A Gentleman in Moscow – Review

“The age of the nobility has given way to the age of the common man,” she said, with the pride of one who has recited her times tables correctly. “It was historically inevitable.”

“Yes,” said the Count. “So I’ve been told.”

I have read a great many books on Russian history from the 1920s to the 1950s, so initially when I heard about this book, I wasn’t inclined to read it. I really ought to try reading something different, I thought. Let’s just say I’m so glad I didn’t listen to myself. A Gentleman in Moscow shows the development of Soviet Russia in an entirely new way, from the perspective of a Former Person – not only that but one who is under house arrest. This change in viewpoint from the usual stories, which either focus on the leaders of the regime or the Soviet citizens who lived through it, was refreshing, and it showed just how Count Rostov was able to persevere despite the attempts of this new uncultured and brutal regime to confuse, belittle and erase him, and those like him. This novel was uplifting, charming and witty, an epic in the sense that it spanned decades but also in the sense of how brilliant it was. Although the story is confined to the hotel and a small cast of characters, Towles weaves a poetic and beautiful tale about the follies and failings of humanity, as well as the importance of adapting to changed circumstances and making the best of a bad situation. I am so, so glad I picked this book up.

‘… they were bound to celebrate something, whether the centennial of Das Kapital or the silver anniversary of Lenin’s beard […]

For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one too.

How humbly it bows its head as the emperor is dragged down the steps and tossed into the street. But then, having quietly bided its time, while helping the newly appointed leader on with his jacket, it compliments his appearance and suggests the wearing of a medal or two […] The soldiers of the common man may toss the banners of the old regime on the victory pyre, but soon enough trumpets will blare and pomp will take its place at the side of the throne…’

The narrative begins with a transcript of Count Alexander Rostov’s trial – he had been arrested and is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol – his current residence – for the crime of being born an aristocrat. He was only saved from the firing squad because of a poem he wrote which echoed the idealism of the revolution. Forced from his usual suite and made to live in the belfry with only a few of his treasured possessions, we follow Rostov’s journey as he adjusts to his life under arrest, interacts with denizens of the hotel, and manages to make a new life for himself. His story explores the passage of time and changes of fortune, yet it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It is shot through with plenty of comic moments, and although it has been incredibly well researched it does not come across as weighty. The Count himself describes a collection of books that ‘promised heft and threatened impenetrability’, but his story is anything but. The various elements – from the delightful characters to the Count’s philosophy and appraoch to life, the exquistie writing style to the wistful and whimsical narrative – come together beautifully. I’ve attempted to describe this book to my friends as being like a bowl of soup on a cold day, or a warm hug – it draws you in, and despite the hardships the Count faces, it is truly comforting.

‘When the page was torn from the calendar, the bedroom windows did not suddenly shine with the light of a million electric lamps; that Fatherly gaze did not suddenly hang over every desk and appear in every dream […] the late 1920s were not characterised by a series of momentous events. Rather, the passage of those years was like the turn of a kaleidoscope […] when one peers inside what one finds is a pattern so colourful, so perfectly intricate, it seems certain to have been designed with the utmost care. Then by the slightest turn of the wrist, the shards begin to shift and settle into a new configuration…’

Perhaps the element that most surprised me about this book was its humour. Not all books about the Russian aristocracy or life after the Revolution have to be depressing, apparently – the adventures Rostov manages to have in the Hotel, the discoveries he makes and the friendships he forms are all told with a ready wit, from the Count’s questioning whether a patch on one’s elbow is any different from an epaulette on one’s shoulder, or the following exchange between him and a member of state security:

“Let’s just say that I am charged with keeping track of certain men of interest.”
“Ah. Well, I imagine that becomes rather easy to achieve when you place them under house arrest.”
“Actually […] it is easier to achieve when you place them in the ground…”

Although this example is dark, so much of the book’s humour and tone is light and clever, and even when the Count is forced to face brutal realities of his and others’ situations, the story never feels too dark, and the pace never drags.

“Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back? […] we are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. But where they have done so in service of their beloved individualism, we are attempting to do so in service of the common good.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is a truly luxurious book, from the descriptions of the magnificent Hotel Metropol and the food its restaurants serve, to the charming stories of its residents and the valuable life lessons the narrative explores. I haven’t said much about the plot as I want everyone to discover this book’s charms for themselves – I can honestly say I have never read a work of historical fiction like it. I know I will be reading it again to cheer myself up again and again, and if I need to read the same book multiple times so that my circumstances don’t master me – and if that book is this one – I will take a leaf from the Count’s book and consider myself very happy with my lot in life.

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