he once dined. But even the apparatchiks like him, as does a powerful Communist Party official. In fact, it seems his only enemy is former waiter whom he unintentionally embarrassed by suggesting he serve a more appropriate wine to a table of dignitaries. Alas, this man becomes an officious political climber.

This is a long novel about a man who stays put, but it moves more crisply than you might imagine. Although sections of it are a tad overwrought, the last third of the novel hurtles toward an enormously satisfying denouement, and the book concludes on a beautifully heartwarming note. How often have we heard the aphorism, "Be yourself?" How faithful are you to your self-identity? How do you know what is truly valuable? Towles dares to ask a deeper question still: To what would you cling if some external force robbed you of everything else?  

Rob Weir

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