October 2020 Open Book Group – A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Thank you, Karen, for moderating A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The novel opens in Moscow in 1922 where Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat, and Former person, by a Bolshevik tribunal. Rostov’s perceived crime was the publication in 1913 of a poem titled ‘Where is it Now?’ or said another way, where is our purpose now. The tribunal sees this as an insulting pre-revolutionary rebellion. The count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov is an indomitable man with perfect social graces and charm, who has never worked a day in his life. He will spend the next 30 years residing in an attic room at the Metropol unable to leave for fear of being shot. Outside its doors, some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding

Towles creates a world, inside the hotel, where neither Rostov nor the reader feels claustrophobic. Over the decades we are introduced to a vast cast of characters. His closest friends with the staff are Andrey, maître d’ of the Boyarsky restaurant, Emile the Chef, Vasily the concierge and Marina the seamstress. There is also Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov a former colonel of the Red Army. Rostov has many political conversations with him not only about Russia but the rest of the world as they watch American movies together. Later celebrity actress, Anna Urbanova comes to stay at the Metropol and is soon his clandestine lover.  It is when Nina, the nine-year-old daughter of a Party Member makes his acquaintance that his world changes. She is precocious and mature beyond her years. She and Rostov become great friends and partners in crime on adventures with her pass key gaining access to all parts of the hotel. Though Rostov has never been a father he becomes very close to Nina and is devastated when she moves away from the hotel as a teenager.

The Count’s consummate etiquette, conversational skills and vast culinary knowledge is invaluable when he is appointed head waiter at Boyarsky. Though it could be seen to lower his social standing he graciously embraces the change in his status. His conversations with influential diners are erudite, witty and full of insights into life.

Amid the routine of hotel life, Rostov muses about philosophy, books and art.

After a long time with no contact Nina, now a 25 year old Bolshevik loyalist, returns to the Metropol with a five-year-old daughter, Sofia. Nina asks him to take care of her daughter for a month or two while she goes into Siberia to find her banished husband. Years go by and Nina does not return, Sofia becomes like a daughter to Rostov and the light of the lives of the other hotel employees. She plays youthful pranks on them all.

In a twist of fate, Sofia becomes an outstanding pianist. This brings her to the notice of Bolshevik officials who, when Russia is sending artists throughout the world, decide she will be part of an orchestra to perform in Paris in 1954.

The momentum of the story accelerates. Rostov hatches a plan whereby Sofia will defect while in Paris and he will simultaneously escape the hotel. Suddenly events and personal items which appeared innocuous earlier in the book are revealed to be significant. Rostov has been scheming for this day for years.  Red herrings designed to confound the authorities and the reader like abound. Sofia successfully defects in Paris and Count returns to his childhood home Idlehour, Nizhny Novgorod Province where a woman is waiting …..Anna

Gerry set the scene with the Boyarsky as his zoom backdrop. Suddenly we were all dining there with him.

Everyone enjoyed the book and Towles fluid writing. Nina and Sofia’s childish enthusiasms and the reaction of the courteous, gentle, count was widely embraced. The warm relationship with his four friends on the hotel’s staff as it unfolded over thirty years was well-drawn. Particularly Emile, the grumpy depressed cook who positively glowed when he and Rostov went through the evening’s menu complementing the food with the fine wines in the hotel’s cellars. Class differences melted away as they conversed on the same level as gourmands. If only we could dine at the Boyarsky.

Usually, aristocrats are seen as “baddies’ so it was refreshing to read how a privileged upbringing could produce such an urbane man. Towles himself is a wealthy fine-art and antique collecting New Yorker. We wondered whether Rostov was his alter ego.

Many had been advised, by friends, the book was a slow starter. Some of us got a bit bogged down in the middle when Rostov diverts into his philosophic musing. Yet for others, these insights were the best part along with the symbolism of the bread, the salt.  However, encouragement to preserve was well rewarded. We, Rostov and friends, got a shot the arm when Nina and Sofia’s arrived causing havoc and fun. The Sherlock Holmes-style ending was exciting. Its ambiguity was designed to, and did, fool some. Other members clarified the details. “Oh so, he never did get to Finland?”

We referenced The Noise of Time Julian Barnes’ fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich and the repression of his creative freedom by Stalin’s regime (OBG Dec 2017). The classic hilarious American children’s book Eloise by Kay Thompson was an inspiration for Sofia’s character. Eloise is a six-year-old who lives in the New York Plaza. She wanders around the hotel amusing herself and tormenting the hotel staff with japes. The “geese in the laundry shunt” by Sofia was pure Eloise.

A criticism could be levelled that the reader, imprisoned in the hotel with Rostov, was shielded from the dreadful events that were being endured by the free Russian people. Towles effectively uses extensive footnotes to describe the brutality. These round out the novel and gave it more depth and gravitas. Several of us commented on how much more we had learnt of Russia’s history as a result.

One member noted how several more books could be spawned. What happened to Sofia once she defected? Did Rostov and Anna live happily ever after? There is a film in the offering with one member quickly googling to find Kenneth Branagh will play Count Rostov. Murmurs of approval all round.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a great read anytime. In Covid times, it is a handbook of how to survive in lockdown – graciously adapt to your changing circumstances, be nice to your fellow compatriots, eat and drink good food and wine, have fun, all the while dreaming of escape.

 

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