A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW
The year is 1922, the victorious Bolsheviks, firmly in power, stand in judgment on an unrepentant aristocrat, Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Count Rostov sat out the revolution in Paris, taking no sides, and now, having returned to Moscow, he resides in a luxurious suite at the still existing luxurious Metropol Hotel located across the street from the Kremlin in whose courtroom he now stands. Instead of execution, a 1913 pro-Bolshevik poem bearing his name as author saves him and he is taken back to the Metropol, removed from his suite and told he is to reside in a tiny attic room of the hotel for the rest of his life. Should he step outside the hotel, then he would be shot.
From that moment in 1922 until the story ends in 1954, Towles delights the reader in his telling of the Count’s reduced life that, in fact, becomes, year by year, a life of such magnitude it could have been penned by Tolstoy. The Metropol’s ballroom, once a dancefloor for the Tsar and Russian aristocrats, is now an enormous meeting room for every manner of political gathering from union workers to writers to artists. Count Rostov may live in reduced quarters, but he dines and imbibes in the Metropol’s restaurants as he did, years ago, when a member of the Jockey Club. His aristocratic and never-employed background enables him to be erudite, witty, kind and constantly sought after.
The cast of characters includes a chef, a bartender, a seamstress, a cook who can juggle knives as well as ingredients no longer always available, a beloved childhood friend, a famous and willowy actress, a young girl who reminds us of Eloise at the Plaza, various Kremlin-based Russians, a one-eyed cat and another very young girl who teaches Count Rostov what matters most.
Wars, famines, revolutionary industrialization, proletariat arts of all genres, are brought inside the hotel by its guests and the stories they tell. Food and the amazing dishes served to Metropol guests is a tasty part of the count’s life. Although Rostov remains in place, the staff and guests, new and old, come in and out of his life. Rostov’s prerevolutionary, aristocratic life does not stand in his way of pragmatically fitting in, so it comes as no surprise that eventually Rostov is proud to dress in the smart white jacket of a Metropol server. But why did the Communists allow the Metropol in all its bourgeoise excess to remain? “For however decisive the Bolshevik’s victory had been over the privileged classes on behalf of the Proletariat, they would be having banquets soon enough.” And that was as good a reason as any to hold onto asparagus cutters: “For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one.”
But the force driving A Gentleman in Moscow is Towles’ wily writing. Alliteration abounds, humor, right down to slapstick, is never more than a few pages away, and always, human and humane elements keep us turning the pages, all 462 of them. I’m already planning to reread it, straight through the next snow storm headed my way. – Sunny Solomon
Addendum: As a very young person (age 18) I spent one month in the Soviet Union just six years after Mr. Towles’ novel ends, and about two weeks after Gary Francis Powers was shot down. Traveling with the Oakland YMCA’s European tour that year was a stellar event in my life, and A Gentleman in Moscow brought it all back. Mishka, the Count’s boyhood friend, tells Alexander of the progress being made in their congress, so many voices heard, even on behalf of the street sweepers. Yes! I remember the street sweepers with their straw brooms! They seemed to be everywhere. And all those new apartment buildings? The busyness there was not in construction, it was in repairing what had just been constructed. The farming industrialization noted in the novel was still in the future from what I could see from our all-day visit to a communal farm. I loved this novel, not for the continued aristocratic decadence that survived within the Metropol, but for all the tidbits of news about the new Russia that came in and out of the hotel. Those were some of the same events I wrote about in my travel journal from that summer of 1960.
For everybody who loves great writing, but especially for those who have visited the U.S.S.R. or Russia, Towles book A Gentleman in Moscow is a must-read. – S.S.