There’s an older gentleman I see every summer at the beach. With his striking white hair and serious tan, clad only in swim shorts, he walks up and down our local six-mile beach, reading. Every time I see him, he’s reading—reading and walking, walking and reading. One day, I saw him reading the New York Times best-seller A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I had already heard good things about it, but I wanted his opinion since I knew from previous conversations that we had a mutual appreciation for thoughtful literature. He said he was enjoying it and that his wife’s book club had claimed it was probably the best book they had ever read.
After my mother shipped out the family copy to me, I couldn’t wait to start reading it. My first thought was that this was going to be a rather comical book. The opening transcription of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s 1922 trial before the Soviet “Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” was clever, humorous, and certainly piqued my interest. When Prosecutor Comrade A. Y. Vyshinsky inquires about his occupation, Rostov answers, “It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” When Comrade Vyshinsky asks how Rostov spends his time, the Count responds, “Dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole” (4). After further dialogue, Comrade Ignatov chimes in to say how surprised he is that the alleged “author of the poem in question could have become a man so obviously without purpose.” To that, Rostov says, “I have lived under the impression that a man’s purpose is known only to God” (5).
After a brief recess, Ignatov delivers the committee’s verdict. Concluding that Rostov had “succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class—and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused,” they were inclined to put him “against the wall” (5). But since this 1913 poem (Where Is It Now?) was considered to be the work of a hero of the “prerevolutionary cause,” they were instead putting him under house arrest—or in this case, hotel arrest. As he had been staying at the elegant Hotel Metropol in Moscow (specifically, suite 317), he would remain there (though no longer in that nice suite). “But make no mistake,” Ignatov warns him, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot” (6).
There you pretty much have the entire plot of A Gentleman in Moscow.
Like my distinguished fellow reader walking up and down the long stretch of beach, reading, chatting, and getting ever tanner, so Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (a “Former Person of Interest”) spends his days in the Hotel Metropol “dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole.” Although there are some charming scenes, I soon began to wonder if in addition to a “man’s purpose [being] known only to God,” the purpose of this novel was known only to the author! This is not a short book, and I wondered if I should continue to linger in this hotel, where not much was happening apart from “the usual rigmarole” for the Count. I decided to persevere, however, trusting the others who praised it—including the critics and the fact that it was on the New York Times best-seller list. When my resolve further waned, a coworker told me how much he loved it, and he strongly encouraged me to stick with the Count and the Hotel Metropol. My final encouragement to read to the end came, however, when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was directing and starring in a television series based on the book. Being a serious Branagh fan, I was now intrigued. If this genius of cinema and all things Shakespearean liked it, then there must be something to it!
Just like the book, this review may seem to be slowly going nowhere in particular. Now that you’ve read this far, however, I will confess that by the time I arrived at the final page of this novel, I was glad I had indeed persevered. It had been more subtle than I had sensed while reading it (and I consider myself a careful reader). But now looking back on the storyline, I think I “get” it.
Since the book jacket copy says it so well, I’ll quote the hardworking marketing folks at Viking:
An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors.
This was one of the truly fascinating aspects of the story for me. The Hotel Metropol was situated near the Kremlin; and during his imprisonment in the hotel, Rostov survives the rule of Stalin and then Khrushchev. While the hotel grows a bit worn over the years, it still draws top Soviet officials and foreign (including American) visitors. As Rostov wanders the corridors of his old luxury hotel, growing older himself, his friends begin disappearing into Siberia. At one point, his life-long friend Mishka visits him at the hotel after sneaking into the restaurant kitchen.
“Who would have imagined,” he said, “when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.” (292)
Although under arrest, the Count had indeed been safe within these hotel walls during the “tumultuous decades.”
One remarkable friendship that develops over the years (which apparently is another reason for the Count’s protection from outside forces) is between Rostov and a Soviet official (and former Red Army colonel), Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov. Having lived life only as a gruff soldier, Osip seeks out the Count to learn the ways of a gentleman, now that he is a Soviet dignitary among Europeans and Americans. Osip particularly wants to understand Americans, and so he and the Count begin watching American films (after a failed attempt at reading de Tocqueville). Osip especially likes Humphrey Bogart, considering him to be a “Man of Intent” (295).
One of the films they watch together is the 1937 Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. It is here that we find some insight into Osip’s Communist perspective regarding American culture—and his genuine concern:
“Just look at their Depression,” he said. “From beginning to end it lasted ten years. An entire decade in which the Proletariat was left to fend for itself. . . . If ever there had been a time for the American worker to cast off the yoke, surely that was it. But did they join their brothers-in-arms? Did they shoulder their axes and splinter the doors of the mansions? Not even for an afternoon. Instead, they shuffled off to the nearest movie house, where the latest fantasy was dangled before them like a pocket watch at the end of a chain.” (293)
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough space here to delve into the ensuing conversations between Osip and his friend Alexander regarding American movies (and a different, more positive interpretation of them by an American later in the book). Suffice it to say that Osip is scandalized by what he sees and claims that “Hollywood is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle” (294). It has no positive influence on the suffering masses and works only as a narcotic to numb them. “How did this happen, Alexander?” Osip asks. “Why do they allow these movies to be made? Do they not realize they are hammering a wedge beneath their own foundation stones?” (294).
The years pass and Rostov becomes intrigued with the 1942 Bogart/Bergman classic film Casablanca. Apart from the interesting discussions about “individualism” versus “the common good” (298), it was only when I reached this part near the end that I suddenly realized the important role of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, especially as Headwaiter for the acclaimed Boyarksy Restaurant in the Hotel Metropol. Close to the conclusion (I suppose you could call this a plot spoiler, though I am leaving out all the exciting events of the climax, so proceed at your own discretion!), the Count says to his friend Viktor Stepanovich regarding Casablanca, “Ah. You must see it one day” (453). When Viktor finally gets this chance, he remembers what the Count said to him and concentrates on the film:
As Rick [Bogart] began making his way through the disconcerted crowd toward the piano player [Sam], something caught Viktor’s eye. Just the slightest detail, not more than a few frames of film: In the midst of this short journey, as Rick passes a customer’s table, without breaking stride or interrupting his assurances to the crowd, he sets upright a cocktail glass that had been knocked over during the skirmish.
Yes, thought Viktor, that’s it, exactly.
For here was Casablanca, a far-flung outpost in a time of war. And here at the heart of the city, right under the sweep of the searchlights, was Rick’s Café Américain, where the beleaguered could assemble for the moment to gamble and drink and listen to music; to conspire, console, and most importantly, hope. And at the center of this oasis was Rick. . . . In setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t he also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world? (458–59)
I then realized how life had still happened—and quite fully—to a “Former Person of Interest” forced to remain inside a hotel for decades. But it’s not so much that life happened to our friend Alexander (or, more affectionately, Sasha). It’s that Alexander ensured that life happened for all those around him—not necessarily “the usual rigmarole” of one’s day, but the assurance that beauty and order continue regardless. Just as Rick’s café was an oasis from the horror of the Nazi regime and the subsequent events of the Second World War (which, in our story, follow the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution), so too was Alexander’s grand hotel. I now understood that this was a book about aesthetics. Count/Headwaiter Rostov’s primary business was to safeguard each guest’s dining pleasure—the food, the music, the ambience, the elegant and gracious decorum despite the barbarity of the world outside the hotel doors. As with Viktor, I realized that Alexander, like Rick (or Bogie, the “Man of Intent”), believed that with “the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”
By the time we reach the last page, we see how Alexander has managed to transcend the ugliness of the world by simply “dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting.” Of course, Alexander performs some good deeds along the way (and Towles provides a dramatic climax to the story). But I think that what we learn from the Count about how to enrich each day—for ourselves and those around us—is more important. I am glad I took the advice of my coworker and persevered to the end. Alexander Ilyich Rostov proved not to be “a man so obviously without purpose,” but rather a “Man of Intent.” Even if, like Rick, he was merely righting an upset glass, he was truly a gentleman in Moscow.
Patricia Anders is the managing editor of Modern Reformation and editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers on the North Shore of Boston.